Olutayo Fawibe, 12, from left, Mykah Rather, 12, and Christian Mason, 13, work on a science lab Feb. 16 at Chesapeake Math & IT Academy Public Charter School in Laurel, the latest charter to open in the county. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Over the past few years, Prince George’s County has quietly amassed the largest cluster of charter schools in the Washington suburbs.

Three of the independently run, publicly funded schools opened this school year in Prince George’s, bringing the county’s total to seven. That is the highest concentration in Maryland outside of Baltimore. The growth is a sign that charter schools are a key component in School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s efforts to expand the county’s menu of education options.

“I support the expansion of quality schools, that’s regardless of the type of school,” Hite said. “It’s all about more choices for our parents.”

Although the charter sector is booming in the District, there are no charter schools in Northern Virginia. Montgomery County approved one last year, but it has yet to open. And a few charter schools are scattered in Frederick, Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s counties.

Hite, meanwhile, is scouting for more.

One of the latest additions to the Prince George’s cadre of charters is Chesapeake Math & IT Academy in Laurel.

At Chesapeake, housed in a nondescript office park building off Interstate 95, students gather in classes of 25. One day this month, they were learning a computer program created by MIT in a “Berkeley” computer lab and calculating kinetic energy in the “Harvard” science class.

Chesapeake opened with 300 sixth- and seventh-graders and hopes eventually to have 700 students in grades six through 12. The academic program, which focuses on mathematics, science and information technologies, aims to prepare students for college. The idea has drawn interest: The school has received 400 applications for 50 slots next school year.

“I do harder things,” sixth-grader Dorian Baldwin-Bott, 11, said of the charter’s classes. “Math is more challenging. . . . At my old school, we didn’t have computers too much. It was once a week. Here it’s once a day.”

Seventh-grader Michael Igoe, 13, adjusted the mouse on a Hewlett-Packard laptop, tapped the keyboard and began playing a computer game in Room 144, also known as the Berkeley lab.

A blue smiley face appeared on the screen and bounced from one colorful background to another while an animated voice shouted from the speakers: “Can I come and play?”

Michael created the game, part of the week’s lesson plan.

Providing an opening

About 2,500 students in Prince George’s attend charters, representing about 2 percent of the county’s public enrollment of 123,839.

State test scores for Prince George’s schools have been on the rise in recent years, but the school system’s academic performance remains uneven. Large numbers of children in the county schools come from low- or moderate-income families. Some advocates say these conditions provide an opening for charters.

“In more disadvantaged areas, whether suburban or urban, [charter schools] are being welcomed,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform in Washington. “More and more people who live outside big cities are recognizing that this is a solution for some of their issues too.”

Allen said growth of charter schools in Maryland has been slower than in other states because some operators view Maryland’s charter law as restrictive.

Nationwide, most charter teachers are not unionized, but they are in Maryland. Charter schools in the state have flexibility in scheduling, staffing, program offerings, resource allocations and grade configurations, according to state officials. Local school boards have the authority to authorize charters, as well as the power to revoke them or deny renewal based on academic achievement, attendance, enrollment and finances.

The Center for Education Reform estimates there are 5,700 charter schools in the country serving nearly 2 million public school students. In the District, more than 40 percent of the city’s 78,000 public students attend charters, the second-highest concentration nationally.

Prince George’s officials said the modest growth of charters in the county is a response to charter applications and the desire of parents.

“If [applicants] come up with an idea that parents want and they can help children achieve, parents deserve that option,” said school board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5).

Since Maryland’s charter law was enacted in 2003, Prince George’s has received two to five applications each year to launch schools. Most of the county’s charter schools are run by small networks. Chesapeake, for example, is run by the nonprofit Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation, which also has schools in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore. Prince George’s, which has closed a couple of charter schools because of financial and enrollment problems, opened its first charter school in 2006.

Mixed results

The three charter schools that have been running in the county for a few years have had mixed results, according to state records. Imagine Foundation met “adequate yearly progress” standards last year under the No Child Left Behind law and had higher pass rates in reading and math than the county average on the Maryland School Assessments.

Excel Academy and Turning Point Academy fell short of adequate progress under the law. Turning Point’s pass rates were comparable to the county average. Excel’s pass rate in reading was comparable to the county’s, but its pass rate in math was lower.

Jacobs said as long as an applicant adheres to the requirements of the State Department of Education in its application, “we can’t deny the opportunity.”

Hite said charters and some regular public schools with special themes known as “concept schools” can help improve the overall quality of the county system. Those schools that lose enrollment, he said, should face questions about how to get better.

“We can look at it as a market-driven model,” Hite said. “If I’m a school principal and I’m losing my population to another school, it’s incumbent upon me to improve my programs.”