Richard Williamson, 41, of College Park can see the historic building that could become a new 700-student public charter school from his dining room window — a view he describes as fearful given the potential traffic congestion, tax hikes and crime increases he said may come to the area if the school plan moves forward.
Living just a block away from the proposed College Park Academy site, he is circulating a petition to show the City Council that some residents disagree with the proposal.
The College Park Academy is slated to open in fall 2013, using the former College Park Elementary School building on Calvert Road to house grades six through 12 at the school that will use a blended curriculum of online and face-to face instruction.
The school is set to welcome grades six and seven in the first year, with roughly 150 students. An additional grade is set to open each year until reaching the 12th grade with 700 students.
Plans for the school initially came about in mid-2011 when the University of Maryland College of Education approached the city and suggested a charter school as part of U-Md. President Wallace Loh’s efforts to create more city-university partnerships. City officials have said students in the university’s education program can become aides or mentors in the school and use it to host educational after-school programs for its students.
“I have canvassed nearly 80 percent of Calvert Hills and Old Town College Park, and the great majority is against the city plan. One citizen expressed it well: ‘It is a plan built with duct tape.’ If we want to turn around the education opportunities in our city to retain families in our neighborhoods, we need plans that are well-laid-out, accomplishable, using proven methodologies and local support,” Williamson said of the council’s desire to have the city be a long-term home to more families. “The city’s plan has none of those things.”
Sean O’Donnell, a College Park resident, said there has been very little resident involvement and few public notices sent out during the planning phases.
“The proposed school has developed quite rapidly, with the neighborhood being included at the eleventh hour. Accordingly, the grass-roots opposition has been spontaneous,” he said.
O’Donnell also said the traffic impacts worry him given that the proposed school will not operate buses to transport students. He also said he was disheartened that College Park residents will have no priority when trying to apply to the school, which was confirmed by city officials.
Williamson said he and those he has spoken to do not entirely oppose the idea of a charter school coming to College Park — they just think that the plans need to change to better accommodate the area.
He also said the likelihood of College Park students being admitted into the College Park Academy is rare because applications are available to all county residents. If there are more applications than can fit into a class, a lottery will be conducted, city officials said.
“We have 100 sixth-graders a year winning the equivalent of a ticket from Willy Wonka,” Williamson said. “Why should students be afforded such an opportunity for seven years based purely on luck? What happened to education based on merit and local needs?”
City Councilman Robert Catlin (District 2), who sits on the charter school’s founding board, said he has heard that there is a petition circulating, but he has not yet seen it.
“Well, those are all issues, but we have an issue with there being an empty school there, and we don’t have a lot of options to put things in there,” he said.
He said there are still a number of decisions to be made that could cater to those who oppose the proposal, such as deciding on the number of students and how traffic congestion could be mitigated.
“There are a lot of things being worked on, and hopefully there’ll be some variety of firmed-up announcements in the future,” Catlan said.
Joe Nagro, College Park’s city manager, has said a charter school would make the city a more attractive place to live and foster further U-Md. partnerships by having education students host programs for charter school students at the academy.
As of Wednesday, 30 residents had signed the printed petition, and 16 had signed the version found online at www.change.org/petitions.
Williamson said he will present his petition’s signatures and comments from residents to the City Council at a meeting in early December.