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Mobtown Beat

Late Start

Organizers of a Northeast Baltimore Charter School Anxiously Wait for School Board Approval to Open in September

Frank Klein
School Marm: Bobbi MacDonald, pictured second from right, is hoping to get permission from the Baltimore City Public School System to open City Neighbors Charter School in September 2004.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 5/12/2004

It all started a year ago with these words written on a piece of paper: "The Search for a Great School for Sadie." Bobbi Macdonald, who lives in Northeast Baltimore's Cedmont neighborhood, wrote this note to herself when she began the hunt for a place in the city to send her then-5-year-old daughter to school. She didn't agree with the teaching style at the local public school and couldn't afford to send Sadie to a private school. So, Macdonald, who holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Maryland, College Park, decided that the best alternative was to start a school of her own.

In 2003, the Maryland legislature passed a new charter school law that made it possible for parents like Macdonald to found and oversee new public schools, and she took advantage of it. Now, after a year's worth of planning, her school, City Neighbors Charter School, is prepared to open its doors this fall.

City Neighbors would offer an alternative method of teaching that focuses on project-based learning, the arts, and parental involvement. The school will begin with pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, and each year plans to add an additional grade until it reaches eighth. Students living in Northeast Baltimore will get first priority to be admitted to classes in the tiny school--just 10 kids per grade. If there are more students applying for the school than there are places for them, City Neighbors will hold a lottery for admission. Should the school open this September, as its organizers hope it will, Macdonald believes the lottery will be necessary.

"If we opened right now, every spot would be filled, except for a little bit in the older grades," she says.

There is one significant obstacle in the way of City Neighbors' anticipated September debut, however: Charter schools are considered part of the Baltimore City Public School System, and per the system's policy, no charter schools are to be opened in the city before 2005--which means that unless City Neighbors gets special permission to open earlier, it may have to wait another year to begin holding classes.

Macdonald and her board of directors have petitioned the Baltimore City School Board to allow it to open in 2004 because, she says, the school has had so much support from parents, the community, and other educational institutions. She feels that the school has gained so much momentum that there is no reason to wait.

"We didn't plan to be this far [ahead], but sometimes good things happen out of order," Macdonald says. But with time running out to finish preparations for the fall semester, City Neighbors is still waiting for a response from the school system about whether it will be allowed to open this year. "We're at the final wire," she says.

If the school's board does not hear from city schools CEO Bonnie Copeland by the end of May, City Neighbors won't be ready in time for fall.

"I've sent her many letters, I've sent her packets, I've sent her photographs with pictures and arrows on the back," Macdonald says. "I've tried to give her all the information she could possibly need to make a decision. . . . The only thing I haven't done yet--and I might do it at the next school board meeting if I haven't heard from her--is sing her a song."

Macdonald, a 38-year-old mother of three with wild ringlets and more cheerful exuberance then anyone who chases after a 6-, 4-, and 1-year-old on a daily basis should be capable of possessing, isn't kidding. She has written a song asking the school board to let them open and isn't afraid to use it. Macdonald is passionate about City Neighbors and the idea of charter schools in general because she believes they allow for more innovative teaching styles and community involvement than big public schools.

"Why can't I have a great public school in my neighborhood?" she asks. "Why do I have to leave the city to get a good education for my kid?"

Charter schools are seen as an alternative to traditional public education. They are public schools run by nonprofit organizations, often made up of parents and teachers, that focus on specific educational goals or programs. There are nearly 3,000 charter schools in the United States, which vary in size from a few dozen students to hundreds, and they offer a wide range of services and educational philosophies. Washington, D.C.'s 39 charter schools include Next Step/El Proximo Paso Public Charter School, which serves 60 teen parents and high-school dropouts every year, and Paul Junior High Public School, which focuses on art and technology and has 550 students in seventh through ninth grades.

Since the schools are public and tuition-free, advocates see them as an affordable alternative to overcrowded and underperforming traditional schools.

"It is offering a new choice," says Carol Beck, director for external relations for Maryland for the Center for Education Reform, a national advocacy group that has done extensive research on charter schools. "Charter schools can be put together flexibly, they can achieve some quick progress, which is often pretty elusive in a large centralized system. And it certainly doesn't weaken the system to have additional strong schools."

Critics, however, say that charter schools, which are publicly funded, take money away from already underfunded public school systems. All of Maryland's public schools are funded using a formula that is based on enrollment: Each traditional public school gets a certain amount of money based on enrollment and other factors. If students leave traditional public schools for charter schools, the public schools in question eventually loses the funding that goes along with those students.

"There are some additional costs of having charter schools," says Laura Weeldreyer, coordinator of charter and New Schools for the city school system. "It would be unfair to say differently. I do not think it is as extreme or dramatic as [critics claim]."

She points to the schools started under the 1996 New Schools Initiative, a local precursor to charter schools that follows the same basic guidelines that charter schools will follow when implemented in Baltimore, that have helped retain and attract families to the city's school system. For example, Weeldreyer says, Bolton Hill's Midtown Academy has a more than 300-person waiting list.

"I think charter schools--and the New Schools have borne this out--have the ability to attract students into the public school system who would not have been there," she says. "So you could also say they bring some money into the school system."

Under the 2003 state charter school law, which makes it easier for charter schools to open in Maryland and makes those schools eligible for $200 million in federal aid. The Maryland law specifies, however, that public school systems are not required to provide money for charter schools' startup costs, which include leasing, buying, or repairing a facility that will house the school.

"In our case the city actually makes money," Macdonald says. "They don't pay for our site, but we do, [and] almost half of our enrollment right now are kids who are going to be entering the public school system for the first time. So that increases the number of kids in their system. That brings money to their system."

When Macdonald held her first meeting about the charter school a year ago, only five people came. At her latest monthly meeting, so many people came that she had to drag in lawn furniture so everyone could sit down. The crowd in her Northeast Baltimore home included parents, children, and educators. Eric Rasmussen, director of early childhood development for the Peabody Institute, gave a talk on teaching music to children. Rasmussen has expressed interest in being the school's music teacher.

"When people in education read a description of what our curriculum is, they give me their résumé because they know it's a solid strong academic program based on the arts," says Macdonald, who got more than a dozen résumés from educators before even posting the jobs. "It's totally built for success and it's exciting. It's an exciting way to teach."

Macdonald points to the project-based learning system, in which students learn through hands-on activities based on the their interests, and the mandatory parental-involvement policy as just two of the school's strengths.

"We expect you to be involved," says Bernadette Naquin, the City Neighbors board's director of accountability. "If your kid's not doing his homework, we're going to ask you why. So if you don't want that kind of involvement, then maybe our school's not for you."

City Neighbors already has 80 prospective students for its 60 open slots, and the school has yet to complete a canvas of the area to recruit families.

Macdonald has gathered an accomplished board of directors, whose members' expertise ranges from architecture to public relations, to oversee City Neighbors. The school has formed a partnership with the Center for Young Children at the University of Maryland and regularly consults with the Center for Education Reform. The school's organizers have even solved the most daunting problem that faces most fledgling charter schools in Maryland: finding a facility. The Epiphany Lutheran Church behind Macdonald's house has a series of classrooms that are largely unused, and it plans to allow City Neighbors to use classrooms on two floors, which are already furnished with child-sized tables and chairs.

"For us it's a no-brainer. It's a fabulous opportunity," says associate Pastor Thomas Frizzell. "A school is a very good and easy way to reach out to folks."

City Neighbors has also applied for more than $700,000 in grants, many of which hang in the balance as the school waits to see if its charter is approved for this September.

"I knew the policy said '05 and I was thinking, OK, well, that gives us quite a while," Macdonald says. "I didn't know there would be this amazing group [of people] that are so efficient, so professional and dedicated, that we would be ready to open this fall, but we are."

Since the charter school law was enacted last July, nearly 20 groups in Baltimore City have expressed interest in starting schools. "They are incredibly geographically, economically, and racially diverse," Weeldreyer says. "They're all over the map, which is I think one of the things that makes it so exciting." But City Neighbors is the only charter school proposed for the city so far along in its development that it is ready to open this fall, if given the go ahead.

On March 15, City Neighbors submitted its application to the school board requesting an expedited review. A March 23 letter from the school system to City Neighbors indicated that the city's school board had asked Copeland "to review your request and to make a recommendation to the Board. The Board will act upon Dr. Copeland's recommendation."

But since then, Macdonald says she hasn't heard from Copeland. If the local school board says no, City Neighbors can appeal to the state, but time is running out to hire teachers, buy books, and start enrollment.

"I think it's a shame," Beck says. "The city should be begging these guys to open this school."

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