Ideas for charter schools are many

October 26, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Ask Washington County school officials about the potential for charter schools and some of them become almost giddy with anticipation.

Elizabeth Donohoe rattled off a list of specialized areas around which a charter school could develop - fine arts, medicine and science, technology, environmental science - during a recent interview at the School Board's central office in Hagerstown.

In her role as supervisor of advanced programs, she helped draft the charter school policy the Washington County Board of Education recently approved. The policy allows groups to apply to the School Board to establish a charter school.

And just what is a charter school?

While publicly funded and required to meet the same educational standards as other public schools, charter schools are free to concentrate on a particular field of study in which students may be interested. Or, a charter school could offer specific, innovative teaching methods that take advantage of students' individual learning styles.


They can't be religion-based, and enrollment must be open to any student.

During its most recent legislative session, the General Assembly approved a bill providing for charter schools in Maryland, making them eligible for state and federal funding.

Under the legislation, charter schools must be approved and regulated by local school boards. The policy approved by the Washington County board brings the county into compliance with the state law, said Roger Giles, the school system's director of funded and special programs.

He said the policy also is in line with schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan's "vision for enriched learning experiences."

That doesn't necessarily mean new specialized schools quickly will be sprouting up around the county.

Charter schools generally are initiated by outside groups - such as parent groups, or nonprofit organizations - interested in focusing on a particular area of study or using a particular teaching method.

Supporters of charter schools say they provide an opportunity for students to reach their potential in a way that poorly performing public schools do not, according to an article earlier this year by The Associated Press. Diana Saquella, director of government affairs for the Maryland State Teachers Association, was quoted in the article saying there is no proof that is the case.

Two-year process

Should a group come to the School Board with a request for a charter school, "the first thing we would encourage would be a very thorough study of charter schools," Giles said.

"We anticipate the process would be at least two years - one year for study and one year to go through the application process," he said.

During that time, issues of funding, staffing and other costs for the new school would be addressed, Donohoe said. The school would receive the same per-student funding that other county schools do, and would be required to meet the same assessments, she said.

"The money follows the students to the school," she said.

Organizers would have to complete an educational plan as well as document feasibility for a proposed site, Giles said.

Compared to traditional public schools, "the key difference is that charter schools will have a particular focus" such as fine arts or science or math, Donohoe said.

"We will need to form partnerships (with organizations outside the school system) to provide expertise and real-world experience" in those fields, she said.

One potential charter school could be the proposed fine arts school in downtown Hagerstown, Giles said.

"The school for the arts could be either a charter school or a charter-like public school initiated by the Board of Education," Giles said.

Using that as an example, Giles and Donohoe said partnerships with a number of local organizations - such as the Washington County Arts Council, the Maryland Symphony, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center and Washington County Free Library, among others - were possible partners for establishing and operating the school. Giles said he would like to see representatives from such organizations serving on the school's governing board.

Arts school

Hagerstown property owner Vincent Groh has donated the former Henry's Theater on South Potomac Street for the fine arts school.

Giles said meetings are under way to explore potential funding sources for the school. He said the designation of portions of downtown Hagerstown as an arts and entertainment district is a help.

"I think Hagerstown is quite unique in our location to have that designation," Giles said. "I don't think people understand the ramifications of it yet."

"There are lots of other possibilities" for charter schools, Donohoe said, noting that schools with an emphasis on math, science, technology or environmental education could be viable choices. Giles said all of those were included in the School Board's master plan.

"I think it's exciting for the area," Donohoe said.

Giles said that while no one has approached school officials with a formal request for a charter school, the officials "have been listening for interested parties."

The idea of a public school providing a particular focus is not necessarily a new one. Washington County Technical High School always has operated with specific programs for students with particular vocational interests, such as auto repair or construction.

"When people say our first magnet school is Fountaindale (Elementary), I say, 'No, actually, it's our technical high school,'" Giles said.

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