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Washington County parents submit proposal for charter school with environmental focus

January 06, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Danielle Campbell, left, and Brooke Johnson advocate a new charter school for Washington County.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

A small group of Washington County parents has submitted to Washington County Public Schools a concept proposal for a charter school with an environmental focus and a strong emphasis on hands-on learning.

Under state law, proposals for new charter schools go through local public school systems, and their teachers would be employees of the local public school system.

The Washington County Board of Education would vote on whether to approve the charter school proposal within 120 days of receiving the final application, according to the school system’s charter school application packet.

Danielle Campbell, a member of the group proposing the local charter school, said the group expects to submit its final application by May 1.

The proposal calls for the Antietam Environmental Public Charter School to open in August 2014 for kindergartners through third-graders. A grade would be added each school year until the school has grades K through eight.

The proposed school would follow the Expeditionary Learning model, which addresses five “key dimensions” of school life. One of those dimensions is learning expeditions, which connect students to “real-world issues and needs” with “rigorous learning expeditions, case studies, projects, fieldwork, and service learning,” according to Expeditionary Learning’s website at ELschools.org.

The effort for the proposed charter school was started by eight “founding families,” six of which have children who are attending or would attend Washington County Public Schools, said Campbell, who lives southwest of Smithsburg. The other two Maryland families are interested in moving to Washington County if the school were to be approved, she said.

“We believe in the public school system, but we just feel that they need another, (to) offer a more innovative approach to learning,” said Brooke Johnson, a Hagerstown resident and another member of the group proposing the charter school.

The proposed charter school would give Washington County parents another educational choice for their children that would be tuition-free, Johnson and Campbell said. Interested students would be chosen through a lottery system if there are more applicants than spots available.

Campbell said the children of founding members would be exempt from the lottery and assured spots in the school because the founding members are setting up the proposed school.

“We’ve seen the success in other charter schools in the state, and even our neighboring Frederick County,” Campbell said.


Frederick County’s success

Frederick County Public Schools has two charter schools that have shown success and have waiting lists, Campbell said.

One of those charter schools, Carroll Creek Montessori Public Charter School, opened this school year, so its success is still to be determined, said Michele Krantz, Frederick County Public Schools’ liaison for charter schools.

The group proposing the Washington County charter school is searching for a school facility. The concept proposal notes two potential locations — the former Allegheny Energy headquarters on Downsville Pike and Shepherd’s Spring Outdoor Ministry Center near Sharpsburg.

Campbell said she doesn’t believe the Shepherd’s Spring facility would work, but the Downsville Pike site was a possibility. The group has a real estate agent helping to find potential sites, she said.

Campbell said neither she nor Johnson has prior experience with charter schools.

Two members of the group have been part of an effort to start a charter school in Maryland.

Djohariah Pfaehler, a Washington County Public Schools teacher who lives in Frederick County, said she assisted the Frederick County group with curriculum issues and became the group’s chairwoman. Pfaehler said she joined the Washington County charter school group after it formed.

Resumes included with the charter school proposal also include that of Krisna Becker of Clarksburg, Md., who was part of groups that tried to open a Frederick Outdoor Discovery Charter School in Frederick County, Md., and a Seneca Creek Charter School in Montgomery County, Md., according to her resume.

An application for a Frederick Outdoor Discovery Charter School has been denied twice, with the latest denial being appealed to the Maryland State Department of Education, Krantz said.

The Seneca Creek Charter School application also was denied, according to a July 2011 document found at the Montgomery County Public Schools website.

Campbell said the local families already had started their effort to propose a charter school in Washington County when they met Becker and she asked to help in their effort.

The effort for a Washington County charter school is separate and a different learning model than the Frederick Outdoor Discovery Charter School, Campbell said.

Antietam Environmental Public Charter School has a petition on its website, www.antietamenvironmental.com, where people can sign up to support the effort. The link to see how many people have signed the petition was not working, but Campbell emailed Jan. 3 that the petition had 90 signatures. The group also has a Facebook page.


School system response

Washington County Public Schools officials recently responded to the concept proposal, sending the Johnsons a letter, which they received the week before Christmas, Campbell said.

The founding group expects to meet in January to go over the letter, which contains several technical points, Campbell said.

“We think that ... there’s merit in their proposal. We ... want to talk to them about how they’re going to provide those services because, quite honestly, those kids we want to be well served. We want to give parents choice with this community. It builds on a legacy of choice in Washington County,” Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

The school system offers a number of options now, although none of them are charter schools. The options include a technical high school, an arts school, an International Baccalaureate program at North Hagerstown High School and a variety of magnet programs at different schools.

“So we want to talk with them. And we want to make sure they understand the importance of Common Core, we want to make sure they understand the role that they’re going to have to play in terms of certifying the ... scholarship that young people are having,” Wilcox said. Common Core is a more rigorous curriculum being implemented in many states.

“It doesn’t come down to any one thing. There’s a series of factors,” Wilcox said. “Certainly, there has to be a financial ... ability for them to carry out their mission.”

The proposed charter school has to accommodate special-education children, who can cost more than traditional students to educate, Wilcox said.

The group also would have to maintain the salary structure and benefits of union employees in the school system, Wilcox said.

As part of the public school system, the charter school also would have to adhere to accountability standards, Wilcox said.

“But, again ... we want to create options, but we want people to understand that it’s a complex set of services they’re entering into,” Wilcox said.

An approved charter school would get some of the state dollars that go to the public school system, Wilcox said.

“But they’re probably, given the program of study that they’re outlining, gonna have to raise some private dollars. We want them to understand that that’s very difficult. Whether you’re applying for grants from the federal government or from some foundation somewhere, they’re tough and competitive dollars,” Wilcox said.

“Now ... we don’t want to presume that we can tell them how to do that, but we want to make them aware of the costs going forward. ... So yeah, it’s ... a rich kind of fabric that they have to fill out. We’ll see what they can do,” Wilcox said.

The charter school’s proposal includes a preoperational budget for Nov. 1, 2012, through Aug. 15, 2014. The proposed budget calls for $452,000 in revenue and $232,500 in expenses. The total revenues and expenses do not exist yet, but provide an idea of what will be needed before the school opens, Campbell said. A more detailed budget will be included in the final application, she said.

The group plans to apply for a $450,000 federal startup grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Campbell said. The other $2,000 in revenue would come from fundraising and contributions, according to the budget.


The process

Maryland lawmakers passed a charter school law in 2003 to create an alternate way, within the public school system, for innovative learning opportunities, according to the Maryland State Department of Education’s website.

Under state law, there are characteristics that define charter schools.

Among other things, charter schools must have nonsectarian programs, policies and operations; they must be open to all students as space is available, with children being admitted by a lottery if there are more applicants than spaces; and they are tuition-free and operate in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives.

After submitting a letter of intent, due Sept. 1, a concept proposal was due to the school system by Nov. 1, according to an application timeline provided in the application packet.

According to the application packet, the school system’s staff will offer consultation and technical assistance to the group as it prepares its final application.

Before this latest charter school proposal, Washington County Public Schools had received two letters of intent for charter schools, but those never progressed to concept proposals as this one has, school system spokesman Richard Wright said.


The proposal

The proposed charter school would follow the Expeditionary Learning model, which focuses on letting children “discover and uncover learning naturally,” said Pfaehler, who teaches art and Spanish at Washington County Technical High School. 

Many lessons would be project-based, said Pfaehler, who according to published reports was part of the effort to open a Frederick Outdoor Discovery Charter School.

A lesson about the different forms of water might involve art or math, she said. For example, does water weigh the same as ice and as vapor?

The teacher must be skilled and create different projects to draw children to that understanding, she said.

Many public schools already are using hands-on projects and interdisciplinary lessons in classes, rather than the old lecture-to-the-student model.

Pfaehler said under Expeditionary Learning, the entire school day is interdisciplinary, with no set times for math, reading or science because the subjects are intertwined.

Expeditionary Learning is student-centered, meaning the teacher acts as a guide or facilitator as students come to figure out things on their own using their particular interests, Pfaehler said.

If the task is to learn about Egyptian culture, a student interested in building things might approach that lesson by researching the architecture of pyramids, Pfaehler said. A student interested in art and design might research hieroglyphics, pottery and dress; and a student who likes games and athletics might research Egyptian competitions, she said.

Students would share with each other what they learned, she said.

Hands-on projects for the proposed environmental school would include indoor and outdoor projects, Pfaehler said. While technology and videos can be used, being outdoors and seeing lessons “in action” is an integral part of the teaching strategy, she said.

“Nothing can replace the actual touching of the slug and feeling the slime on their hands and seeing it in their element,” Pfaehler said.

Sixth-graders might test water in the community and provide feedback to water treatment facilities, she said.

“Everything that they learn will have a real-world application or link,” Pfaehler said.

Many children in the county have grown up in rural settings, some on farms, Pfaehler said. Such upbringing provides valuable information, but “that’s kind of different than really being one with the elements and really seeing yourself as part of the planet and understanding our impact on a very intimate level,” she said.

Pfaehler said she envisions students going outside every day for lessons, even in inclement weather, but precautions would be taken in extreme weather conditions to keep kids safe, she said.

One of Expeditionary Learning’s principles is the importance of self-discovery, with children reflecting on themselves, and their “habits of mind,” Pfaehler said. The importance of community service and empathy are taught, she said.

The model also encourages outside-the-box thinking, collaboration, diversity and inclusion, she said.

By giving the proposed school an environmental theme, it could be at the forefront of leading environmental literacy, Campbell said.

Starting with students who entered high school in 2011-12, students “must complete a locally designed high school program of environmental literacy” as set in state law, according to the state education department’s website.


Around the state

There are 52 charter schools in Maryland, including the two in Frederick County, according to the Maryland State Department of Education’s website.

Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School in Frederick is in its 11th year and serves 300 students from 3-year-olds through eighth-graders, Krantz said.

The school had more than 800 applicants last spring for its vacancies and always has had a waiting list, Krantz said.

Monocacy Montessori Communities, a nonprofit group, holds the charter for the Montessori school as well as Carroll Creek Montessori Public Charter School, which opened this school year, Krantz said.

The Carroll Creek school, also in Frederick, was an “outgrowth from people frustrated” trying to get into the first Montessori charter school, she said.

Carroll Creek had more than 600 applicants for 130 spots, she said. The school serves 3-year-olds through third grade with plans to add fourth- and fifth-graders in the next school year, she said. The school, which has a Spanish immersion element, groups first-, second- and third-graders together in classes, Krantz said.

It’s too soon to say how successful Carroll Creek is, but Monocacy Valley Montessori met its performance criteria, Krantz said. The charter school was to have its Maryland School Assessment results be at or above the average level of students in other school system schools when it came to students who scored proficient or advanced on the Maryland School Assessments, Krantz said.

Frederick County will have a third charter school, Frederick Classical Charter School, open in August, Krantz said.


On the Web

Washington County Public Schools’ website has a public charter school application packet that outlines the process for a charter school application.

The application packet can be found at www.wcps.k12.md.us/depts_programs/_departments/dept_system_development.html.

The current charter school liaison for the school system is Associate Superintendent Michael Markoe.

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