Imagine Discovery school's charter in limbo

Parents of the only charter school in Baltimore County are criticizing the system for not having a process for the school to renew its contract, which is set to expire in two months.

However, Imagine Discovery Public Charter School, near Woodlawn, has been offered a one-year extension, according to Charles Herndon, a Baltimore County school system spokesman. "We have agreed to extend the charter contract one year. During that time, there would be an evaluation done as to whether we would extend that to four years," he said.

The school, now in its fourth year, was started to provide students in the southwestern part of the county an alternative to their zoned schools, some of which have been labeled as failing under the No Child Left Behind law.

The kindergarten-through-seventh-grade school has small classes, requires students to wear uniforms and offers a curriculum from other schools in the county, according to Pat Crain, Maryland regional director for Imagine Schools. The school plans to expand to eighth grade next school year. There are 200 students on the waiting list for kindergarten.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are approved in Maryland by local school boards but operate independent of the school bureaucracy. They are often run by an outside entity, which can be a nonprofit, for-profit or a university. Imagine is a for-profit company that is in the process of becoming a nonprofit.

Dozens of charter schools have sprung up in the past decade in Baltimore City, but charters have grown more slowly in other areas of the state, often because school systems have been reluctant to approve charter school applicants.

Carlette Flowers, the parent of a fourth-grader at Imagine, said the schools in her neighborhood do not have the same high test scores as those in the central area. She said she wanted an option for her child beyond the neighborhood elementary school. The charter provides instruction in Spanish throughout elementary school and teaches students values.

"It is our own little culture, and we love it. We don't want to have to send our children back to overcrowded schools," she said, adding that most of the elementaries in her area have trailers.

Dozens of parents of Imagine students came to the school board's last meeting and urged that the charter be renewed.

They said they have been frustrated by the lack of response from the school system's leaders and asked why there is not a process for the charter school to be renewed.

"I don't think they necessarily care about charter schools," Flowers said in an interview.

In the city, schools go through a lengthy evaluation process the year before the charter must be renewed. The school staff then makes a recommendation to the school board, which votes on each charter school's renewal.

The county school system said Policy 1600 covers the evaluation of charters, but does not detail the process a charter school operator would go through to be renewed.

"It is my understanding we have been very clear on the process," said Herndon.

The school's test scores have not been better than the average scores across the county, and the school did not meet state standards last year. However, Crain said, the scores are similar to those at some schools in the area. Crain said the school had problems in the beginning, and that the school system did not allow Imagine Discovery to make needed changes in leadership to address the problems.

"The data hasn't been horrible; obviously, it isn't where we want it to be," Crain said.

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