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Baltimore educators in the running for $10 million to build new charter school

The Baltimore Sun
A Baltimore group is hoping for a $10 million grant to build a revolutionary charter school.

A team proposing to bring a "revolutionary" charter high school to Baltimore, with students moving from project to project and customizing their schedules to earn diplomas in as few as two or as many as five years, has been named a finalist for a $10 million prize.

The DaVinci Collaborative, made up of 27 educators, architects and technologists based in the city, is among five finalists for the money to be awarded by the widow of Apple visionary Steve Jobs. The group has made it past a thousand other competitors to reach the final round of a competition led by Laurene Powell Jobs.

Although $10 million would not be enough to run a charter school, it would help the group build a facility and hire staff for opening day, said DaVinci Collaborative co-founder Travis Henschen.

They expect to learn next month if they won the money to help move their plan from concept to reality. Their proposal was selected from 700 entries and is among 50 finalists for "XQ: The Super School Project." Five winners will be selected, each receiving $10 million. XQ representatives declined requests for an interview.

The team members met at Edcamp, an annual educator conference in Baltimore led by the participants themselves.

Henschen, 26, taught world history at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School before becoming center director of Higher Achievement East Baltimore, an after-school and summer academic program in Baltimore that targets at-risk youth in fifth through eighth grades. He said the collaborative's idea for a charter school is centered around Leonardo da Vinci, who was known as a polymath, or an expert in several fields of study. Henschen said students at the new charter school would be freed from sitting in a classroom from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day and instead would have a personalized schedule with project-based lesson plans.

"We want project-based learning to prepare students in the 21st century," he said.

The school would operate year-round and serve 400 to 500 students ages 14 to 20. The curriculum would be centered on STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, arts and math, according to a project outline. The school would feature group activities and cross-disciplinary learning on a daily basis, said Helene Luce, another co-founder. She is a former teacher and board member of the Patterson Park Public Charter School.

"Choice will be guided more like a Chinese menu: 'Pick two of these, one of these,'" Luce said. "Ultimately, the students would get the credits they need for graduation."

Teachers would be called "learning designers" and serve as mentors for specific projects.

Project-based learning, a concept more than three decades old, can be difficult to implement on a large scale, said Carla Finkelstein, an assistant professor of instructional leadership at Towson University. She was one of the founders of the Green School of Baltimore, a city charter school that has been in operation for 10 years.

"Charter schools allow educators to try tools out on a smaller scale with the hope it can be replicated," said Finkelstein, who is not involved with DaVinci Collaborative.

The DaVinci Collaborative charter would be entering an already crowded field. Thirty-four charter schools currently operate in Baltimore and more are on the way. The Brehms Lane Elementary charter school is about to open in Northeast Baltimore, and four more charter schools are scheduled to open by 2019.

In addition to introducing students to new ways of teaching and learning, the DaVinci Collaborative plans to address some basic needs, including ensuring that students have a means of getting to and from the school. Luce said she's aware of some students who travel an hour to get to school.

"We wanted a school in the community that would be accessible to more kids," she said.

While a location for a new school is subject to approval by the city charter school advisory board, Luce said the team wants it located in Southeast Baltimore because of the area's increasingly diverse population.

Angela Alvarez, executive director of the office of new initiatives with Baltimore City Public Schools, said many schools in that area are overcrowded.

"A big challenge for charter schools is finding the space," Alvarez said. "It's a challenge throughout the state."

Henschen said the idea that set the DaVinci Collaborative team apart from the competition was making the school part of a mixed-use building. The building may include a gym for students and members of the community, day care services and potential work opportunities with technology start-ups — all designed with the idea of the school being a hub for the community.

"There [are] a lot of schools that are community schools, and we definitely want to adopt a lot of those pieces," Luce said. "But we want to take it to the next level."

The DaVinci Collaborative team submitted their application for the contest in February and learned they were finalists late last month. The team includes people who have taught in public schools, have trained to be school administrators or have started other charter schools.

The team's efforts are being captured on film as part of a documentary on the XQ Super School competition. The documentary is being directed by Lee Hirsch, the filmmaker best known for the 2011 film "Bully."

"This was our passion," Luce said. "We felt strongly that this idea can really make a difference."

Charter school administrators have been at odds with Baltimore City Public Schools for much of the past year. A group of charter schools filed a lawsuit against the district last September alleging its new funding formula violated state law and unfairly reduced the amount of funding the schools received for daily operations. In June, the Maryland State School Board said it would not intervene in the lawsuit. The case is now making its way through Baltimore Circuit Court.

Henschen said he and his partners know it has been tough for charter schools in Baltimore City, but the team remains hopeful that the DaVinci Collaborative will win the competition and opens its doors as planned.

Even if they don't win the $10 million prize, Henschen said, they'll push ahead with their plans. He said they will use the publicity from the competition as a vehicle for fundraising and are considering crowdfunding online. They are also applying for private and federal government grants.

The DaVinci Collaborative could open by 2018 if the team's application is approved by Baltimore City Public Schools, members said.

"I am really grateful to the people who helped us get this far," Luce said.

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