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Laurel

Monarch Global Academy Contract School will relieve overcrowding at three local schools

For more than six months, Donna O'Shea was a principal without a school.

The head of the new Monarch Global Academy Contract School in Laurel – an International Baccalaureate school and the county's first contract institution – was hired in January, before the building itself was even complete.

Monday is the day she's been waiting for: Anne Arundel County public school students will begin to head back to class and O'Shea, finally, will see the brand-new building on Brock Bridge Road filled with students.

"It is so exciting," O'Shea said Aug. 18, as staff buzzed around the building, busy with last-minute preparations such as labeling mailboxes, helping parents fill out enrollment forms, imaging the school's technological equipment. "I just can't wait for the kids to get here. I'm ready."

The community, too, has been ready for quite some time. Since 2008, there's been talk of building a new school on the site to relieve overcrowding at nearby Brock Bridge, Maryland City and Jessup elementary schools.

All three were over capacity last year, according to a chart published by the school system, and at 121 percent utilization, Brock Bridge Elementary was the second most overcrowded school in the county in 2013.

"It's a very long time coming, and delayed, but it's very wanted," said Brock Bridge PTA President Julie Hummer, who has had three children go through the elementary school and has two more, a second-grader and a fourth-grader, currently at Brock Bridge.

Originally slated to open in fall 2011, groundbreaking for the academy was put on hold after developer Palm Cos. had trouble obtaining funding and permits for the school, which cost $16.5 million to build.

Then, in August 2013, Anne Arundel County public school officials announced the property would be sold to the Children's Guild, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, which took over the construction.

This July, the school, a modern, two-story structure painted red and white, with long walls of windows and a flat, blue roof, was finally complete.

"You can just feel the difference" already, Hummer said. "It's better for everyone in the community, because we're not overcrowded anymore."

While students do not pay tuition to attend Monarch Global Academy, , it's not a public school in the traditional sense.

The academy's students will follow the same Common Core curriculum standards as their peers at Brock Bridge, Jessup and Maryland City. But the school's funding mechanisms work differently.

"As a county, we didn't have the funding to build a new school," said Pat Crain, senior manager of charter schools for the Anne Arundel County Public School System.

Instead, the county chose the Children's Guild to build and operate the school. The guild will create its budget with the money it receives through a state charter school funding formula, which allots money per pupil.

Crain said the contract school is "a new concept to Anne Arundel," which the county decided to pursue "for a number of reasons.

"The biggest thing is there is a brand new school that is built at no cost to Anne Arundel County," he said.

Hot on the heels of the global academy are plans for another Monarch school to open in Anne Arundel in 2015. A definite location for the school has not yet been selected, but Crain said it will be "somewhere in the north county."

The north county school will be a charter, instead of a contract. Unlike a charter school, which is open to anyone in the county, a contract school such as Monarch Global Academy culls its students from a particular attendance area.

Both contract and charter schools are open to students through an application process. At Monarch Global Academy, students were admitted on a first-come, first-served basis until all the spots were filled, according to O'Shea. The remaining applicants were placed on a waiting list and will be accepted by lottery if spaces open up.

Crain said the global academy had received more than 600 applications. At about 530 accepted students, the school will be opening with 11 percent more than the 474 students they had anticipated accepting, and there are still about 50 students on the waiting list, according to O'Shea.

Of the accepted students, 261 are from the Brock Bridge Elementary attendance area, 65 are coming from Maryland City Elementary School, 34 are coming from Jessup Elementary and 82 are from private schools.

Its first year the academy will only host kindergartners through fifth-graders, but the school has the capacity to hold around 740 students, and will expand by one grade a year, until this year's fifth graders are in eighth grade.

O'Shea said she anticipates the school will eventually hold around 820 students, once it becomes a K-8 institution. Student-teacher ratios this year are about 21 to 1 for kindergarten, 27 to 1 for second grade and 24 or 25 to 1 for the other grades.

Donna's World

Since she got the job as Monarch's principal in January, O'Shea has been hard at work planning every facet of the new school.

As a principal for two decades, including at Manor View Elementary for the past two and half years, O'Shea said she's seen some of the downsides of being bound to a local school board when making decisions. At other schools, she said, she's worked with some unenthusiastic teachers and had to wait days for equipment to be fixed.

Here, she has a lot more autonomy and can act quickly and decisively.

If she's not happy with the cleaning service, for instance, she can hire a new one. When the copier breaks, "we don't have to wait a week to get it fixed," she said.

As for the staff, "I've always wanted to start a school where every single staff member wanted to be there and do what's best for kids," she said. She and her two assistant principals spent weeks interviewing potential candidates.

"It was just amazing, when I met with the staff for the first time, to know that I wanted every single one of those teachers, and I would put one of my kids in any of their classes," she said. According to O'Shea, the academy's staff is mostly composed of Anne Arundel County public school teachers, including 10 from Manor View.

O'Shea can also make decisions about curriculum pacing and which resources to buy for children.

As a result, students can follow their half-hour-a-week Spanish courses at the pace suggested by the IB program, rather than the county's requirements. And starting next year, O'Shea plans to equip each rising sixth-grader with an electronic device – she hasn't decided what yet – that they can use until they graduate from the academy.

She jokes that she's come to think of the school, in some ways, as her domain; a place where she can make the decisions she thinks are right for her students. On her door, she's hung a gift from her best friend: a wooden sign carved with the inscription "Donna's World."

Some of the school's decorations will be "out of this world," O'Shea said.

Though they're not installed yet, a team of artists working with the school has plans to hang satellites from the ceilings of the lobby.

In keeping with the academy's global theme as an International Baccalaureate school, the focal point of the lobby will be a 30-foot, electronic globe, lit from below and connected to a computer so that teachers can use it as a teaching tool to track civilizations and weather patterns.

The lobby's walls will be decorated to reference the elements. Water will flow down one wall, while another will blow breezes on passersby and a third will be a "living wall" with plants growing on it.

The tiles in the classrooms will be color-coded to represent different continents, and the floor on the way to the arts classroom will be an art floor designed to look like the Middle East and Africa, with grasses and a bridge to step over.

And when it comes time to eat, students will gather in the "café" instead of the cafeteria, where they will eat lunch at picnic tables.

O'Shea said the decorations are in keeping with the Children's Guild's theory of transformation education, or trans ed.

"One of the tenets of trans ed is that your environment is your teacher," she said. "So the environment that they're working in is going to reflect the world."

Before it's even opened its doors, Monarch has seen a lot of enthusiasm from the community.

At a meeting to elect PTA officers, 175 paying members showed up.

Monarch Global Academy PTA President Scott Collack said everyone was "very excited about the opportunity for a new school.

"The school is beautiful and they brought in some really great people to help lead the children," he said.

"A lot of the parents are looking at Monarch as new and shiny, whereas some of the other schools need to be freshened up a little bit," said Stacie Brownrigg, whose first-grade daughter and fourth-grade son will be transferring from Brock Bridge to Monarch this school year.

"Both of my kids have done extremely well at Brock Bridge, but for our family we were just looking for something different," such as the IB program, Brownrigg said.

Hummer, the Brock Bridge Elementary PTA president, decided to keep her two elementary schoolers at Brock Bridge, but said the addition of a new school was a positive for Brock Bridge students, as well.

"They're both going to be new schools this year," she said. "We can finally breathe."

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