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City school board to decide if charter should welcome students who live nearby

The city school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to allow a popular charter school to take more students from the surrounding neighborhood even if that ultimately endangers the survival of a nearby elementary school.

At issue is whether city parents have the right to choose their school and whether market forces should determine which schools close. Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School wants to increase its diversity by allotting a percentage of seats for students from the surrounding Greenmount West, a struggling but gentrifying neighborhood. City school leaders say the proposal could put Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School at risk.

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Early every morning, late-model minivans and sedans line up outside the charter school to drop off children from affluent and middle-class neighborhoods across the city. But poorer children attend as well. Children from every racial and socioeconomic background pour into the school, which has an enrollment of a little under 400. Half the students are white and 40 percent are economically disadvantaged, making it one of the most racially and economically integrated schools in a system that is less than 10 percent white and more than 80 percent poor.

The school, which was founded eight years ago, has a waiting list of 1,200 and turns away hundreds of applicants every year. For the third time since 2008, Allison Shecter, the founder and director, is seeking to make the school more representative of the city as a whole by enrolling more students from the neighborhood.

"There are a lot of at-risk children in Greenmount West," Shecter said. "We feel that we could really make a difference in their lives and the community."

There's just one thing that might be standing in her way: city school leaders. The city school board will vote on whether Montessori will be allowed to take students from the neighborhood. Shecter is asking for 20 percent, but Baltimore City School CEO Gregory Thornton is proposing 10 percent. The other option is to deny the request.

The problem, city school leaders say, is that the Montessori school is in direct competition with the neighborhood school. If neighborhood parents are given the choice of sending their children to Montessori, officials believe, they will pick the charter school, sinking Dallas F. Nicholas's chances of survival.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the city schools' office of new initiatives, said she understands why parents in the neighborhood might want to send their children to Montessori.

"They can see the school, but their kids can't get into it," she said, adding that school leaders feel they must protect neighborhood schools and provide a good portfolio of schools for everyone. "How do you balance those competing needs?"

Cassandra Merritt, whose son is in fifth grade at Dallas Nicholas, said she is against the Montessori proposal.

"They should start getting the kids off of the waiting list before they start snatching kids out of another school," Merritt said.

She said if Dallas Nicholas closes, some 250 students would have to go elsewhere, including a group of special-education students who are so disabled they must be segregated in separate classrooms. The school also operates a food pantry for the community and has after-school programs, Merritt said.

The Montessori school building, located just below North Avenue, has had many lives. It began as the Mildred Monroe Elementary School long ago. As the city's population shrank, school leaders decided more than a decade ago to close it despite fierce neighborhood opposition. The brick building then became a set for the HBO series "The Wire." It was then refashioned to serve as a homeless shelter. Montessori opened there in 2008 with classes for 3-year-olds through eighth-graders.

Students are chosen for Montessori, like other city charter schools, through a lottery. Shecter said this is the third time she has asked to circumvent the lottery process and reserve spaces for neighborhood children. Her requests were denied the first two times.

Because so many parents in wealthier areas of the city apply, their applications outnumber those from the neighborhood, said Stewart Watson, a neighborhood activist whose child never got into the school.

Middle-income families are more likely to have cars and the flexibility in work schedules to drive their children across town to a charter school, while poor families who depend on public transportation aren't as inclined to travel halfway across the city, Watson said. So there are few low-income applicants from neighborhoods farther away. For some low-income parents in Greenmount West, the Montessori school offers a charter school option their children could walk to — if they could get in.

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"To say that your kid has to go to the school we tell you to go to, and you don't get to go to the school that is closer to you ... because you are poor is discrimination," Watson said.

To counter the odds, charter school advocates went to Annapolis to lobby for a law passed last year to allow them to take as many as 35 percent of their students from a nearby neighborhood, as long as the median income of the surrounding community is less than the city's median income.

Shecter said only six neighborhood elementary students from Dallas Nicholas have asked to go to Montessori this year, a number she contends would not hurt the school. But Watson said that in a couple of years, Dallas Nicholas could lose enough students so that enrollment would fall below 86 percent, the threshold for closing a school.

The school system wanted Montessori to pull from a wider geographic area, taking in some students who are now attending overcrowded schools. But Shecter wants students who can walk to the school. The school system, she said, should redraw the boundaries around its overcrowded schools to assign more students to Dallas Nicholas, a change that could be accomplished in a year or two. Perkins-Cohen said that would be more complicated than changing the zone for Montessori.

The vote comes at a time when Thornton is at war with the public charter schools. Unlike many school systems, the city school board over more than a decade has welcomed and approved the opening and growth of dozens of charter schools, which are independently run but publicly funded. With school funding tight, charter operators say, Thornton is starving the charters of the money they need to survive by giving them a per-pupil funding rate that is below what is needed.

The school system argues that giving charters more money will result in under-funding regular public schools. Last year, the charters filed suit against the school system. The case is now in the courts, after mediation by University of Baltimore President Kurt L. Schmoke failed.

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