Charter school renewals, contract schools debated

Today, The Sun published a story about a slew of Baltimore city charter schools are up for renewal this school year, and all agree that it was fine time for the popular schools to have a uniformed, reliable and rigorous evaluation process that will improve their trajectory in the district. You can read more about that renewal process, here.

The story also caught up on some challenges that charters have faced in the district's ever-changing reform climate, and their plans as they look to the next decade (they are marking 10 years since charter law was passed.)

The Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools explained some of these challenges in a letter read publicly at a city school board meeting in September. But, charter and district leaders are meeting regularly, they said.

But, the future of non-charter schools up for renewal this year have also been a source of debate in recent weeks. A family has become increasingly vocal at city school board meetings about how schools run by outside operators are failing to live up to their promises.

This month, seventh-grader Kelsie Ackers spoke to board members for the second time this school year about her experience at the Montebello Junior Academy, a school run by the for-profit organization Edison Learning.

In 2009, Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso asked the school board to revoke the company’s $16.9 million contract to run two other city schools — Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton elementaries — after officials found that the schools were yielding little results.

The Ackers family was drawn to Montebello’s website, which boasted a host of clubs and activities, but told board members in sometimes-heated testimony that the school made false advertisements.

“I am back again saying there are no sports, no clubs, no foreign language, no honor roll, kids eating the same size lunches as the kindergartners,” Kelsie told the school board. “And not using any of the money spent to fix the desks that collapse on our legs when we move them, and the chairs that rock because the legs are loose.”

Alonso told the family that the school was going through a renewal process and Edison wasn’t “paying attention to what’s going on at these meetings, or there’s a disconnect” that the company would have to explain.

“It’s going to be hard to maintain how they do business with parents coming to the board this way,” he said.

Edison officials said in an interview that they have worked with the family for the past several months to address their concerns.

“Just as we would in any school where we have a management role, any questions, concerns that parents bring up start at the school level, and this school has met numerous occasions with this particular family,” said Edison spokesman Michael Serpe.

“Since there were never any clear-cut issues, it actually elevated to the level of our regional management people. We continue to work with them to try and address their concerns, of which there are many, and never consistent.”

The performance of the system’s transformation schools — schools Alonso created when he arrived — have also disappointed families, a board member said.

According to school system data, the schools lag behind all of the district’s other schools by double-digits — as much as 25 percentage points in some cases — in reading and math on state tests. In 2012, 53 percent of students in those schools scored proficient in reading, down from 57 percent in 2011. In math, 41 percent of students scored proficient this year, up from 38 percent in 2011.

School Board Commissioner Bob Heck said at least one of the schools — Baltimore IT Academy — was failing.

“I know they aren’t [working],” he said. “There are a lot of people in that neighborhood who aren’t happy.”

School board President Neil Duke also vowed that the parents’ concerns would be taken into consideration.

“No one gets an easy ride when it comes to renewals,” Duke said.

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