After five years of below-average performance, Baltimore County's only charter school will lose its license to operate in July, but will continue as a regular public school next year.
The Baltimore County school board voted Tuesday night to pull the charter from Imagine Discovery Public Charter School, the Woodlawn-area school that families had fought for years to keep open.
Imagine Discovery parents are generally satisfied with the transfer of leadership because they believe the school will remain open with the same principal and teachers, said Charles Sydnor, who is on the school's PTA leadership team.
"We are going to have the same great principal," Sydnor said. "It will be the same school with a different operator and more resources."
In 2012, the board granted Imagine Discovery a two-year extension of its charter, even though school board members at the time described the test scores as dismal. The scores, which rose in some subjects and fell in others, did not improve dramatically during the past school year.
The school still performs above the level of Featherbed Elementary, the closest regular public school in the area.
Charter schools are public schools run by an outside entity such as a nonprofit or for-profit company. A decade after a law was passed in Maryland allowing school systems to hand out charters to operators, they are flourishing in Baltimore City, where 33 have opened in a climate that has been accepting of attempts to try new approaches.
Growth in the suburban districts, where school boards have been less open to the charter applications, has been far slower. Imagine Discovery, opened in 2008, was the first and only charter to open in Baltimore County.
Rhonda Cagle, senior vice president of communications at Imagine Schools, which has 69 campuses in 11 states and Washington, D.C., said Imagine decided not to apply for an extension of its charter after it became clear that the county was not going to allow it to establish other charters. Typically, she said Imagine has clusters of schools in one geographic area so that it can have administrators nearby to provide support. But, in this case, she said, Imagine Discovery was an "isolated campus."
"Our hope was that we could do a cluster of schools. That did not seem to be something that was going to be a priority in the county," said Cagle, adding that Imagine and school officials made the decision collaboratively.
The county appeared to be pleased with the changes that had been made in the last year, she said. "There has been good progress made. We feel that will continue, and we feel very comfortable that the district is going to be able to build on that progress," she said.
Superintendent Dallas Dance indicated in a statement that the school system would continue to operate the school, which sits in an office park near Woodlawn.
"The students, teachers, staff and parents of Imagine Discovery — especially under the leadership of Principal Cathy Thomas — have created a positive school community. It is a school community that cares deeply about student progress and parent engagement. We look forward to supporting this continued partnership," Dance said in the statement.
Parents from the school have actively lobbied the school board over the years, testifying at meetings that they loved the education their children were getting at the school and wanted it to remain open.
Sydnor said the parents still have many unanswered questions about how the school will be run in the future, including how students will be chosen to attend, what the curriculum will be and whether it will remain in the same location. Students apply to the school and are chosen by lottery.
Supporters of Imagine have said in the past that the school system had not given the school enough autonomy, particularly in choosing staff. The school system would not let the charter operator fire the principal after its first two years of poor performance and would not let it hire its own teachers. A new principal was chosen in more recent years.