It was a normal day at Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick, where pupils learned multiplication by manipulating wood blocks, astronomy while drawing with colored markers, and letter sounds by reciting "cat" and "bat."
But don't let the by-the-book Montessori instruction fool you. Monocacy Valley Montessori is one of a kind in Maryland, the state's only charter school, funded by the Frederick County school system but governed by parents.
If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has his way, Maryland will see more such charter schools.
Last week, the governor proposed legislation that would make it easier for parents to start nonreligious, tuition-free charter schools, which he argues will rescue low-income students in poor-performing schools.
While parents nationally have applauded the greater choice offered by charter schools, their effectiveness has proved to be mixed.
Some charter schools do well, but many others do not, researchers said, especially those that aren't rigorously monitored by states and local school systems.
The experts added that charter schools haven't lived up to their promise, especially ones run for profit and by religious groups. They said charter schools have done little to help the neediest students, as Ehrlich hopes they will.
And researchers said they worry that private companies running many charter schools are putting profits ahead of children.
"It's time we admit the emperor is naked," said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, whose studies of charter schools in California and other states have found wide variations in quality and enrollment concentrated among children with the most committed parents.
Charter schools were "supposed to promote competition in the public schools, the schools were going to be more accountable for student outcomes, they were supposed to be more efficient - it just really hasn't panned out."
The parents who labored for three years to get Monocacy Valley Montessori open this school year couldn't be happier, even though they wished they could get more money to buy playground equipment and construct classrooms the way they wanted.
"Philosophically, public education doesn't have it quite right, at least in terms of my daughter," said Norman Quist, a former Frederick County school board president who is a founder of Monocacy Valley Montessori and a member of its governing board. "It ignores the innate curiosity of children."
Md. gets late start
When it comes to charter schools, Maryland is behind the curve, one of 11 states that lack laws making it easy to start charter schools. Since 1991, 2,700 charter schools have sprouted nationwide, serving 685,000 students.
The idea of charter schools dates back at least a decade and grew out of the movement to offer parents dissatisfied with public education a choice for their children's schooling.
Vouchers, which gave parents public money to enroll their children in private schools, are an outgrowth of the same movement.
Both liberals and conservatives - even the head of the American Federation of Teachers, the million-member teachers union - embraced the idea.
In 1991, Minnesota was the first state to enact a law that allowed for the creation of charter schools. Arizona now leads the country with 468.
But Wells, the Columbia professor, said charter schools have not been held accountable for student achievement. She said the schools typically get shut down for financial malfeasance, not for poor instruction.
For example, the Village Academy Charter School in New Haven, Conn., which opened in the fall of 1997, was closed by the state Board of Education two years later because of mismanagement, poor recordkeeping and a disgruntled staff.
In addition, Wells said the schools don't always serve the neediest students. While some charter schools are located in poor neighborhoods, they tend to serve the students who need them least - children with parents who are involved in their education.
Many charter schools, she said, require parents to drive their children and volunteer, leaving the schools for the most affluent students.
"There are real issues about who gets into charter schools and who gets left behind," Wells said.
While Baltimore has 10 "New School Initiative" schools run by nonprofits but publicly funded, Maryland never had a charter school before this school year. Ehrlich's bill would make it simpler to start such a school. Under Ehrlich's proposal, a university or the state's school board could approve a charter school.
Maryland's existing law allows charter schools if a local school board grants permission. In the state, only two school boards - in Frederick and Montgomery counties - have policies for parents who want to create a charter school.
Question of approval
A Montgomery County group's requests have been rejected twice, and advocates complain that charter schools won't proliferate in Maryland until universities, the state Board of Education and other institutions are allowed to approve them, as Ehrlich's bill proposes.
"It's nearly impossible" to establish a charter school in Maryland, said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, an advocacy group. Local school boards have resisted charter schools because they don't want to yield their authority and pay for the schools.
Monocacy Valley Montessori, housed in a brick warehouse, has 145 pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade. Founders said they sought an education for their children that encourages curiosity without the expense of a private school.
Starting from scratch
Unsure of how to create such a school, the founders consulted with organizers in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. "We kind of had to invent the application," said Leslie Mansfield, a founder.
She said the nonprofit organization that put together the school faced repeated demands from Frederick County's school board, opposition from the teachers union and 11th-hour difficulties finding a building, hiring staff and ordering materials.
In June, after founders hired a principal and four of six teachers, Frederick County's school board gave approval.
More than 375 children applied, so many that that school had to select its first classes using a lottery.
"Overall, I'm very pleased with how it's going," said Ronald W. Peppe II, Frederick County's school board president. "It's rare for our system to get letters from parents saying, 'My child is having a wonderful time,' and I've gotten a dozen letters like that within the last week."
Leanne DeNenno, a single mother who had borrowed money from her parents to pay for her daughter Chelsea's private school tuition, said she was "very happy" with Monocacy Montessori.
Now, Chelsea, 7, works on school-related projects after school, rather than watching television. And Chelsea, who has been slow to pick up reading, seems to be improving, said DeNenno, 48, a manager at a biomedical research company.
Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University researcher who is studying charter schools for the U.S. Department of Education, found that most parents are satisfied with the schools and that children speak positively of their education.
What's more, Miron said some charter schools are seeing small but noticeable gains in student performance, especially those in states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut that have strong accountability requirements.
In Massachusetts, a state study of charter schools found that they generally performed as well as their district counterparts on standardized tests. Students who had performed below average showed better-than-average gains in math and reading.
Although operated independently, charter schools are funded by taxpayer money. The federal government is offering an additional $200 million this year to charter schools in states with charter school laws. Money from foundations often follows.
But public funding of charter schools has drawn criticism, especially in light of the sluggish economy.
In Minneapolis, for example, the schools are being blamed for taking away money from the city school district, contributing to its budget woes.
Massachusetts leaders are considering providing relief for school systems that have lost money to charter schools.
Charter schools formed by churches and religious groups have been attacked as an unconstitutional vehicle for getting government funding for their religious schools.
Late last year, the charter of a church-related charter school in Sparks, Nev., was revoked after its manager was found by a government audit to have used school money to purchase a building for the church.
National Heritage Academies, which operates 32 charter schools in Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Ohio, was sued unsuccessfully for crossing the line between church and state. It was accused of teaching creationism and holding prayer sessions on school grounds.
Miron said that parents overseeing a charter school in York, Pa., run by Edison Schools Inc., which operates three public schools in Baltimore, couldn't tell him about the school's budget.
The researcher expressed concerns that private companies would try to get away with putting profit before instruction. He also worried that charter schools weren't a way to improve public education but to privatize it.
"This is like privatization through the back door," Miron said.
The Frederick County school system gave Monocacy Valley Montessori $818,000 in funding, based on what the district spends on each student in existing buildings. Founders raised an additional $20,000 from parents and corporations.
Because Maryland lacks a charter school law, the school could not qualify for federal aid.
The funding wasn't enough to start a new school from scratch, founders said, and the school faces a $168,000 deficit.
Because the school was unable to afford a costly sprinkler system upgrade, classrooms are separated by shoulder-high partitions. The playground is a grass field. Students from all grades must share bathrooms. Library books are donated.
"The biggest challenge that we've had is the facility," said Catharina Genove, the principal.
But Genove, who taught in the Miami and Fairfax County, Va., public schools for 10 years, said she has never seen such parent involvement. She said parents volunteer to watch the children during lunchtime and to help with administrative tasks.
Some don't stay
Teachers said some pupils were slow to adjust to the Montessori education initially but have shown considerable progress.
Since Monocacy Valley Montessori opened in late August, 36 children have withdrawn, including the two sons of Sharon Watrous.
Watrous said she withdrew the boys shortly before Christmas partly because she believes the school opened too quickly and administrators were not prepared to run it.
She also didn't like the Montessori education, which teaches pupils to learn using beads, blocks and other objects.
"It just wasn't a good fit," said Watrous, who felt her sons needed more reading and math instruction.
Her sons are back in public school and "thriving."
But Watrous said she still supports charter schools because, she said, parents need a choice.