Teachers' school of thought is foundation of new facility

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At first, their friends and family thought they were crazy for wanting to leave the guaranteed paychecks and benefits that came with being public school teachers in Carroll County - one of Maryland's highest performing systems - to open their own school.

"I remember the day we decided we were going to do this. We got that question, 'Why?' from everyone," said Diane L. Havighurst, one of the three co-founders of the North Carroll Community School. "But we have very strong philosophical feelings about the best ways of teaching kids. And it was easy for people to feel our passion for this."

Havighurst said she and the school's other founders came to feel constrained by the rigid timetables and standardized tests looming larger than ever in public school classrooms.

Classes at North Carroll are set to begin Sept. 7, with 45 pupils in temporary quarters behind a hair salon and other businesses in a small strip mall in Westminster.

In the new school, the state's assessment tests will not be administered, and pupils will be grouped by ability rather than strictly by age. Class sizes will be limited to no more than 17 pupils per teacher.

In breaking out on their own, North Carroll's founders joined a growing number of innovators across the country providing alternative ways to educate children.

"This has become much more common in the last five years or so," said Myra McGovern, director of public information for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Schools. "I see it as an outgrowth of wanting to teach in different ways. The charter school movement has empowered a lot of people, even parents, who realized they had more options."

In Maryland, tightly written laws governing the creation of charter schools have prompted many educators - such as the founders of North Carroll - to shun those constraints, along with the promise of public funding, to create schools that are independent.

The state Department of Education maintains a registry of nonpublic schools and has various degrees of oversight, depending on the type of school, said Virginia Cieslicki, chief of the department's nonpublic school approval branch.

Schools are added to the registry based on state approval of such factors as the school's proposed curriculum and teacher qualifications.

Just as public schools must do, nonpublic facilities are required to conduct criminal background checks on all school employees, as well as comply with local health, fire safety and zoning laws. In addition, they must show they have all the makings of a bonafide school - including such provisions as a library, a school calendar and administrative capabilities.

There are 1,318 nonpublic schools registered in Maryland, an increase of 153, or 13 percent, over the past two years, according to the state Department of Education. This includes private and religious schools, as well as alternative schools, some of which receive funding from government agencies such as the Department of Juvenile Justice.

North Carroll Community will become the 30th nonpublic school in Carroll County. Two years ago, Carroll had 25. Prince George's County, with 176, has seen a 31 percent increase in the past two years. Harford County has 49, up 23 percent over that period.

Montgomery County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, has more nonpublic schools than any other: 265. Baltimore County is second, with 209.

Charter schools, by contrast, have been slow to take hold in Maryland since legislation to operate these institutions was approved two years ago. Since that time, the state has had just one charter school - Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick County. But about 17 charter schools have been approved to open this school year, including 12 in Baltimore.

Critics say Maryland's charter school laws have dampened enthusiasm for charters. The Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, this summer gave Maryland a "D" for what the center called "among the nation's weakest [charter school] laws." The state ranked 37th out of 40 states that have such laws, according to a report card the center issued.

"I can certainly understand why this group of people would prefer to start a private school as opposed to a charter school," said Alison Lake, managing editor for the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "Maryland's charter school law is very specific on [regulations such as teacher hiring and certification], ... but it's quite vague in how much autonomy you can have."

The reasons for deciding to open a nonpublic school vary.

Some want a school whose teachings are based on religious beliefs. Other want to escape the accountability-driven system of standardized testing, made more prevalent with the federal No Child Left Behind Act that requires states to annually measure academic progress. Others want to experiment with different teaching methods.

At North Carroll, where the creed is "Learning Without Limits," the teaching methods will be centered around the concept of a multi-age, differentiated learning environment. The teachers say they want to steer away from the mechanical nature of testing and drill down to each pupil's learning experience.

"We get so obsessed with data, but that's just one piece," said Havighurst, a former third- and fourth-grade teacher at Hampstead Elementary. "I'm more concerned with the whole child."

Another founder, Scot M. Lynn, who also taught third and fourth grade at Hampstead Elementary, agreed.

"The best data I have [that pupils are learning] comes from observing them," he said.

Meeting what they described as early discouragement from local school officials - who are charged with approving charter school applications - North Carroll's founders quickly determined that the only way to keep their dream on track was to avoid opening a charter school. They said they didn't want to risk getting caught up in appeals that would likely delay their efforts.

Housed in temporary quarters across the parking lot from where its permanent facilities will be, the school will have five teachers. Lynn and Havighurst will be intermediate teachers, instructing blended classes of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. The other North Carroll founder, Donna L. Lyons, who taught at a private preschool, will be the preschool director.

Kristie M. Wright, who taught first grade at Charles Carroll Elementary in Westminster for two years, will be the school's primary teacher with a class of kindergartners, first- and second-graders. Susan E. Grice, who taught at a private pre-school in the county, will oversee a class of prekindergartners, ages 3 and 4.

The school will not administer the state assessment tests but has opted to follow the state's voluntary curriculum, which is used in the public school system.

Stacie Dowling of Silver Run will be sending her children - fifth-grader Nathaniel, 10, and second-grader Amelia, 7 - to North Carroll. She said she was motivated by the promise of smaller class sizes.

"The class sizes [in public schools] are getting bigger and bigger," she said. "Two years ago, my daughter's kindergarten class had 30 students in it."

According to North Carroll's enrollment policy, when the 1-to-17 teacher-pupil ratio is reached, admissions will be frozen to avoid larger class sizes.

All of North Carroll's teachers have agreed to accept smaller paychecks than they were receiving in their previous jobs. The founders have budgeted salaries that are roughly half of what they earned in the public school system but say that what they actually take home will depend on the school's success.

In the meantime, they have been supported by friends, family and people from the community who have donated a piano for music lessons, helped stock a library with about 1,000 books, and made other contributions. A local bank is financing the construction of the permanent building they hope to move into early next year.

Tuition will be $4,800 a year for pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade. Prekindergarten rates will be $1,900 for 3-year-olds attending three days a week, and $3,200 for 4-year-olds on a five-day-a-week schedule.

The founders, who each pledged at least $10,000 to the school's start-up costs in addition to countless hours of physical labor, said their efforts have been driven by a desire to see their mission accomplished. The school is in the process of registering as a nonprofit corporation.

"A lot of people have said, 'I wish I had the guts you have,' because it takes guts to [talk about creating your own school], but it's something else to actually do it," Lynn said. "We took that leap of faith."

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