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Giving up on charter school


Faced with the possibility of a third rejection, a group of Columbia parents who had hoped to open a charter school this fall has given up that effort.

The final blow came with this month's recommendation by a committee of more than 40 system employees urging the school board to reject an application for the Columbia Public Charter School for the 2006-2007 year. Board members -- who turned down the proposal in 2004 and again in April -- formally vote on the issue tomorrow.

Proponents are not waiting.

"We are absolutely finished," said Robin Rynn, a Columbia resident and one of eight parents who had been requesting school system permission to open a kindergarten-to-fifth-grade school. "We will not be trying again."

The committee critical of the proposal noted concerns about curriculum, instruction and assessment; a lack of understanding by the proponents about federal and state legislation on student achievement; and a lack of management, facilities and financial planning.

"There were so many details missing," said Ellen Miller, a committee member and policy and charter schools specialist for the system. "We would need to do so much monitoring that there would be a shift of burden."

Rynn, a mother of three who for the past three years has home-schooled her two youngest children, ages 10 and 8, said she envisioned the charter school as a way to reach all pupils. Class size was another driving force behind the idea, she said.

"I know the county has excellent teachers, but the size of the classroom hinders their ability to teach effectively," Rynn said.

The school system's teacher-to-student ratio varies by grade level. Fifth grade, for example, has one teacher for every 25 pupils. Rynn's charter school would have limited class sizes to 17 pupils per teacher.

The proposal also would have offered Spanish classes to children as early as kindergarten, not an option in Howard County.

"They learn [languages] so much easier at the younger ages," said Rynn, who teaches Spanish to her children. "We started doing it and saw how great it was."

Miller said that early Spanish instruction is the only thing that the charter school would have offered that is not found in Howard County.

"Their technology component was weaker than ours," Miller said.

The struggles of the Columbia parents illustrate some of the hurdles facing those who would set up charter schools.

"The group has a lot of potential, but they could use a lot of help," said Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network. "It takes a lot of work to start a charter school."

Charter schools are public, tax-dollar-funded schools organized and run by groups other than local school boards. The schools surfaced in Minnesota during the early 1990s, and the Maryland legislature passed a law in 2003 giving local school boards the option of chartering schools within their districts.

Since then, 15 schools have emerged, most of them in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County.

Even though charter schools are run differently than public schools, each must meet all county, state and federal accountability standards, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a fact that worried Bob Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

If a charter school were to fall short of the required student performance levels, "it would be our responsibility," Glascock said. He added that assessment test results from charter school students would be added to the system's overall scores.

There were several unknowns for the Columbia Public Charter School that bothered committee members, according to Miller -- for one, there was no location for the charter school.

The proponents also were seeking bus transportation for pupils to whatever location eventually would be chosen, and bag lunches from the school system.

"That was [also] something we were not happy with," Miller said of the lunch request.

Rynn said she plans to enroll her children in private school.

"The kids get to a point where they would like to go to a school," she said. "You get to a point where you are not able to teach at a certain level. We are very good with K-5. But when it comes to a middle school level, it would be more difficult for us to teach."

Rynn predicts that at some point a big corporation will be able to get a charter school approved in Howard County.

"We were grass-roots," Rynn said. "Fear of change or fear of competition led to them beating us down to the point that we are done. I'm not denying that Howard County is a great school system for certain children. We were just trying to reach other children who were not meeting their potential."


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