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Charter school works to stay afloat

The Baltimore Sun

In an office-turned-classroom, the 14 eighth-graders are factoring polynomial equations and debating with the teacher about the best way to do it. Some of them furiously punch numbers into a graphing calculator to find a shortcut to the answer, and others talk about replacing variables with imaginary numbers.

They continue even after teacher Ilker Gurbuz gives them a break, when they're allowed to get a drink of water or stretch their legs in the hallway.

Here, at Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School, the 13 boys and one girl are getting what they say they couldn't in the public or private schools they attended before: Algebra II without the bullying.

The students are three years ahead in math, which means they will be doing advanced calculus by the time they are high school seniors.

Despite the program's popularity - 164 students attend grades six to eight, and 250 applications are pending - the school faces a fight for survival.

Chesapeake Science Point, haunted by critical audits since it opened five days late in August 2005, has had trouble meeting the county school system's standards in special education, student records and reporting, personnel and fiscal matters. The school board gave the Hanover school until April 30 to improve, or risk losing its charter. The board will bring up the issue at its May 2 meeting.

Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said school officials are planning to visit the school and review its performance April 18. In their decision, school board members will consider the district's report, along with any information the school presents on its behalf.

"I know they've met with the superintendent several times to talk about ways to improve the school. We're giving them the greatest time possible to fix some of the concerns," Mosier said.

The struggle between the charter school and the school district has highlighted "a thick gray area" in a state law, where the district doesn't know where its involvement ends and a charter school's independence begins, said Fatih Kandil, the Chesapeake Science Point director.

Most of Chesapeake school officials' attention has been spent on improving services for students with learning disabilities. Recent audits showed the school had kept weak records of students' progress and had not scheduled conferences between teachers and parents to discuss new modes of instruction for these students.

"We hired two special education teachers who had worked with the school system for five and 14 years," Kandil said. "We thought they knew what kinds of expectations the district had. We weren't trying to break any rules here. But now we know what the expectations are and we're fixing them."

Finances are still an issue. The school has had to rely on donations - $300,000 last year and more than $135,000 this year - to stay afloat. Recently, it was late paying rent and struggled to pay its $50,000-plus school bus bill. The root of the money trouble, Chesapeake's board vice president Spear Lancaster said, was that the county paid the school for 104 students, not the 166 enrolled in the fall.

"Of course, we're getting donations. How else do we afford this if you shortchange us like that?" Lancaster said. "It's like you breaking my leg and then complaining that I lost the race."

The school is planning to add a grade a year through high school.

Physics teacher Ali Tuna is exploring ways to establish an International Baccalaureate program. School officials are looking to raise money to set up the rigorous coursework. Tuna is also planning to take students on a trip in May to explore Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, where he hopes they can sit in on classes and labs.

It's this kind of focus on excellence that drew the Andrakas to Chesapeake Science Point. The Crownsville family had their older son, Luke, 12, at a nearby private school last year.

"He was just sitting bored in a class for an hour," said his father, Steve Andraka. "They told me he wouldn't be starting algebra until at least eighth grade, maybe even ninth grade, and we just wanted a more accelerated track for him."

Luke, a sixth-grader at Chesapeake Science Point, started algebra this year. He comes to school Saturdays to learn new concepts so he can prepare for math competitions.

"He looks forward to going to school on Saturdays. ... It's just outstanding," Andraka said.

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