Edgewater's KIPP charter school to 'close its doors,' abandoning a two-year search for adequate space

The Baltimore Sun

A pioneering charter school in Anne Arundel County, which had raised reading and math test scores among its once-trailing minority and low-income students, has abandoned its two-year hunt for more space and is closing.

The Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, Harbor Academy in Edgewater made its decision Wednesday and began notifying parents.

"It is with immense sadness that we announce that KIPP Harbor Academy must permanently close its doors this summer," Jallon Brown, KIPP Harbor's founder and school leader, wrote in a letter to parents.

Harbor Academy is the first of 52 KIPP schools in 16 states to close because it had no room to grow.

The KIPP network of college-preparatory schools is designed to serve students in inner-city and low-income areas with a rigorous blend of high expectations, strict codes of conduct and an 11-month academic year.

The 6,000 square feet of space it was renting at Sojourner-Douglass College was half what it needed to teach its 120 fifth- and sixth-graders - and was not enough to hold about 80 additional students it expected next year with a new seventh-grade class. The KIPP national model calls for adding a grade a year until each school has fifth- through eighth grades.

Harbor Academy offered this year to rent space in the half-empty Annapolis Middle School, but was rebuffed by the Anne Arundel County school board, which told the academy to look elsewhere.

"It's a Sophie's choice: close it or keep the school open and say, 'Sorry, there's no room for you,' to our rising seventh-graders," said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based KIPP. "This is unprecedented for us. Every community we've been in has embraced us. ... Not here."

State and national charter school advocates blamed the closing of Harbor Academy, in part, on Maryland law that fails to ensure local school boards provide money for buildings and makes the boards the sole grantors for the programs that some districts see as competition.

"It's a symptom of Maryland's charter school law, which we ranked as sixth weakest of 41 charter school laws in the country," said Jon Hussey, a spokesman for the Center for Education Reform, a Washington think tank. "In this case, it essentially comes down to lack of facilities assistance. And as we've seen here, the local school boards have been hostile toward charter schools."

A spokesman for the county schools denied yesterday that the system was hostile toward the school.

"They were unable to find a home for two years, what if they couldn't find one again?" said Bob Mosier, a school system spokesman. "Do we kick them out? That was a big concern for the board. Anybody's assertion that the school district has been against KIPP is just plain wrong. We've done everything we could."

Many parents learned the news in bits and pieces and were confused about the fate of the school. The outcry sent Annapolis city officials scrambling for answers and setting up meetings with the school board, County Council and the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts in Annapolis - which had been an option for space as recently as last week.

"I really don't care if it's in a barn, in someone's backyard, as long as we have a space," said parent Heather Trotman. "I'm very upset. We don't even know what our options are. KIPP was our choice."

She said her daughter had struggled with reading and math at her previous school. Now, the sixth-grader is reading books without pictures and passed the state reading test last spring, Trotman said.

KIPP has built its reputation on stories like Trotman's.

The KIPP model, founded by two frustrated teachers in Houston in 1994, is known for raising the performance of some of the most troubled students.

Teachers are on call until 9 p.m. weekdays for homework help. Students attend class from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Twice a month, they attend Saturday classes. Students also have required extracurricular activities, character training and summer school.

Students left last Friday, thinking that they would be back in the first week of August. Most of the teachers left Tuesday, thinking they would be back, too.

Yesterday, fifth-grade English teacher Megan Hall was the only teacher in the building. The stretch of corridor that KIPP occupies was quiet, except for the thwack of her flip-flops.

"I feel very tired," said Hall, a graduate of Annapolis High School. "I feel let down by the city. For people to be as unsupportive as they have been is very disappointing."

Kipp has fared better in other areas. The KIPP Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore has posted such gains among its minority and low-income students that there are talks of another one opening next summer. Three KIPP schools operate in Washington, and a fourth is preparing to open next summer.

Harbor Academy has had tough luck from the start. The county school board rejected the school's application in March 2005 because of confusion over the state law, only to accept it - hesitantly - two weeks later. The school was haunted by audits critical of its finances and operations, but those audits improved.

Academically, the school was on the rise. The roughly 50 fifth-graders who entered the school in 2005 were reading and doing math three grade levels below. But state test scores released last week showed that 7 out of 10 of those students, now sixth-graders, passed the state math test, and 60 percent were reading at or above their grade level.ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Rochelle McConkie, Sharahn D. Boykin and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.

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