School facing continued probation

The Baltimore Sun

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell plans to recommend today to keep Anne Arundel County's lone charter school on probation until May, even as he acknowledged the school has improved in key areas, including strengthening student recordkeeping and services for special needs children.

Maxwell's recommendation, which will be presented to the school board at its 7 p.m. meeting, gives Chesapeake Science Point Charter School one month to cure five more deficiencies or face a longer probation -- and possibly even closure -- next school year. The schools chief suggests another board meeting to discuss the fate of the school in March.

The areas the Hanover school must scramble to address by Feb. 23 include hiring a licensed or certified special education teacher, submitting details of a lease and design of a new space the school wants to rent next school year, and submitting a three-year budget that shows how the school plans to pay for growing enrollment and new programs it will need to support a new grade each year through 2011.

The school, which offers an advanced math and science track, serves 218 students in grades 6 to 9.

Maxwell's recommendations grow out of continuing concerns that district reviewers highlighted when they visited Chesapeake Science Point on Dec. 13.

Al Aksakalli, a co-founder of the charter school and president of its governing board, said he was worried that board members and staff weren't given enough time to prepare a defense to the district's findings. They received the report late Saturday afternoon, and because district offices were closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Chesapeake Science Point board members had only yesterday to get clarifications from school system officials.

Chesapeake Science Point staff and board members say the district has been reluctant to acknowledge improvements, with each year bringing more audits and district involvement than the year before.

"We've had three years of this; it's unreasonable," Aksakalli said. "The first year we had five individuals in the audit team, the second year, 11 individuals, the third year, 19 individuals, even though we keep improving and doing better. There's no standard in the audit process. It just keeps changing."

Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that staff in the district's alternative schools office have been in constant communication with the school and that findings of the December audit were shared with parents and board members on Jan. 8. Those findings, however, did not include the superintendent's recommendations.

"Contrary to what has been said and written [in local newspapers], we have tried and continue to try to work with this school," Mosier said. "They have obligations and responsibilities to do certain things. It is our job and responsibility to ensure their compliance with all state, federal and local laws. We have provided a significant amount of support to them. There is absolutely no effort or agenda on the part of this school system or superintendent to sabotage the school or see it fail."

He said the reviewers have lingering concerns that some special needs students "aren't getting as much direct assistance as they need" because the school's sole special education teacher, who has a provisional license, is stretched too thin helping students in other classes. Mosier said the district is also not sufficiently confident about the school's financial health.

"I think [the reviewers] were worried that in some cases the school's projections for enrollment don't match the requisite increase needed for classroom furniture and other instructional materials," Mosier said.

The past two weeks have been a particularly tough time for Chesapeake Science Point. The school's director, Fatih Kandil, was abruptly reassigned Jan. 7 amid allegations that he had asked misbehaving students to do push-ups. Though his ouster is temporary and pending the findings of a county Department of Social Services investigation, Kandil's absence couldn't have come at a worse time for the school. Parents say Kandil was yanked at such a critical time for the school because the district is trying to cripple the school's position at today's meeting.

Kandil would have been the school's chief lobbyist at the meeting today. Without him there, parents have been rushing to cobble together their own defense by gathering financial documents, testimonials and petitions.

"What's frightening about this is we don't know what they're going to bring up," said Jane Andraka, vice president of the school's Parent Teacher Organization. "Are we going to go and get sandbagged?"

Beleaguered by critical audits since it opened five days late in September 2005, the school has been under intense scrutiny for most of its life.

Critical school system audits found that the school had kept inadequate records of special education students' progress. The school also struggled with weak finances and relied heavily on donations from parents -- $440,000 during the past two years -- to stay afloat.

Under Kandil's leadership, however, the school strengthened its work with special education students and began beefing up its curriculum. It added Chinese classes in addition to the Spanish classes already required. The school is also certifying teachers in the college-preparatory International Baccalaureate curriculum, though progress has been stalled because the district also temporarily reassigned the charter school's IB coordinator, Ali Tuna. Tuna's investigation is separate from Kandil's, but his absence has also hit the school's staff and students hard.

Finances have improved, and the school has about $200,000 in the bank, said Spear Lancaster, vice president of the charter school's board. Officials are also excited about negotiations to lease a new 47,000-square-foot space, also in Hanover. The school just last week drew the names of 66 new students for the next school year from more than 400 applications.

In the Jan. 8 meeting, after they were given a glimpse into the latest review's findings, school officials, parents and staff questioned some of the findings, including one that said the school disproportionately disciplined more black students than their white peers. They complained that the slides did not contain enough specific data and information, and that they were not given a written copy to better follow along.

"The slides just flew by," Aksakalli said. "Everything was bullet points. One said 'teacher workload' but what was their exact concern with workloads? We don't know."

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