Worried about what he describes as lax discipline and academics at his neighborhood public schools, Sherwood Lennon said he is thrilled at the prospect of sending his children to Baltimore County's first public charter school, Imagine Discovery, scheduled to open this fall in Woodlawn.
For Lennon, the father of five children ranging in age from 16 months to 8 years, the idea of a new school facility stocked with ample technological resources and a challenging curriculum is too attractive to pass up.
"I want a private-school curriculum, but I want it to be in a public school," said Lennon, a sixth-grade math teacher at Franklin Square Elementary in Baltimore. "This appears to be what I'm looking for."
Imagine Discovery, which will initially offer kindergarten through fourth grade, is the county's first foray into the public charter school scene, and comes five years after Maryland legislators passed enabling legislation. The school will add a grade each year until it reaches eighth grade.
Three weeks into marketing Imagine Discovery to the Woodlawn community during open houses, the school has "pre-enrolled" nearly 370 students, bringing it close to its expected capacity of 412, according to Pat Crain, Maryland regional director for Imagine Schools. The enrollment window closes May 19, he said.
Crain said the organization looked at several school systems around the state and chose Baltimore County - and specifically, the Woodlawn community - for several reasons, including the area's demand for "an alternative choice," capacity of surrounding schools and the academic performance of those schools.
Lennon, whose oldest son is a third-grader in the gifted-and-talented program at Chadwick Elementary School, said he wants his children to feel challenged and engaged by their school work.
"Being a teacher, I know there are certain things all schools are going to have to deal with - every kid won't come in on grade-level, every kid isn't from an ideal home," said Lennon, who lives in the Windsor Mill area. "But I like the fact that with Imagine, it's an opportunity where you can build from the ground up and make it the kind of school you want it to be."
Additional open house meetings for parents are scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Randallstown library, 8604 Liberty Road; and from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. May 10 at the Woodlawn library, 1811 Woodlawn Drive.
Charter schools are nonsectarian and publicly funded, but operate independently under contracts with local school boards or regulating agencies. Students attend the schools tuition-free, just as they would a regular public school, because charter schools are funded by state and local governments.
Charter schools must have open admissions. But if too many students wish to enroll, state law requires the charter school to conduct a lottery to determine who may attend.
Depending on how enrollment goes among the other grades, the school will either have to hold a lottery or create another kindergarten class, Crain said. The goal is a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio for kindergarten, and no more than 22 students per classroom in all other grades, he said.
Nationwide, more than 1 million students are enrolled in the more than 3,500 charter schools that have sprouted since Minnesota passed the country's first charter school law in 1991, according to the US Charter Schools Web site.
The charter school movement has experienced steady growth, as the number of states passing charter school laws doubled between 1995 and 2003, from 19 states to 38, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Two years ago, Maryland had 24 charter schools. As of this school year, 30 such schools are operating in a half-dozen systems, including Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel and Harford counties. Four others are in the proposal or development stages, including Imagine Discovery.
Imagine Schools, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit, plans to open the Woodlawn school in August - making it one of three that it operates in the state, and adding to the 70 public charter schools that it runs in nine states and Washington, D.C.
Its other Maryland schools are Imagine Foundations in Upper Marlboro and Imagine Lincoln in Marlow Heights, both in Prince George's County.
Charter school students are required to take all state standardized tests, just as their regular public school counterparts do. Because the two Imagine schools in Prince George's County opened only last fall, no information is available to gauge how well they are faring academically.
Situated along a winding stretch of Whitehead Road, the Woodlawn building that will house Imagine Discovery is being renovated. When finished, it is expected to be a 44,000-square-foot school.
"Everything was right to propose a charter school there," said Crain, former director of the Maryland State Department of Education's charter school office and a former Baltimore County public school guidance counselor.
"Just with the sheer number of parents who said 'We want an option,' we knew we'd have the students," he added.
County school officials have been meeting weekly with Crain to help coordinate the school's opening.
Sonja Karwacki, the system's executive director of special programs pre-K though 12, has been assigned to work with Crain, "with the goal of establishing expectations and creating alignment [between] the charter school and the policies and operations of the school system," said Kara E. Calder, county schools spokeswoman.
Heading Crain's list of "things to do as soon as possible" is hiring a principal. Eight candidates have applied so far. Crain hopes to fill the position by the end of this month.
"The new principal will have a lot to take on," he said. "It's a tough job when you're starting a new school from scratch. But we feel good about a few of the candidates we've talked to."
For his part, Lennon said it's the newness of Imagine Discovery that appeals to him.
"They have to get the same end result as a regular public school, but they can try different approaches," he said. "We can see now that the old approach doesn't work."
Imagine Discovery in Woodlawn is scheduled to open this fall as Baltimore County's first charter school. Here is the status of charter schools elsewhere in Maryland:
Anne Arundel - 1
Baltimore City - 22
Frederick County - 1
Harford County - 1
Prince George's County - 4
St. Mary's County - 1
Baltimore City - 3
[Source: Maryland State Department of Education Web site]