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City school board considers new charters

Baltimore city considers adding new charter schools.

The Baltimore city school board is considering applications to open or expand charter schools, even as questions are debated about funding levels for the ones it currently has.

Five programs, including three new schools, were reviewed by the school board Tuesday. All five hope to begin operating in the next two years.

Afya Baltimore Inc., which already runs two charter schools in the city, is proposing to convert the traditional Brehms Lane Elementary School into a charter in the 2016-2017 school year.

The conversion drew questions from board members who challenged why the school needs to be a charter to be successful.

"If we're going to have [traditional] schools come to us saying they want to convert … that's not sustainable," said board member Cheryl Casciani.

Officials at Brehms Lane said the conversion would provide the autonomy and resources to implement programs used at Afya's other charters, and improve the school's academics and culture.

Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore, said the organization wants to take on Brehms Lane as an investment in the Belair-Edison neighborhood as it undergoes a revitalization. Charter conversion would also offer more consistent goals and support than the city's public schools, he told the board.

"School administrations come and school administrations go," McKenna said. "What we're talking about here is a long-term vision."

The applications are being considered as city charter leaders, led by McKenna, are challenging the district's funding for the more than 13,000 students who attend their schools.

The coalition that represents the city's 34 charter schools has rejected the $9,387 per-pupil allocation proposed this month in schools CEO Gregory Thornton's budget. Charter leaders say the amount is less than what's mandated in state law. McKenna noted such battles have taken place since the charter law was passed in 2003.

City school officials did not respond to requests for comment on whether the school system can afford more charters.

Other applications included a request by the Ark Preparatory Academy Institute of Business to open a school next year for 450 students in grades kindergarten through eight in West Baltimore, with a curriculum that focuses on helping students develop businesses.

Another, Village School, would open next year in southwest Baltimore serving 468 students in grades six through eight with a class size of 21 students, and three adults. The school would adopt a model used at the Community College of Baltimore County focusing on reading and math skills for students with cognitive and developmental disabilities.

A current charter school, Creative City Public Charter, wants to expand its K-5 school in Northwest Baltimore to serve students through eighth grade next year. The school opened in 2013 with an arts integration curriculum, and students would work on projects related to the city's culture, history and environment.

The Watkins Public Charter School is proposing to open in Northeast Baltimore in 2017, offering 505 students in pre-kindergarten through grade five a curriculum focusing on financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

The applications came on the same day that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law a charter school bill that gives some charters more flexibility over instruction and staffing.

The bill, which was debated and revised during the recent General Assembly session, was criticized by national charter organizations for not going far enough to attract charter operators to Maryland, but praised by local advocates as a step in the right direction.

Jason Botel, executive director of Maryland CAN, an education advocacy group, said the new law will help Baltimore work out funding issues in because it requires a study of charter funding by the state Department of Education and the Department of Legislative Services.

McKenna said he believes Baltimore, despite its challenges, is still supportive of charters.

"Maybe some of the bigger operators from around the country won't come to Baltimore, for one reason or another," McKenna said. "But it's also true that many high quality groups are doing the work right now and wouldn't think of going any place else."

The school board will vote on the charter applications May 26.



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