Baltimore school board approves one of six charter applications

The Baltimore school board voted to approve just one out of six charter school applications, prompting outrage from charter supporters who crowded a meeting Tuesday night.

The Baltimore International Academy West was the only school to receive board approval to open for the 2019-20 school year. It will be modeled on the Baltimore International Academy, and it has plans to eventually enroll 1,200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The commissioners rejected the other five applications, following the recommendations of schools CEO Sonja Santelises.

Angela Alvarez, executive director of the school system’s Office of New Initiatives, said the charter application process is “rightfully rigorous.”

“We want to make sure people are really ready to open a school,” she said.

Public comment before the board vote was heated. Supporters of the proposed Ames-Sandtown Freedom and Democracy Academy packed the room and held signs encouraging the board to approve their application for an elementary school in West Baltimore. They chanted “Just say yes, we’ll do the rest” before and during the meeting.

The Freedom and Democracy Academy would have been operated by Northwood Appold Community Academy Inc., which already runs two charters in the city: NACA I and NACA Freedom and Democracy II.

“We do not understand the way we’re treated,” founder Cecil Gray said. “It’s unjustifiable. It’s morally and ethically wrong.”

Gray said the charter operator has received a grant from the federal government intended in part to support the Freedom and Democracy Academy.

“You’re just going to put a block on a charter school that the federal government said ‘yes’ to,” he told the board.

But Alvarez said there were “several aspects of the application that were not strong.” She said the district found problems with the school’s plan for academic growth and the ways the operator anticipated educating students with special needs.

The board also rejected CEC Baltimore Campus, a middle and high school in East Baltimore with a focus on global affairs; the all-boys, boarding-optional Baltimore Latin School, which would have focused on language immersion, the arts and sciences; and the DaVinci Collaborative High School, a year-round school that would have emphasized internships.

The board declined a request from the Green Street Academy to add an elementary school to its current middle and high school program.

Board members found some of the schools didn’t establish realistic budgets, didn’t have suitable plans for educating students with disabilities or had not garnered enough community support.

But they supported Baltimore International Academy West. Like the original, it will be a language immersion school. Students will take nearly all their classes in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian or Spanish.

“I feel humbled,” said Kona-Facia Freeman-Nepay, the founder and director of Baltimore International Academy Inc. “It was a difficult application process and I feel like the school system has finally realized the merit of this kind of program in Baltimore. I’m happy for the children who will be receiving a global education.”

Before the vote, some of the operators acknowledged that their applications were coming at a challenging time for charters. The district’s budget for next school year includes a cut of roughly $5.5 million to the 34 charters that are now open.

And officials continue to fight a 2015 lawsuit filed by a group of charter school operators who allege that the district failed to meet contractual obligations to charters and has not been transparent or consistent in the way it funds them.

Board members and district officials have continually asserted that Baltimore is a charter-friendly district.

About 20 percent of Baltimore’s roughly 80,600 public school students are enrolled in charter schools, which are publicly funded campuses that are given more autonomy than traditional public schools.

The board also voted Tuesday to approve a new school police policy. The district says the regulations are aimed at protecting schools without criminalizing students.

But aspects of the policy were controversial. The Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline, the Baltimore Teachers Union and the president of the school police union asked the board to delay a vote.

“The men and women charged with the responsibility of carrying out this mission have to be part of the process,” union president Sgt. Clyde Boatwright said. “We need more time. We need more time to dissect this.”

Board members revised the policies before the unanimous vote. They eliminated the plan to require officers to read a “youth-friendly” Miranda warning, which advocates had been urging them to include.

trichman@baltsun.com

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