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Conversion charter schools too often overlooked in debate

In the few weeks since the release of the Abell Foundation's report on charter schools in Maryland, there has been a great deal of reaction, including in the editorial, op-ed and letter sections of this newspaper.

Those of us happily working in the local education trenches will take the mainstream attention whenever we can get it. Why? We believe that the broader and more frequent the debate on these important issues, the better for the families and children in our great city of Baltimore and throughout Maryland. That said, from the point of view of the Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP), a 19-year-old not-for-profit operator of three city public charter schools, one important item was only briefly mentioned in the report and has been conspicuously absent in the discussion that the report has sparked.

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BCP, one of Baltimore's two Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) mentioned in the Abell Foundation report, operates "conversion" charter schools — public neighborhood schools that have successfully completed the rigorous charter application and approval process developed by our district.

On a visit to Hampstead Hill Academy in 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said "the conversion model has implications at the national level; people need to see what's possible." City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton supported the idea of CMOs working with struggling schools in Milwaukee, and the Abell Foundation's report refers to CMOs partnering with struggling schools in Camden, N.J. Conversion charter schools are not simply a de facto construct that has developed over the years since the General Assembly passed the authorizing legislation for charter schools; they are explicitly referred to in the law, which was enacted in 2003. Yet, more than a decade later, even knowing what a conversion charter school is makes you a member of a far-too-small club.

The general debate about charter schools typically hews to the familiar contours of a "city-wide lottery charter school vs. a traditional neighborhood school" dichotomy. Even an educator as well-respected as Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers-Maryland, presents a contrast between neighborhood schools on the one hand and charters on the other in her recent op-ed piece in The Sun. There are currently five schools in Baltimore City that are both. Ms. English invited Gov. Larry Hogan to come visit a community school. He could come visit City Springs Elementary Middle School, Wolfe Street Academy or Hampstead Hill Academy (the three schools operated by BCP) and thereby kill three birds with one stone: They are all neighborhood schools offering a seat to every student in their enrollment zone, they are all conversion charter schools offering any additional spaces through a lottery, and they all feature a community school component offering wrap-around services to students and families beyond the school day. He could also visit Furman Templeton Elementary or Rosemont Elementary (the two other conversion charters in Baltimore) to witness how well this type of charter can work for kids and families.

To this simplified choice of traditional neighborhood school or charter with a city-wide lottery, we at BCP respectfully point out that the guiding law explicitly contemplated a third way and specifically provides for existing, neighborhood public schools that can "convert" to charter status and remain in their same buildings with much or all of their same staff serving their same community and kids, but availing themselves of the real and helpful attributes of charter status and benefiting from having a committed, chartering partner.

Starting later this year, BCP will partner with Govans Elementary, a successful school with a strong sense of community. The leadership and staff at Govans wanted to move from good to great, building on the strengths already in the school and the community. They voted in support of partnering with BCP to become a conversion charter school. The application was approved by the Baltimore City Public School Board of Commissioners in part because they recognized the appeal of a conversion charter to families, both those currently attending the school and those who are making decisions about what school their child will attend. Like it did for the other proud community schools that Govans will be joining within the BCP family, charter status gives Govans Elementary School a few more arrows in its quiver, including professional development customized for school staff and control over a larger portion of the per pupil funding allowing for school-based prioritization of needs.

In a battle this important to families, every arrow counts, and in the right hands a few extra arrows can make all the difference. To paraphrase Secretary Duncan, the conversion charter model seen at BCP schools shows what's possible.

Laura Doherty is president and CEO of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, Inc. a Baltimore not-for-profit organization. She is also the mother of four current Baltimore City Public Schools students. Her email is ldoherty@baltimorecp.org.

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