Getting Charters Off the Ground in Baltimore: Overcoming a Weak Law and a Hostile School Board
By Bobbi Macdonald
There is one thing I know for sure. The fight to open charter schools is a fight for people. Not just parents, teachers and children, but all people: young and old, rich and poor, black and white, and everyone in between.
For nearly two years now, since the Maryland charter school law passed in May 2003, I have been leading a group of parents and community leaders to open the first charter school in Baltimore: City Neighbors Charter School. Our challenge has been working with a weak charter school law that that gives parents and community members the right to open a charter school but which fails to define the funding and autonomy that these independent schools need to serve their students.
Simply stated, the Baltimore City School Board does not want charter schools. When we turned in our application (March 2004), the city board ignored us. Eventually, after we made numerous requests to the Board--in person, in writing, and even through a folk song I wrote! (download at www.cityneighbors.org)--we had to appeal to the Maryland State Board of Education to have our application reviewed. To its credit, the state board ordered the City to respond to our application promptly. In the same appeal, we requested that the state declare illegal the city board's cap on charter schools, which sought to limit the number of new charter schools to three. The state board agreed with us on this point as well. We were proud to see the cap fall. Currently, thanks to the clearing our appeal created, there are five wholly new charter schools approved to open in Baltimore.
Since receiving approval in November, we have continued preparing for the opening of our elementary school. We set policy, held registration and enrollment, prepared our building for renovations, and accepted 204 resumes from highly qualified educators from around the world. But we haven't been able to do the most important thing: sign a charter with the city board. The reason? There is no charter to sign. Again, the city has been dragging its feet, hoping we will go away.
Instead of going away, we've gone back to the state board. We hope and expect our petition to clarify funding will be successful as well. Three other would-be city charter schools have joined our petition. So again, a victory for our charter school will be a victory for Baltimore, because Baltimore desperately needs charter schools.
One of benefits that charter schools will bring to children in Baltimore is innovative curriculum. When educators, parents, and the community are given the chance to dream together, the results are truly amazing. City Neighbors Charter School, designed as a parent cooperative, emphasizes the intelligence, creativity, and sensitivity of the teacher. Our curriculum is based on the belief that children learn through authentic activities, and our view of the child is that he or she is a competent and resourceful person, which teachers must recognize and appreciate.
I am a mother of three small children, whom I intend to raise in the city I love. My daughter, Sadie, presently attends the local public school, and next year, when she attends City Neighbors, she will still attend a local public school. City Neighbors creates a place for black and white families of all economic levels to come together and find that which unites us: high standards for education. Hundreds--if not thousands--of dedicated people in Baltimore are fighting for students' rights. I have met many of them over the past two years. The charter school crowd joins in their efforts for creating private school-caliber public education for every student in Baltimore. But to do this, we need a stronger law. We need a city Board that is committed to our success, and we need each other.
Our quest is a fight for people. That is why I know we will succeed.
Bobbi Macdonald is the Founder and President of City Neighbors Charter School
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