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Chartering A New Course to Education

Jason Botel, KIPP Executive Director - Arianne Teeple
Jason Botel, KIPP Executive Director - Arianne Teeple

In Baltimore, for the most part, kids have gone either to their neighborhood public school or one of many private schools in the area. However, in recent years, a new kind of school has entered the mix�charter schools.

At KIPP Ujima Village Academy students, wearing khaki pants and black polo shirts emblazoned with the school's seal, walk quietly through the halls in straight lines. The middle school children focus on academic success during the nearly nine-hour school day, with a long-term goal of earning a college degree. Their standardized test scores are impressive and each year they travel on field trips to cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York. Their dedicated teachers are engaged, caring and intolerant of bad behavior.

Despite what you may think, KIPP Ujima Village Academy is not one of Baltimore's independent private schools. It is part of the city's public school system and one of 27 charter schools in the district.

Part of the system

Charter schools are part of the portfolio of options available in Baltimore's public system. In addition to traditional elementary, middle and high schools, Baltimore's system also includes charter schools, innovation schools and transformation schools.

Charter schools, however, are creating the biggest buzz because of the impact they are having on education both locally and nationally. In fact, in mid-November, a delegation including civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited three high-achieving Baltimore City schools, two of which are charter schools, to promote school innovation.

So, what is a charter school? Simply put, charter schools are public schools that offer parents a choice in their child's education. Charter schools operate independently, but are accountable for meeting the standards of their charter as well as the school district. Because they are publicly funded, they are free and open to all students. Although there is no admissions' testing or screening, the success of many charter schools has resulted in a lottery system for admittance.

"A charter school is a public school, funded with public dollars, but one that has autonomy over certain areas such as curriculum, budget and staffing," explains Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Baltimore, one of the city's oldest and most successful charter programs. "They are an effort to empower parents and the community to make choices for their children. If we introduce new, innovative models we find things that work for kids and raise the bar for public education in general."

Opening the door to competition and better schools

Charter schools are relatively new to Maryland. In 2003, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Charter School Act "�to establish an alternative means, within the existing public school system, in order to provide innovative learning opportunities and creative educational approaches to improve the education of students."

This legislation opened the door for schools to find new solutions for educating children. Early results are promising.

"Autonomy can be a significant part of the solution in terms of providing historically underserved families a great education," says Botel. "We've seen the Baltimore school system under Dr. Alonso's leadership improve significantly in a short period of time. A big part of that is charter schools."

Botel gives credit not only to the work charters do with children, but also to the extent to which charters raise the bar for all schools throughout the city. He explains that School Superintendent Dr. Andr�s Alonso has moved to a student-based funding model, whereby schools are allocated funds based on the number of students enrolled. So, the money follows the student.

"This is where we get into healthy competition," says Botel. "All of us should be working to provide the best education possible to get as many kids as possible. If there are enough high quality options, eventually the school that isn't working, doesn't have students to educate, and doesn't have money to educate, and they close down."

A diverse field

In Baltimore, there is diversity among charter schools in terms of why they were started and what they offer. City Neighbors Charter, for example, was founded by a mother who wanted to create a small public school that believed in education of the whole child through project-based learning. The Green School, on the other hand, founded by Baltimore City teachers, follows an educational approach that uses the "environment as an integrating context for learning."

Baltimore's Montessori Public Charter School is guided by the century-old principles of Dr. Maria Montessori used around the world; and KIPP is part of a national non-profit network that focuses on getting underserved students to and through college.

While there are differences among Baltimore's charter schools, one thing is consistent; they are looking out for what's best for the children. In order for a charter school to work, there has to be a commitment to the students from the administration down to the faculty and staff. Teachers must be committed to the kids--not just the paycheck and families must also support the process.


Located on the northern edge of Patterson Park, in a former Catholic school building, the focus of Patterson Park Public Charter School (PPPCS) in addition to academics is on three critical components: strong family involvement, community interaction and diversity.

With the school motto "The City is our classroom, the world is our future," it's not uncommon to see the uniform-clad elementary students playing and learning in the park.

"We see our neighborhoods and Baltimore City as a living classroom, and supplement classroom learning with field trips that utilize Baltimore City's breadth and depth of cultural, educational, historical, environmental, and scientific institutions," states the school's website.

The mission of the school, founded in 2005, is to create a culture based on students, staff, and parents functioning as one community. The school's partnerships with more than 30 community groups and institutions from the Creative Alliance to the International Refugee Center benefit both the students and their families.

Parent involvement is a key component of the PPPCS charter. Single parents must give 15 volunteer hours to the school each year and two-parent households must commit 30 hours. PPPCS believes that family involvement in education�helping with homework, attending teacher-parent conferences, volunteering at school, assisting with school events, serving on committees and taking children to educational and cultural events�strengthens the family bond, connects families to school, and serves to improve children's outcomes academically, socially, and emotionally.

A recent PPPCS parent newsletter not only lists volunteer opportunities from helping students lace their ice skates during physical education classes at the park's rink to helping in the cafeteria, but it also includes workshops for parents including nutrition and assisting their kids with homework. Additionally, Latino parents may attend an education and support group during which they can learn how to use the computer to access the internet to help their children and their family.

While PPPCS focuses on diversity, KIPP strives to reach an underserved African American population in the Park Heights neighborhood. No matter where a charter school is located or what the charter states, each school is responsible for meeting the standards of its local public school system. The Maryland State Department of Education carefully monitors progress of the students and thus the schools.

KIPPing it real

KIPPs Botel boasts, "KIPP has been the highest performing non-selective middle school for four years straight. It's working for children in need and we are getting great results with this underserved population."

In addition to an excellent report card from the Maryland Department of Education, it's the stories of the students themselves that are impressive. Botel talks about one girl whose math scores after 5th grade at another school were so low that in order to attend KIPP she had to repeat the grade. Soon after, she was not only at grade level, she was accepted and given a scholarship to attend Phillips-Exeter Academy, a private boarding school in New Hampshire.

The school's first graduating class of 40 students is now applying to college. Throughout their high school career, at a variety of college prep schools, they have continued to receive support from their middle school through the KIPP through College Program.

"We follow the kids through college," says Botel. "We want to track their progress and say that 'x percent' graduated from college. We invested a lot in them and they invested a lot in them. We want to see it through."

The apparent success of KIPP and other charter schools begs the question of why not all public schools follow the charter school model.

KIPP's Botel answers, "Every child is different. Every community is different. Having schools that are tailored to the needs of a particular community and/or that offer a particular educational model that parents can choose, is where we need to be. The one-size-fits-all model has not worked, particularly for children from low income families."

"Here in Baltimore, the school system, under the leadership of Dr. Alonso, sees value in charter schools and other schools of choice. He sees value in competition, what it can do for kids, what it can do for families, and what it can do for our city. We're at a moment where there is an increasing amount of buy-in for this type of model, for this type of competition�traditional public schools, charter schools, transformational schools-- a portfolio of school models."

Public or charter, that's the question!

Joan Jacobson, a mother of two boys, has taken advantage of the opportunity to choose the city schools that are the best fit for her high school children. One attends a small charter school, Independence Local 1, while the other is enrolled at City College High School.

"Charter schools give parents more of a choice in schools than the large, traditional schools previously available in the city," says Jacobson. "I have one child with special needs who does better in a small, unconventional charter school and another child who likes a large traditional setting."

The growth of charter schools in Baltimore has been swift, and for many it's too soon to evaluate their performance over time. A study published earlier this year by Stanford University, found traditional public schools do as well or even better than charter schools, data that makes James Campbell, a member of the Baltimore City School Board and Senior Communications Manager in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University cautiously optimistic.

"We need schools that are strong on instruction and provide a quality education," he says. "So far, our charters seem up to the job."
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