Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast has recommended to the Board of Education that the first phase of the application for the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School be approved conditionally for the purpose of proceeding with the next phase of the application process.
If approved, this would partially complete Phase I of the process and allow the applicants to focus primarily on the work involved in the finance, facilities, operations, and final documentation required in preparing the application for final approval by the Board of Education. The Board is scheduled to review the recommendation on March 14.
"My recommendation for a conditional approval acknowledges that the applicants have worked hard towards developing an academic concept for the opening of a public charter school in Montgomery County but that there are deficiencies in the design of the academic program that need further work," said Dr. Weast in his report to the Board of Education.
Dr. Weast said the "notable deficiencies" will need to be remedied successfully by the applicants in a timely manner while work proceeds on the next phase. A review panel of educators and representatives from employee organizations, as well as a parent, identified the deficiencies.
The superintendent also noted that Board of Education's approval, even conditionally, of the Phase I portion of the application does not foreclose eventual denial of the entire application, nor does it prejudice the Board's involvement in the next phase of the approval process.
"Indeed, there are serious issues related to the financial and facility aspects of this endeavor that will require the Board's close scrutiny and judgement," said Dr. Weast. "In the meantime, however, Board action on the academic portion of the proposed school provides the opportunity to establish whether a public charter school can provide an educationally viable alternative to regular public school services in Montgomery County. I believe it can."
Two major stipulations were identified by Dr. Weast that public charter schools must fulfill if they gain approval for funding by the school system:
* The charter school will provide a unique and different educational model for improving student achievement.
* The model, if proven successful through the evaluation of the results, will lead to replication in other public schools.
The conditional approval by the superintendent stems from both the Board of Education policy providing the framework for approving such proposals and "my own belief that public charter schools should be embraced as an option for parents and students, not that dissimilar to the opportunities provided through the preferred choice selection of signature programs in the Northeast Consortium," Dr. Weast said. "The obvious dedication and energy of the applicants impress me in their efforts to add to the academic programs within our public school system."
Dr. Weast also cautioned the Board of Education about the enormity of the decisions regarding a public charter school application. He said that "notwithstanding the good intentions of these first applicants and the commitment they have in this instance to the academic success of students, there are real and significant issues that remain to be considered."
These issues include the following, in part:
* Whether the student selection process of a public charter school has a potential impact on the rest of the student population in the vicinity of a charter school.
* Whether public charter school programs can effectively educate students in ways uniquely different from the other school programs that exist in the school system.
* Whether public charter schools have the potential to provide "best practices" examples for the school system.
Dr. Weast also said that the costs to open public charter schools are similar to the costs to open any new school in the school system. Such expenses would have to be requested by the Board of Education and would compete with the other Board priorities for funding.
"Similarly, if charter school proposals require additional facilities, the costs to provide those facilities will compete with the needs for the same kind of space necessary to address the school system's continued enrollment growth, class size initiatives, and the multi-year modernization program," he said. "For both the operating budget and the capital budget, funding approval would be necessary by the County Council."
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Note: The entire report by the superintendent to the Board of Education is available from the Department of Communications at 301-279-3853