Thursday, July 7, 2011

...charter school program exists to foster educational innovation, and to bring variety and diversity...

Public testimony for Seneca Creek Charter School, July 7, 2011 Board of Education meeting

The Board decides today on the fate of our charter school. Here is our public testimony for this event:

I’d like to offer a few more words to think about before you make your final decision on Seneca Creek Charter School… The Maryland charter school program exists to foster educational innovation, and to bring variety and diversity to the public school portfolio. Montgomery County is a school system that recognizes that diversity and choice make the system strong — there are a few magnet programs here, but a charter school offers a more economical, more inclusive way of providing this choice. MCPS has had great achievements in raising test scores and narrowing achievement gaps — these are great strengths and are part of the reason we want to be part of MCPS — but we all know that different children will thrive in different environments. The hallmark of a good school system is its responsiveness to parental concerns and initiatives. Parents want to see this school happen in upper Montgomery County, where there is no choice, but much demand. The review panel acknowledged that our concept is unique and strong. It would allow MCPS to show leadership in environmental education, which has been a recent focus of MSDE, and boast a first-in-state “Using the Environment as an Integrating Context”-certified school. As more and more research continues to show the benefits to children of learning outside, of becoming so engaged that they don’t mind getting their hands wet or dirty while investigating macroinvertebrates in a stream, or planting a garden, we believe that our proposal provides a unique opportunity for Montgomery County to be at the forefront. We believe in public education and want to become a part of MCPS. We will be hiring MCPS-trained staff. We have offered to bring on a member of the MCPS administration into our Board. We have offered to share our professional development funds with any MCPS teacher who is interested in participating in training in the EIC methodologies.

The Superintendent’s staff has tried to find excuses for not starting this charter school, based on a cursory reading of our application. They did not ask themselves – is there a legally supportable reason for denial (as required by the State)? They did not even double-check themselves to make sure their concerns were valid and accurate, let alone attempt to clarify things with us. Willing teachers and administrators from MCPS were prevented from helping us found this school, or giving us advice, or even voicing their opinions publicly, despite charter law. Our conversations with MCPS were subject to arbitrary ground rules such as “no direct communication”, “no questions regarding the adequacy of our plans”, “no written responses to questions.” Open and direct communication is a necessary part of the complicated process of planning for a school. We hope the obstructions we encountered will now be put aside, and we can openly and directly talk with the MCPS staff we hire, as well as content experts from the administration, as any MCPS school would do in order to properly plan its opening. Once this is allowed to happen, we are certain we can clear up any misunderstandings.

As I was listening to NPR in the after-fireworks traffic on the 4th, I heard Justice Sandra Day O-Connor talk about the problem of Americans not becoming involved in their society, not participating in the processes that govern their lives or contributing their own ideas because often they don’t realize how to do this, or realize that they are expected to. Having our students become more participatory members of society is not only part of our vision for this school, it is what we are trying to do as founders, by creating this school. Charter schools are about participation, about new ideas, and there is room and demand for more than just one in this county. This effort has taken the founding families over a year of constant attention and personal sacrifices because we believe that this kind of educational opportunity shouldn’t be reserved just for private schoolers, but should be available to all public school children in Montgomery County.    

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