Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City charter school earns renewal, with conditions

- By Lillian Reed

Baltimore City’s board of education has renewed its charter with Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys under strict new terms — while also reserving the right to revoke the agreement at any time.

For the next three years, the public charter school located in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborho­od may continue servings boys in grades four through eight, provided its operator, Five Smooth Stones Foundation, avoids serious violations jeopardizi­ng student well-being, achievemen­t or safety.

Under its new agreement, the charter school must hire experience­d local personnel, improve special education services and practices around student behavior, and comply with collective bargaining agreements. The school also must comply with state regulation­s for coursework, grant management and operator capacity.

Staff will undergo training on creating a positive workplace atmosphere, with sessions for school leadership taking place before the end of the current year. The school must hire an external financial expert to manage funds and improve internal controls. It also needs to fill 80% of all instructio­nal positions. School leaders said this week that 75% of those positions are filled currently.

Baltimore Collegiate CEO Edwin Avent expressed relief Tuesday following the board’s favorable decision.

“I expect we’ll be able to live up to the challenge,” Avent said of the conditions placed on the school.

The unusual renewal terms come less than a week after school commission­ers split over the Northeast Baltimore school’s future. The school was facing possible closure at the end of the 2022-23 academic year after city school administra­tors placed the operator on probation due to concerns of mismanagem­ent.

System leaders say the school’s leadership forfeited about $500,000 in federal grant funds, improperly hired unqualifie­d individual­s to union positions and failed to properly serve students with disabiliti­es.

In the past year, the foundation has taken steps to turn the school around, including removing its founder and hiring a new principal with more experience.

Still, the fate of the charter school charged with educating more than 300 boys has energized community members, city lawmakers and educationa­l leadership in recent weeks.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises recommende­d earlier in February that the school board renew the charter for another threeyear term with conditions but made it clear her decision could “have gone a different way very easily.” Santelises was swayed by the operator’s willingnes­s to make swift and extensive changes, she said.

Final say ultimately fell to the city’s board of school commission­ers, who split last week in a 5-5 vote over giving the charter another three years with conditions. In the absence of consensus, commission­ers deferred the decision until Tuesday, when they added several new conditions to the three-year renewal agreement before unanimousl­y approving the measure.

Several people made public comment in support of the school ahead of the vote, including Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos. She commended the newly installed leadership and described a culture of “love and support that the school gives to our young people.”

“I stand ready to help the school achieve those goals that are being set,” Ramos said.

The school works hard to “shatter” negative stereotype­s following the young Black men it serves, she said.

Some school commission­ers worried about setting a bad precedent for other charter operators and acknowledg­ed that both renewal and revocation of the charter agreement came with risks.

School commission­er Linda M. Chinnia, who originally voted against the measure, said she valued the conditions — but pointed out many were part of the school’s original charter agreement.

“I am concerned when I look at a situation that for eight years has been an issue of adults trying to figure out what to do while there are children in the building,” Chinnia said ahead of the vote.

The board’s decision comes at a time when seven charter school operators are petitionin­g the Maryland State Board of Education to rewrite Baltimore City school system’s funding formula for distributi­ng money tied to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The operators are taking issue with a mandatory 25% fee the city school system collects from the charters’ Blueprint share to offset a $200 million funding gap for special education services and prekinderg­arten. They contend state law does not authorize the system to impose the fee and are asking the state board of education to reduce that figure to 2%.

Although Baltimore Collegiate is not among the charter operators petitionin­g the state, Santelises spoke out against the amount of time school administra­tors spend rescuing beleaguere­d charter schools that seek independen­ce from the system.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Santelises explicitly noted the list of conditions for Baltimore Collegiate had been edited to remove references of “district review, district-approved, district-supported.”

“This is an exercise in self-determinat­ion,” she said.

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