UPPER MARLBORO – Two public charter renewals came before the Prince George’s County Board of Education last week for a first-reading vote, but only one will move on to the next phase.
On April 25, the county board of education could not move College Park Academy’s charter renewal forward due to the absences of a number of boardmembers and a few members’ hesitations. The board ultimately voted with six yes votes, one no and three abstentions (due to hesitation), which left the board without a majority.
Boardmember Edward Burroughs, III was the sole vote against the motion and said he did not feel comfortable supporting College Park Academy because he believes there were issues of access regarding how the school wants to reserve 35 percent of its seats for students from nearby neighborhoods.
“Students don’t determine what zip code they live in. They don’t determine if their parent works at the University of Maryland,” he said. “And so that is something that I truly am struggling with.”
The academy’s charter will now go back on the next board agenda as a first reader, while the charter for Imagine Foundations at Leeland will continue on to a vote at the next meeting.
Both of the charters were separate from a list on the board’s new business agenda so that a number of board members could talk specifics and have their questions answered about the logistics of the charter schools and their purpose in the community.
Boardmember Curtis Valentine specifically asked about Imagine Foundations’ several requests for waivers from county mandates including the in-house lottery process and district professional development.
School staff said, when talking with the charter’s executive team, that professional development should be handled on a “case-by-case basis rather than in totality exempting them.”
Andria McMichael, the regional director of the Maryland-based Imagine Schools, said the charter’s educators and educational leaders have dual standards to meet, in that both Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) and Imagine Schools have separate criterion for their teachers.
“We have expectations for our school leaders as well and we just want to get a balance,” she said. Where they’re not only getting the professional development that is needed from the district, but also getting the same leverage of professional development at a high level for Imagine Schools, with the same respect to both.”
In regards to the lottery waiver, the executive director said she feels the charter has the ability to conduct their own lottery system.
Burroughs pondered if Imagine Schools anticipated a different result from an Imagine-run lottery versus a PGCPS-run lottery. McMichael said it would probably be different because the school itself would be able to manage it, especially when it comes to parents that have entered their children into several different lottery lists across the county.
McMichael further clarified that “absolutely” all students would still have access to possibly enroll in the school through the lottery.
“I knew that would be the case and why I buzzed in to speak in favor of this renewal,” Burroughs said. “All kids deserve access to high quality schools and Imagine Leeland is definitely a high quality school.”
However, that was not how the boardmember felt when it came to the College Park-based charter, where he said he sees serious issues of access.
College Park Academy, which is located near the University of Maryland (UMD), is also a public charter school, but one that has both PGCPS and UMD playing a role in the curriculum.
Michael Poterala, a board member for the academy as well as the vice president and general counsel for UMD, said the charter school was created as a way for the university to give back to the surrounding community.
“The university has been quite open in the fact that, in opening this charter school, that one of its primary goals was to try to improve services to our local community,” he said. “We don’t view it as we’re doing it on behalf of the university; we look at it as the university doing a service to our immediate surrounding community and not at all to be disadvantaging anyone in the county.”
The issue at the core of discussion about the academy’s charter is one that came up during discussion last year on the same topic: access. In 2016, College Park Academy’s charter was renewed for only one year after similar debate.
Currently, the charter is requesting that 35 percent of its population be pulled from a local “catchment” area, meaning the school wishes to reserve 35 percent of its seats for students of nearby neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods include those directly adjacent to the university such as College Park, Berwyn Heights and University Park, potentially.
According to PGCPS documents, the current law allows public charters to “provide guaranteed placement through a lottery to students who live within the geographic attendance area for up to 36 (percent) of the available space of the charter school.”
However, a caveat to that law states the attendance area must have a median income equal to, or less than, the median income of Prince George’s County, which would likely force the charter to extend its catchment area beyond the university’s immediate suburbs.
Despite 65 percent of the school remaining open to all other students in the county, Burroughs expressed uneasiness about the reserved seats. In his opinion, the catchment stands in the way of equal access to all students – especially those in the southern area of the county.
“I want to vote for your contract today, but there is one aspect that I have deep concern about and that is the 35 percent en-catchment area,” he said. “I’m of the fundamental belief that all kids in Prince George’s deserve access to high quality opportunities. And they should have access at equal opportunity levels as everyone else.”
Burroughs said he understands the desire to help the area surrounding the university, but as a school board member it is his job to ensure students have equal opportunities and access.
Additionally, Boardmember Raaheela Ahmed said she didn’t feel the school’s upcoming expansion to house further grades and the minimal seats available would do much in the way of easing overcrowding Northern County. In response, though, Boardmember Dinora Hernandez said she felt any open seats created would help.
“This isn’t the solution to our overcrowding issues in the northwestern part of the county but anything would help. We are bursting at the seams,” she said.