Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)

On May 2, Roots & Branches Public Charter School announced the end of a short lived effort to open in Hampden’s Florence Crittendon Building for the 2011-12 school year. The school’s intention to open in Hampden was brought before the Hampden Community Council on April 25. Had the plan worked out, the new charter school would have sat five blocks south of Hampden Elementary/Middle #055.

That’s my neighborhood public school. I want to make it a place where every zoned family, including mine, would love to send their children. My son’s not even two. I’ve got time. And I’ve got friends. And I’m making more. And if there’s space, people from other parts of the city can vie for spots. It’s gonna knock your socks off.

It’s in a great location – a pretty 10-minute walk from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It’s just around the corner from The Avenue, a street of locally owned shops and restaurants that attracts people from in and around Baltimore. You can gorge here on freshly made soups and sweet potato fries and banh mi. You can get Indian food at a pizza parlor and chocolate from a store that sells shoes. You can buy an original painting and attend a free reading of new fiction in the same place. From east to west you can get your baby-jogger wheels inflated, pick out a longboard, and give cloth diapers a whirl. On your way back you can get an organic haircut and the deftest waxing north (or south) of the equator. (Tell Shannon I sent you.)

This neighborhood isn’t in need of a K-5 charter school. It’s in need of some love for its PK-8 public school. (Head Start included.)

Hampden #055 is already a good school. It has consistently met AYP. The new principal, Dr. Judith Thomas, is doing a lot with a lot less than she ought to have. Walk in and you see orderly classrooms, a decent gym, student artwork on the walls, a mural painted by a parent-artist. You see teachers engaging students in their work. You see an environment where students can learn. Around 75% of students at Hampden #055 qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS). They were born into poverty. But with all due respect to David Simon and Ed Burns, not all Baltimore City middle schools look like Season 4 of The Wire.

Like every other traditional public school in Baltimore City, Hampden #055 is suffering from budget cuts. It’s also suffering from the insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid. The issue isn’t race. It’s class. It’s just that Hampden is the only neighborhood where people are race-blind enough to see it. Because Hampden isn’t just poor. It’s white.

I founded a group to help out with our neighborhood school revival not two months ago – during what President Obama called “Education Month at the White House.” So I was not an objective party when I heard the news about Roots & Branches’ proposal to the Hampden Community Council. I immediately emailed my principal who called me 120 seconds later. I wrote emails to our city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and the executive director of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement, Michael Sarbanes. By 4:00 pm I was sitting in a child-sized chair at a child-sized lunch table in the #055 cafeteria ready to say my piece at a meeting of the Hampden Education Collaborative – a consortium of leaders from the many schools that currently operate here and of representatives of the Hampden Village Merchants’ Association, Hampden Family Center, and other neighborhood stakeholder groups. From BCPS, Tammie Knights of the Office of New Initiatives was in attendance, as was Julia Baez, a representative of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement. Mary Pat was there. So was a new friend who will send her son to Hampden next year, and a woman from the Village Parents who raised enough money to buy uniforms for every student at Margaret Brent Elementary – a school on the other side of Homewood Campus that’s got the same parent movement going for it that we have here.

I took the lead voicing concerns.

Why should a neighborhood with a critical mass of parental support for revitalizing a neighborhood school support a charter school, when the charter school has the potential to “cream” off the most engaged parents? What would happen to enrollment at Hampden – which is low – if a new charter school opened five blocks away? Charter schools and “traditional” public schools are funded per pupil. Fewer students means less money. What would happen to the budget? Why should homeowners support a local charter school when working to enhance the appeal of the neighborhood school has a greater shot at boosting home prices?

It’s not paranoid to think that charter schools are no friend to traditional public schools. The Maryland Charter Network Founders’ Manual – a 191 page handbook masquerading as a deterrent to initiating a charter school effort – advises founders to write annual appeal fundraising letters thusly:

Open with a story about a child who didn’t thrive in traditional public schools but has been (or could be) helped by your school or a similar school. Then describe the school and its education vision. Close with a specific request and action, such as “Please donate $25. Use the form provided or donate on our website, http://www.nameofcharterschool.org.” (emphasis added)

Why would a parent who supports her neighborhood school want that kind of solicitation going on in her school’s backyard?

Then there’s this cautionary word:

Be careful to describe the need [for funding] as the community’s need, rather than the school’s need. For example, if requesting funding for an after-school program be sure to discuss the community’s lack of appropriate safe places for children to go after school, as well as describing unique local threats such as gangs, drugs, crime, etc. that unsupervised children might face.

Deny that you have any interest in helping the students in your own school. Profess that you are helping the community, which desperately needs the services only you can provide. What the MCSN manual leaves out is the question of whether or not the community in which you ultimately locate really needs you there in the first place. (If this sounds to readers who remember The Closing of the American Mind like the moral relativist argument against colonialism, it should.)

The truth is, Roots & Branches wouldn’t have opened here. The location is tucked into a residential area with one lane, two way side streets. The person who wanted to lease them the property didn’t officially own it yet. And they came to the community two weeks prior to their deadline for securing a building. That’s not nearly enough time to get buy-in from their immediate neighbors and other stakeholders. It’s no wonder their motion was withdrawn before the HCC ever had a chance to vote.

But the whole fiasco begs the question of who charter schools actually serve. Is it the parent-founders who spend years on these efforts so their children can be guaranteed a spot? Is it the directors who are banking on salaries? Is it real estate developers who want to pay off mortgages or a school system that wants to relieve some of its financial burden?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that we could have leveraged the charter school’s circumstances for mutual benefit. But making a deal with a charter school can’t be the only route to improving a neighborhood public school. There’s gotta be another way. We just need a couple of years to work it out.

In the meantime, thank you, but no, to the opportunity to open a charter school in our backyard. Not until we get a chance to fix up the one out front.

Related Posts:

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

A Little Change from the Bottom Up






21 Responses to “Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)”

  1. It is 3 years later, and your child is entering kindergarten. Will you send him to your neighborhood school?


  2. Do your best to keep charters out of your neighborhoods. As a St. Louis City resident who is being beseiged by a pro-charter school Mayor, these are the worst things to happen to the promise of public education in a long, long time. I am so tired of my children’s schools losing resources every time some group of parents decides they want their “own” school so their kids don’t have to go to school with those “other” kids. Keep up the good fight and good luck.


  3. As a Hampden resident and parent of an 8 yr old. I would love if my neighborhood school was a decent place to send my child….but it’s not! I cannot count on both hands how many of my friends have left the neighborhood or sent their kids to charter or private schools because of the ‘atmosphere’ at Hampden Elem/midd. I have a neighbor with a black child who had to pull her child from that school because of the racial bullying she endured. The principal and the school board ignored her complaints and the complaints of several other families who have had bullying problems. I won’t let my son play on the school playground on the weekends because of the inappropriate behavior coming from the children (and parents) in the neighborhood. Look, I get your point. I agree it would greatly improve the neighborhood if the school was a nice place to send our kids, but A LOT of us have been trying to do this for years. If the school and the city aren’t willing to see the serious problems going on inside itself it isn’t going to be fixed. Good luck to you, but I’m betting that you will be sorry that there isn’t another option for you in a few years.


    • lm – About two months ago, a small group of parents responded to a request by a representative of Hampden Elem/Middle to move some furniture on a Sunday. We played on the playground while we waited, with a young woman and her 18 month old daughter. The dads hung out on the steps. A couple with a dog walked by and said, “Now these are the kind of hoodlums I can get used to.” The WHAM! Parent Co-op is having a meet-up/clean-up on the playground at Hampden on Saturday, June 4, from 10am-1pm. It would be great if you and your friends would come.


  4. I would be very surprised if Edit remains in Baltimore City 3 years from now when the reality sets in about trying to get a decent education for her kids.


  5. Finally people are taking note of a troubling truth – charters are not usually what they say they are. Thier professional writers spin whenever and whatever they want, they manipulate the press, fear-monger shamelessly (“the other schools are out to get us!”), and then shut down parents or families who question anything (“oh, well, Charters are not for everyone! See ya”). Some are more mercenary than others. They want the money and the real estate that Baltimore City Schools holds. Often their students body is filled with kids of “founders” (what a pretentious term, as if they actually invented something!) “Founders” get first dibs on any “spot” and VIP treatment from their staff. Is this what we want education to be? Not for everyone? Run by private corporations? With murky, at best, accountablity. It’s going to take years to see how wrong, and how naive, and lied to, we were. I hope truly public, non-corporate schools survive.


    • As a parent of a child in a charter school (and a founder) we do not get vip treatment!!! The 95% of the staff does not know who the founders are! and there are a limited amount of founder slots a school can have, and… that is usually exhausted in the first few years! And,,,, these founders have used their time and resources to help these schools get off the ground. Some charters are started by parents/teachers who don’t want to leave the city but their zoned school is not an option. It is a struggle to get a space, I don’t know why you think there is $ and real estate in city schools. These schools need to find organizations that can help them rent/lease space. PLEASE get all the facts before making comments.


      • Jim,
        First hand observation for me. I observed a teacher leave her classroom to an aide so that she could respond to a founder’s kid’s complaint about the cafeteria food (“Can we call my Mom about this?) the kid already knew she was a VIP. One anecdote of many. I saw staff jump when VIP founders approached, and routinely ignore “regular” parents. If you think the staff doesn’t know who the founders, CEO’s and other VIP’s are, you are trying to fool yourself. Further, which is it, do they deserve special treatment because they’ve done more work and “used their time and resources”, or are they anonymous. Ask Catholic schools how much their facilities are worth if you think Baltimore City School’s real estate is worthless. As for the cash, I guess you didn’t see the May 22 article in the Sunpaper – Charters will receive $9,300 per pupil, compared with the traditional schools’ $5,000 per pupil. And – Remember anything and everything the school buys belongs to the people named on the Charter’s non-profit application, not the taxpayers. And – founders kids get first available “slots”, while the other kids go to a lottery.


  6. Thank you for writing this thoughtful post. As a Hampden resident for nearly 10 years, I have watched my friends make choices regarding where to send their children to school, by either entering the charter school lottery, or moving out of the area. I am glad to hear that there are people like you committed to supporting the local schools, in our “own backyard.”


  7. Be careful Edit or you will be painted with that worn out “defender of the status quo” paint brush. You are absolutely correct in your concerns, charter schools are not assets to any community in that a great or good public or private school in a community are selling points. Since charter schools have open enrollment there is no incentive for anyone to move into a community where a great charter school has been established. I don’t see all of the great Charles Villages parents who send there children to Montessori moving to Greenmount.

    And Mark – “Opposing school choice may make sense today, but not in the long term if we really want great schools.” You have that backward my friend. The best option is to give every child a chance at an excellent school. The current reform methods will at max address 10% to 20% of the population.


  8. If we put as much effort into helping our local public school as we do for founding and setting up these charter schools, our Baltimore City Public Schools would be the kind of place you’d want to send your child. I live in a beautiful neighborhood with lots of kids, and none of them will probably attend the public school that is only a few blocks away. Instead, their parents will pay for them to go to private school, Catholic School, or pray they win the lottery to get into a Charter School across town. Or, even worse, they will move to Baltimore County just for the schools. Everyone is turning their backs on the public schools. There are good teachers there and good opportunities there if we support them.


    • After >3 years of putting in plenty of effort, let me tell you that there are failing neighborhood schools who see involved and active parents as pain in the butt and will encourage you to find a school that is a better fit for your child. You can’t generalize that all neighborhood schools are willing and excited about parental input and support. For entrenched administrators this is totally not the case. I’m not sure that it’s always the case, but in my experience charter schools are MUCH more interested in figuring out ways to let parents be involved in meaningful ways. They are much more committed to their new approaches, so they spend lots of time explaining why they do what they do. Maybe some or even many neighborhood schools are like that, but in my experience… not so much. Maybe, if we’re all lucky, that fact that charter schools do a better job involving parents will lead to better outreach in all schools. But if you’re not lucky, and you have a kid with specific needs…I got tired of trying to convince people that my child was a plus for their school and used that as my litmus test in school choice.


  9. Who do charter schools actually serve? The kid you’re supposed mention in that fundraising letter; the kid who is totally unserved by their neighborhood school. If that kid happens to be the child of a parent-founder, fine, but given how few founders there are, that’s not typical. Another person served by charters would be the teacher who has similarly not been served by the school they have worked in. The teacher with the vision of running a school a different way, if only they had the freedom.

    Look, I’m not saying these failures are to be found at #55. I have no idea. Clearly, you feel you’ve got a great community and administration. If there’s a general agreement with you I would guess the location selection had to do with a free building in a neighborhood perceived as safe. I have a hard time believing that charter founders are looking for a strong successful neighborhood school to beat up on and drive to ruin when they pick a location.

    I’m happy that you feel you’ve found a successful neighborhood school, especially if you still have the same feeling when you have a kid at the school or better yet several years later. I hope you realize if that is the case, you are luckier than most navigating through Baltimore’s schools. Try to have a little sympathy for us unlucky schmucks who muddle through doing the best we can for our kids and our schools.


  10. Good luck. I share your feelings totally. I had a very good experience in my own little neighborhood schools in Seattle and have had them for my girls, 5 & 8, in down-at-heel Jersey City and now tonier South Orange. But making the local school great is where, in my opinion, energy is best spent.


  11. Goes to show how flimsy the case for BCPS really is when public school advocates are so desperately against competition, something which in every other field is good for everyone, and the only way to ensure innovation and excellence.

    Like it or not, parents have always and will always have choices- they choose in droves to leave the city, or at least a better elementary district, or make the sacrifices necessary for private or parochial tuition (Baltimore has the best schools in the nation).

    Opposing school choice may make sense today, but not in the long term if we really want great schools.

    Oh and Hamden being ‘race blind’ wow, guess you haven’t been here long?


    • Compete is precisely what neighborhood schools ought to be given a chance to do. Right now it’s an unfair fight. Charters can raise money through 501 (c)(3)s. They have boards of well connected and culturally capitaled professionals on their side. Neighborhood schools don’t. Charters have budgets for advertising. Neighborhood schools don’t. Nor do they have fundraising committees. It’s precisely in response to the charter school movement that neighborhood schools – the ones that are in neighborhoods with the resources to help them do so – will get stronger and begin to innovate. BCPSS is pushing for the creation of new charter schools with the best intentions for creating stronger neighborhood schools, but no strategy.

      Per the NBOA, which you can link to at http://www.nboa.net/join_nboa.aspx, based on the 2000 census, 5% of households in Baltimore can afford one full private school tuition. I imagine that figure is lower now. Tuition is rising at a rate that far outpaces the rise in the Consumer Price Index. “The sacrifices necessary for private or parochial tuition” are not sacrifices most working people are capable of making. And until neighborhood schools improve, leaving the city will continue to be a forced choice.

      I can’t wait for “the long term.” I need an excellent school in three years. I can’t wait for the evolutionary process of natural selection to weed out the least fit. So, yes, I’m thinking about helping my school today. So are those parents who are founding charter schools.

      If you think I don’t know that Hampden is reputedly a neighborhood of Bob Ewells, you “misunderestimate” me.


      • I don’t buy your “unfair” advantages list:
        Neighborhood schools (and private schools for that matter) in my experience, always have a 501 (c)(3) organization – the PTA or an Alumni foundation or something.
        In an “up and coming” neighborhood like Hampden I would think you would have plenty of well connected business people that would love to get the PR associated with supporting a school. That certainly seems to happen in Federal Hill and Fells Point neighborhood schools.
        I’ve never seen paid advertising for any charter school, beyond fliers for silent auctions or fairs, which I’ve seen for neighborhood schools as well.
        Every school has a fundraising subcommittee. If they have a PTA or the like they have fundraising. If you haven’t seen gift-wrap or pizza or candy catalogs from neighborhood schools, you don’t answer your door or go grocery shopping.



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