Dance recommends two-year extension for struggling charter school

Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance is recommending the county's only charter school be given two more years to improve its sagging performance.

The school board will take a vote on whether to give Imagine Discovery a two-year extension of its charter on Aug. 21. The board has approved a one-year extension, but Dance said another year is needed in order to see if the school can collaborate with the school system and make improvements.

Imagine Discovery Public Charter School, started in 2008, underperforms schools in its area of the county and the school district as a whole. "The data is alarming to me, particularly in the mathematics arena," said Cornelia Bright Gordon, a school board member. "These children are falling further and further behind."

Only 38.6 percent of the school's sixth- and seventh-graders passed the Maryland School Assessments last school year, compared with 77.6 percent in the district. Reading scores were better, but they still fell below the county's performance. The school also has a lower percentage of special-education students than most schools and an average number of economically disadvantaged children.

"I want to make clear that we are not excited by the data we see," said Dance, who took over July 1. He agreed to recommend a two-year extension, he said, because the charter operator, Imagine Schools, was open to renegotiating its agreement and making changes the school system recommends.

Rodger Janssen, a board member, said he was particularly disturbed by the failure of the school to provide any classes targeted for gifted and talented students, a key component in the county system beginning in third grade. Janssen said gifted students who go through the middle school at Imagine Discovery might not be able to take higher-level classes in high school.

Several parents told the school board that they support the school and that their children love it.

Supporters of Imagine have said that the school system previously had not given the school enough autonomy, particularly in choosing staff. The school system would not let the charter operator fire the principal after two years of poor performance, according to Pat Crain, the regional director for Imagine Schools. In addition, he said, the school is not free to hire the teachers it wants, but must choose from those that the school system sends it.

Crain pointed out that the school's attendance is 2 percentage points higher than the district as a whole, and that its test scores improved in every grade except fifth.

He said that test scores of Imagine students should be compared to schools in the neighborhoods where they come from rather than the district as a whole.

"The data, while not great, is not as dismal," he said.

Students apply to the school and are chosen by lottery. School board member Michael Bowler said he supports the concept of school choice and believes that the school may not have been given enough autonomy to be successful. Bowler also pointed out that a number of schools in the county are low-performing.

"These are new times and new days and new leadership in Baltimore County," said Michael J. Collins, a board member. "I think there was a hostile attitude toward Imagine from the beginning."

In an earlier edition of the story, it was reported that the school board had taken a vote to extend the contract with the school for two years. A vote on that issue will take place on Aug. 21. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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