When the Montgomery County Board of Education approved the county’s first charter school, it only was after careful scrutiny of the school’s application.
The school board first denied the request from Community Montessori Charter School, and then approved it in July 2011 after a second review.
Board member Laura Berthiaume (Dist. 2) of Rockville said she is surprised the school system is not using the same amount of scrutiny when it comes to monitoring the school’s operations — specifically, the lottery it used to select students for the school.
The school was required under board policy to have the lottery before the start of its first school year in August after receiving more applicants than could be enrolled; the school received 254 applications for 70 spots.
No one from the school system attended when the school staged the lottery, and the school system did not monitor the process, according to Lori-Christina Webb, executive director in the Office of Deputy Superintendent of Schools.
Berthiaume was surprised to hear this, given the concern she and other school board members had that the lottery would be operate in a fair manner.
“I don’t know why we wouldn’t have overseen the operation to see that they were being compliant,” Berthiaume said. “We have not taken anything on trust before. I don’t know why we would take [the operation of the lottery] on trust.”
Webb said the school system left the responsibility of marketing and enrolling students to the school itself.
“The point of charters, as stated in state law, is to have a level of autonomy, so there is a balance between autonomy and accountability,” Webb said.
The charter school is run by Crossway Community, a nonprofit organization that, since 1990, has served low-income women and children and operated a Montessori school. Most of the children at the Montessori school came from the families they were serving.
When applying to create a charter school at their location, 3015 Upton Drive, Kensington, the organization was adamant that they continue to serve the same low-income population.
Maryland State Board of Education policies state charter schools must be open to all students in the county, and no students may be given priority unless a waiver is approved.
The state board denied two waivers from Crossway Community that asked to be able to give priority to low-income families and the families they served.
Board member Patricia O’Neill suggested the board add an amendment onto the school’s application to create a catchment area, where students from a certain geographic location would be given priority, but the board ultimately passed the application without the amendment.
During the application process, Berthiaume said she felt the catchment area for the downcounty area would have allowed the organization to serve the community they were looking for, and would have made it more likely they conduct a fair lottery.
Board member Michael Durso said in an email that, when looking at the enrollment numbers at the school, the “the disproportionate numbers from a particular [ZIP] does create questions.”
Of the 3- and 4-year-old students enrolled at the school, about 90 percent are from six ZIP codes in Kensington, Silver Spring or Colesville. Of those, about 24.3 percent are from 20895, the ZIP code the school is located in.
Of the students who applied to the school, about 75.6 percent were from those six ZIP codes, and about 14.6 percent were from 20895.
About 45.9 percent of students who applied from Kensington were enrolled, whereas about 20 to 39 percent of students who applied from the other most popular ZIP codes were enrolled.
Berthiaume, as well as board member Christopher Barclay, said they were not statisticians and did not want to attempt to evaluate the probability of the data.
They both said it would be more important to watch the data during the course of time.
Jacqueline Cossentino, director of strategic initiatives at Crossway Community, said the school used a program called Randomizer to conduct the lottery. The program divided students into two groups, depending on age, and then numbered students and pulled them randomly.
Running the program means “pushing a button,” Cossentino said.
She said the school is pleased with the diversity of the student body, both racially and socio-economically.
Cossentino said she thought the organization did a good job marketing the school, and thinks parents countywide knew it was opening. But the marketing consisted of setting up a classroom demonstration at Westfield Wheaton Shopping Center — which is 0.3 miles from the school — and gave handouts to the county’s health and human services department, Cossentino said.
She said she didn’t expect many parents from far away to apply; the school does not provide busing for students.
It was the school’s job to market the school, and the school system left it up to them, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.
“It is the job of Community Montessori to broadly market the school,” he said.
The board will review the school’s marketing and enrollment, and other requirements under the contract, at the time that their application is up for review, Barclay said.
The board reviews the four-year contract annually, according to the board’s charter school policy.
School system staff members have visited the charter school twice since school started, Cossentino said.
The school system is on new ground, and is learning how the relationship will work, Webb said.
The school is pleased with their relationship with the school system so far, Cossentino said.
“They have been extra supportive and it has been a true partnership,” she said.