Frederick County will not be getting a new outdoor charter school — at least for now.
Disappointed that the Frederick County Board of Education voted on Oct. 24 to reject the proposal, advocates for the Frederick Outdoor Discovery Charter School said they needed time to regroup and plan their next move.
The group can either appeal the rejection to the Maryland Board of Education or revise the proposal and reapply for a third time next year.
“We need time to decide what to do,” the school’s founding Chairwoman Djohariah Pfaehler said after the board announced its decision.
“Of course, we are disappointed,” Pfaehler said. “We were feeling that we had addressed their concerns.”
The proposed Frederick Outdoor Discovery Charter School would have educated 132 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, focusing on natural sciences, community-based studies and outdoor education.
Originally, the school was modeled after the Seneca Creek Charter School, which was rejected by the Montgomery County Board of Education in July 2011.
The school would use the “Environment as an Integrating Context” or EIC model, which incorporates the environment on all levels of curriculum.
The model was developed by the California-based State Education and Environment Roundtable in collaboration with 12 state education departments, including Maryland.
But school officials at last week’s meeting questioned various aspects of the proposal, saying they were unsure that the applicants had a solid plan for running their school.
Among other issues, board members asked whether the group would have enough students to fill the school and raised concerns about low student achievement at other Maryland schools using the EIC model.
When school system officials reviewed the charter school proposal earlier this month, they looked at the academic achievement of the six schools in Maryland that use the EIC model. They found that four of those schools failed to meet state test goals in 2011 and, in the past, three of the six had been identified by the state for improvement.
Six board members voted unanimously to reject the proposal. Board member Donna Crook was absent.
One of the biggest concerns was with the school’s proposed curriculum, which board members said lacked cohesiveness and specificity. While it listed numerous learning objectives for students, the curriculum failed to show how teachers would get students to master those objectives, board members said.
“I am a charter school supporter,” school board member James “Jimmy” Reeder, Jr. said. “But I thought the presentation was a bit disjointed.”
Other board members had the same concerns. They encouraged the group to revise the proposal and apply again next year.
The board echoed many of the questions raised by county Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban, who recommended earlier this month that the school be rejected. Alban expressed concerns about curriculum, facilities, math materials, and the safety and security of the students.
Alban and her staff evaluated the new proposal on 64 indicators and determined that the proposal did not meet the school system’s charter school requirements in 27 of those areas.
School system officials on Oct. 24 also voiced concern about the proposed curriculum, saying the charter school applicants would need to be more specific in directing their teachers to achieve their classroom objectives.
“I want to understand how you are going to pull this off,” said Steve Lockard, the school system’s deputy superintendent.
But the charter school advocates defended their proposal.
Pfaehler said that as part of their 700-page application, founders looked at both Maryland’s current curriculum standards and the Common Core curriculum objectives. They also listed activities that can help students reach those objectives, Pfaehler said.
“It was not a mishmash; it was very clearly delineated,” she said. “We have created a cohesive curriculum.”
The other schools that county school officials looked at are not using the EIC model and do not have teachers trained in its methods, said Krisna Becker, one of the school’s founders.
Recently, the Frederick Outdoor and Discovery Charter School was awarded a three-year, $488,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which reviewed the school’s proposed curriculum and gave it 15 points out of 15, applicants told the board.
“We have a very solid application,” Becker said.
Organizers were hoping to rent a facility for the school at Camp Round Meadow, near Catoctin National Park.
It was the second time that county officials have denied the Frederick Outdoor Charter School proposal.
In November of last year, the school board rejected the proposal, partially because of concerns with its proposed curriculum.
At the time, charter school advocates had requested they use the county public school curriculum until they developed the EIC model, but school officials were uncomfortable with approving a school without seeing plans for its new program.
Alcohol policy reviewed
The school board on Oct. 24 also discussed the effects of changes in the school system’s alcohol policy for both students and staff.
The board changed its alcohol policy in 2010, limiting restrictions to school grounds only.
Before the change of the policy, student athletes could be suspended from their sport if they were caught drinking, regardless of whether the offense occurred on school grounds, at a school event, at home or at a party.
School board members had not looked at the policy since that change and wanted to see if it had resulted in more incidents of alcohol abuse off school grounds.
But according to Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) and Frederick Police Chief Kim Dine, who both spoke at the board meeting, the policy change has not resulted in a spike in underage drinking incidents off school grounds.
The sheriff’s office issued nine citations related to underage drinking in 2009, 14 in 2010, 11 in 2011 and 16 so far this year, according to Jenkins.
However, Jenkins said that 13 of this year’s cases were tied to two incidents.
Dine also told the board he has not noticed a significant increase.
While board members were pleased with that finding, they said they need to continue their conversation about their alcohol policy, especially as it relates to employees.
Board President Angie Fish said she wants the board to discuss possibly limiting the reach of the policy. Currently, the policy does not allow school system staff members to drink at special functions even if students are not present.
The school system's alcohol policy came under public scrutiny in the spring of 2009 after an incident that involved current school board member Brad Young.
Before being elected to the board, Young served as softball coach at Walkersville High School. In 2009, school officials abruptly terminated his contract after a parent brought alcohol to an end-of-the year party that Young hosted at his home for the team and their families.
Young said neither he nor any of the students drank alcohol at the party, but school officials determined that he violated the school system alcohol policy.
They considered Young's party a team function, and the policy at the time prohibited coaches from possessing, drinking or distributing alcohol while performing their official duties and representing the school system.
Young fought the decision with wide support from the community, and eventually school officials reinstated him as a head softball coach at Walkersville High.
When Young was elected to the board, he played a major role in changing the policy, limiting it to incidents that occur on school grounds and off school time when it involves student athletes.