It took one rejection by the school board, one unexpected delay and almost three years of planning and advocacy, but the Frederick Classical Charter School is finally starting to take shape.
Energized by last month’s appointment of their first principal, the school’s founders are finally ready to recruit teachers, move forward with the construction of their building and gear up to hold their first student-selection lottery in March.
If everything goes as planned, the school — which will be the first in Frederick County to teach a “classical” curriculum — should be ready to welcome its first 280 students in kindergarten through sixth grade in the fall, according to Suzanne Middleton, a parent and community outreach director at the school.
The Frederick Classical Charter School borrows ideas from the classical education movement by using the Socratic method, in which the teacher raises questions for students to discuss, keeping up a disciplined class discussion.
Students will be taught grammar, logic and rhetoric in different stages of a child's development. In kindergarten to fourth grade, they will learn grammar, not just in terms of linguistics but the fundamental knowledge and skills of all subjects. In grades five through eight, students focus on logic, using reasoning to understand previous learning and acquire more knowledge.
Initially, the charter school was slated to open in the fall of 2011, and last year founders received 430 applications for 280 available slots. Middleton expects to get at least as many when the school holds its student selection lottery this year.
Although charter schools are a part of the public school system, they are typically run by parents and receive taxpayer funding.
In Maryland, charter schools are required to hold an admissions lottery to ensure that every student has an equal chance of getting in. Charter schools are allowed to reserve a small number of seats for the children of founders.
The date for the lottery has not yet been set, but organizers expect to know soon when local families can sign up to participate in the process, Middleton said.
“It feels more real than ever,” she said.
The Frederick Classical Charter School will be run by Frederick Classical Charter School Inc., a nonprofit organization created by a group of local parents who came together in 2009 because of shared concerns with the direction and focus of Frederick County Public Schools.
The group’s leaders questioned why the school system does not teach history chronologically and were the first to fight the use of TERC math, a disputed curriculum that takes the emphasis away from standard algorithms and encourages students to use a variety of methods to reach a solution.
By the time county schools decided to drop the controversial curriculum, the group had started plans for a charter school that would have a traditional, fact-oriented approach to math.
The Frederick Classical Charter School ultimately aims to educate 360 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
It will teach Spanish classes, use Latin to explain the origins of the English language and, unlike public schools, teach reading based on phonics, in which students learn to "sound out" letters and connect them into words.
The school would also teach history chronologically and use it as the basis for teaching other subjects. For example, students will learn biology while they study ancient history, astronomy and science while learning about the Middle Ages, chemistry while studying the Renaissance and physics while learning modern history.
When the school opens, it will be the third charter school in Frederick County, which is also the home to the Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School in Frederick — the first charter school in Maryland. The county’s second charter school, the Carroll Creek Montessori Charter School, opened in Frederick this fall.
A rocky road
Although plans for the Frederick Classical Charter school have been in the works since 2009, the school founders ran into one setback after another as they worked to get school board approval and set up a building.
In November 2010, the Frederick County Board of Education denied the charter school application based on concerns with the school’s curriculum and proposed building, which at the time was based in an industrial zoning area.
But just a month later, a newly elected school board member majority reversed the decision of their predecessors and gave the school conditional approval, based on finding a new building.
Charter advocates then tried to partner with the Frederick Alliance for Youth, a group dedicated to improving conditions for youth in the west side of Frederick and developed plans to lease a 45,000-square-foot building that the group was supposed to build on the south side of U.S. 40, off Hillcrest Drive.
That agreement fell through because the alliance could not get money for the building, leaving advocates for the Frederick Classical Charter scrambling to find a new space.
In November 2011, the school board approved a new building plan that aimed to locate the school at 8420 Gas House Pike in Frederick. But in March, after advocates asked again to change their building plans, the board decided to delay the school opening for another year, until the fall of 2013.
After years of those struggles, advocates now say they are making progress toward that goal and finally feel confident that the school will become a reality.
The group now has an agreement with St. John’s Properties to construct a 30,000 square feet building at 8445 Progress Drive in Frederick, Middleton said. A small part of the building is already completed, and the company is set to start construction of the rest of the building in February, she said.
The group also reached a major milestone this year, when the school board on Nov. 14 approved the appointment of Jacqueline Piro as principal for the school, where she will be known as the headmaster.
A former chairwoman of the history department at Governor Thomas Johnson High School, Piro has experience with both charter schools and classical curriculum, Middleton said.
Among other teaching positions, Piro has worked at the Academy of Detroit, an inner city charter school in Detroit, Mich., and at a private classical elementary school in Germantown.
“She has taught at every level in the gamut,” Middleton said. “She is very qualified and very energetic.”
Piro, who was one of 12 educators who applied for the position, impressed both charter school founders and school system officials who had to approve her appointment with her credentials and experience, according to Middleton.
Since her appointment, Piro was able to meet all of the school founders and their families and is ready to start the process of building the new school, from selecting teachers to creating a class schedule and making sure that it has the needed equipment to serve its future students.
Piro said she became interested in the Frederick Classical Charter School because of her own experiences with classical education.
“I knew that the families of our growing community needed an educational choice such as this,” said Piro, who lives in Middletown with her 4-year-old son, Max.
“Of course, I was motivated by my own desire to have this choice for my son’s education.”
Although starting a school is a daunting task, Piro said she is not intimidated and plans to focus her efforts on selecting the best possible teachers for the school and creating positive relationships with parents in the community.
Over the next few months, she will also work on developing the school’s handbook, creating her schedule and ensuring that she has all the instruction materials necessary for the success of students, Piro wrote in an email.
The jobs for teachers at the school, which include 14 classroom positions, have already been announced internally, and the school system will give preference to any current teachers who are interested, according to Middleton.
Once internal candidates are selected, the school system will post the remaining positions to external candidates, she said.
“A lot of young teachers have either studied the classical approach or are excited about it,” she said.
Under current plans, the school founders plan to open with 280 students in kindergarten through the sixth grade. The school hopes to add seventh grade students next year and eighth grade the year after, Middleton said.
In the meantime, Middleton said she is confident about the future of the school now that Piro has met the new school community and is starting to generate support for the project.
“Her appointment has given us a way more favorable attention,” Middleton said. “They (school officials) are really very supportive of her.”