EDGEWATER – The small girl with mocha skin and fluffy dark hair pulled back into a braid stood behind the podium at the front of her school library. Although she was too short to reach the microphones, fifth-grader Ebony Acton welcomed the governor to her school in a loud, clear voice.
“Thank you, Governor Ehrlich, for giving my family and others the freedom to choose where we want to go to school,” said Acton, who was dressed in a long khaki skirt and grey “Class of 2013” T-shirt.
Sitting on her left, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich beamed his approval. The presence of the state’s chief executive at KIPP Harbor Academy near Annapolis was a symbolic reinforcement of the importance the administration is putting on charter schools.
Ehrlich said public schools and charter schools must work together. “It’s absolutely essential and offers very healthy competition.”
The academy is among the first 15 charter schools to open in the state since the Maryland Public Charter Schools Act became law in 2003. Ehrlich announced Friday that another 15 charter schools are scheduled to open in the state next year.
A charter school receives public money but operates independently under an agreement with its local school board. Education reformers like the schools because they have been shown to improve behavior and increase academic success of underprivileged students.
Charter schools are open to all students and are free.
Housed in a nondescript, red brick building used by Sojourner Douglass College at night, KIPP Harbor Academy is home to about 50 fifth-graders.
To welcome the governor and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick on Friday morning, the school’s students, mostly black and Hispanic, sat on the floor, chanting their multiplication tables loudly and in unison.
Afterward, Grasmick spoke with the students.
“Do you know what a pioneer is?” Grasmick asked. After receiving a satisfactory answer of “someone who does something for the first time,” she said, “You all are pioneers,” the first to be at the new charter school.
The administration’s commitment to charter schools goes beyond ceremonial appearances. The Governor’s Commission on Quality Education, led by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, called for the charter school law to be strengthened.
The committee’s report, released Sept. 14, said charter schools offer more choices to parents and the potential for improving student learning.
After posing for a picture with Acton, Ehrlich said, “It should not have been as difficult to pass that (charter school) bill as it was.
“We should have been the first state, not the 40th” in the country to implement a charter school law, he said.
“These kids want to be challenged,” Ehrlich said. “Did you see those faces? If you set high expectations, they will meet them.”
The state department of education has awarded 48 grants to charter schools worth about $3 million, Ehrlich said. Many of those schools are still in the planning stages.
Academy Principal Jallon Brown said her school opened in July and students are in class from 7:30 a.m. until 4 or 5 p.m. five days a week and attend classes every other Saturday. They also have up to two hours of homework each night. The academy is one of 45 KIPP schools in 15 states and Washington, D.C. The Knowledge is Power Program schools were created in 1994 in Houston. KIPP Harbor Academy intends to add one grade each year until 2008 when it will be a fifth-through-eighth grade middle school.