- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

FREDERICK, Md. A parent-created mural depicting rolling valleys through the changing seasons lines the entrance to classrooms in a Frederick school. Nearby, a parent monitors the lunch period while another counts take-home fliers in the office lobby. In a classroom, children offer portions of their lunch to a fellow student who lost his.

Welcome to Monocacy Valley Montessori School, Maryland's first charter school, where learning coexists with teamwork and community.

On Aug. 26, about 168 students in kindergarten through sixth grades entered the school for the first time. Another 150 children from across the county are on the waiting list for a chance to win a lottery and admittance. School organizers said they expect to add seventh and eighth grades next year.

"It's a great success, given what we had to do to get everything in place," said Leslie Mansfield, founder and president of the school's governing council. "It was hard to see the downside of opening a school when our hearts were so in it."

The school stresses parental involvement and building a sense of community, parents and teachers said. Former Frederick school board president and current governing council member Norman Quist said parents have been important to the school's successful opening.

"They painted rooms, cleaned toilets, led recess," he said. "You name it, they have done it. They did and still do work no one wants to do."

Mr. Quist's daughter, Claire, 6, attends first grade at the school. He said this type of instructional program works best for her.

"It develops a child's natural inquisitiveness about learning that drives the rest of a child's learning years," he said. "That is often lost in the public school system."

The school has a principal, six teachers and six instructional assistants and is ruled by the governing council made up of parents.

It uses Montessori principles, which stress that children guide their own education. Teachers don't give grades, but instead provide parents with detailed evaluations of their children. Testing is done less often than in public schools.

"A farmer doesn't constantly dig up seeds to see if they are growing," said Wendy Fisher, the first-to-third-grade teacher, who transferred from a private Montessori school in Montgomery County.

"In public schools, children get so bogged down by checks and balances, the constant 'you're wrong, no-no, don't-don't.' Here, they are starting to come to school with a smile."

Miss Fisher said she has never seen such a sense of community at a school.

"This group of people had to work so hard to start this school that there is an extra sense of closeness," she said.

Charter-school advocates applauded the Frederick school board's decision to open the school, which could pave the way for more charter schools in the state.

Maryland, which has long resisted charter schools, remains one of 13 states that lack charter school legislation. The General Assembly failed to pass such legislation three years in a row, making start-up charters ineligible for federal seed money. County school boards in Maryland also have resisted approving and providing funds for the independently controlled schools. In Montgomery County, school officials last March again rejected the application of the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School.

There are an estimated 2,300 charter schools around the nation, including about three dozen in the District.

The idea for the school was planted three years ago, followed by two years of planning by a group of 40 families, and appeals to the school board for support. The school board approved a charter policy last year the second school district in the state to do so and in June the Frederick County Board of Education approved the charter school 6-1.

"What saved us was our optimism and our naivete," Mrs. Mansfield said. "People helped us so much, donating furniture, services."

School organizers said they secured a portion of a renovated warehouse north of the city earlier this year, got supplies and donated furniture and moved in. Inside, the school has large open areas divided by partitions for five classrooms that combine grades 1-3 and 4-6, with a separate area for kindergarten. Books and globes are everywhere.

In one area, five children sit on the carpet with teacher Kim Charmatz and use a game with small pins to learn division. Nearby, a few children read quietly while a sixth-grader corrects a fifth grader's book report. Other students sit at small tables and work on geography and science.

The school, which has no cafeteria or playground, provides bagged lunches and teachers use the fields behind the school for recess. The school is building a library.

Parents said they are glad they are sending their children to this school.

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