Charter schools occupy a growing—and controversial—niche in American education. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of charter schools operating across the country increased more than threefold, from 2,000 to 6,900. Some 2.8 million students were enrolled in charter schools in the fall of 2015, the most recent school year for which statistics are available. Charter schools allow for more flexibility and creativity in the classroom, allowing families to choose schools that best fit their children’s needs. In neighborhoods with struggling public schools, many parents find charter schools to be a lifeline.
Yet these schools face struggles. A recent study found that public charter schools receive nearly $6,000 less per pupil on average than public schools. Many are concerned that charter schools exacerbate inequality within districts, by shifting funds away from neighborhood schools. Charter school leaders must negotiate financial, bureaucratic, and political challenges while addressing the needs of students, parents, teachers, and staff.
We spoke with three School of Education graduates who have been instrumental in starting charter schools. Meredith Stolte, MAT ‘03, is working to open an elementary/middle school in Aurora, CO, that will offer meditation, tai chi, and other programs to foster multifaceted growth in children. Joseph Amprey, MEd ‘70, is a longtime dean and professor at a Pennsylvania university who serves as a founding board member at a high school for students seeking a second chance. And Allison Shecter, MS ‘93, founded the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School a decade ago, in an effort to bring the benefits of the Montessori method to underrepresented students.
Allison Shecter, MS ’93, Founder and Director, Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, Baltimore, MD
Allison Shecter, left, principal of Baltimore Montessori School, greets students as they enter the building. Photo credit: Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun
Allison Shecter was struck by the happiness of students at the private Montessori school that her daughter attended. “The children seemed very joyfully engaged in the learning process,” she said. “It seemed like a beautiful way to learn.”
But Shecter, who worked in professional development for the Baltimore County Public School system, was saddened the benefits of the Montessori model were out of reach for many families. And Shecter, a longtime special educator, wanted to see students with special needs engage in the hands-on, child-directed learning that characterizes Montessori schools.
Her first step was to create a Montessori-based program for parents and toddlers in the basement of a church in Baltimore. That core group of parents eventually grew into the board of directors for the school they named the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School. The parents petitioned the city school board for a charter, secured a nearby building, and began renovations. The school opened in the fall of 2008 with a small staff and 168 students between the ages of 3 and 9.
Today, about 450 students in grades PK-3 through 8 attend the school, and more than 1,400 are on the waiting list. Students tend gardens, care for bees and chickens and take part in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, including chess and step team. The school’s test scores and attendance rates are among the best in the city.
Ten percent of students are from the Greenmount West neighborhood surrounding the school, and the remainder hail from 26 zip codes. The school has a strong reputation for meeting the needs of special ed students in an “inclusive and respectful” manner, Shecter said.
Shecter, who continues to serve as the school’s director, said her biggest challenge is wrestling with the school system over funding and districtwide requirements. But she is grateful for the spirit that has grown in the school. “Our kids are really active and really expressive. They chat with adults in the hallway, they hold open the door. They are intentional about grace and courtesy.”
Meredith Stolte, MAT ’03, Co-founder, Aurora Community School in Aurora, CO
Jessica Martin (left) and Meredith Stolte
When Meredith Stolte and Jessica Martin moved to Aurora, Colorado, four years ago, they didn’t know each other. But they soon realized they had a lot in common. Both were working as instructional leadership coaches in the local public school system. Both had attended Johns Hopkins–Martin earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and Stolte had received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from the School of Education. And they shared a vision of what a school could be.
“One of the things missing from a lot of schools is the idea that children are whole people,” said Stolte. “We wanted to serve the children and their families as a whole, their physical, social and emotional needs.”
In 2017, Stolte and Martin started meeting with local families to hear their needs. Based on input from parents, they decided to create a K-8 school where learning would be project-based, enabling children to pursue interests in specific topics. Social and emotional learning would be emphasized. Children would practice meditation, tai chi, and healthy conflict resolution alongside traditional academics. “A lot of time, only privileged children have access to these kinds of resources,” Martin said.
The two women applied and were approved for a charter license in the spring of 2018. They’ve spent this academic year working to find and renovate a building, raise funding, hire a staff, and recruit families. And they’ve come to realize things that are easy to take for granted—such as internet access—take considerable time and money. “We’ve had our eyes opened to how much else goes into building a school: the politics, finances, and marketing,” said Stolte.
It’s been a hectic year, as both women have continued to work full-time for the school system while caring for their families. But their efforts have paid off. The Aurora Community School is slated to open in the fall with a kindergarten, first, second, and sixth grades. Excitement is growing in the community, Martin said. “There’s a real eagerness to be part of what is being built,” she said.
Joseph Amprey, MEd ’70, Founding Board Member, I-LEAD Charter School,
Joseph L. Amprey Jr.
Photo credit: Susan L. Angstadt/Reading Eagle
Joseph Amprey was a longtime dean and professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania when a city councilman from the nearby town of Reading approached him about starting a charter school.
Angel Figueroa, the councilman, hoped to create a school that would meet the needs of students who had dropped out or been suspended from the city’s public schools. Amprey, who has a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins and a doctorate from American University, was the host of a local television program about diversity and Figueroa was a frequent guest.
“We felt that the Reading school district didn’t meet the needs of many children,” Amprey said. “Most of our students had had a bad experience at Reading High, which is a very large school. They got suspended or had failed out. We thought we could meet their needs with smaller classes and having a greater sense of community.”
The Institute for Leadership, Education, Advancement and Development Charter School, or I-LEAD, opened in 2011. The curriculum is geared to the needs of the students, who are primarily Latino or Black. Students are prepared to either continue their education or join the workforce. A significant portion of the students come from low-income families, and the school offers help for those experiencing homelessness.
As a board member, Amprey attends regular meetings and visits the school throughout the year, mentoring students. Last year, Amprey, along with other board members, fought to keep the school open after the school district attempted to revoke its charter, citing low standardized test scores. The school appealed the decision to the state and won, although the future is far from secure.
“We always deal with the possibility that we could close,” Amprey said. “But I find it really inspiring to be part of this underdog school.”