Frederick County Public Schools’ superintendent is set to recommend the board of education conditionally approve Sabillasville Elementary’s application to transform into a public charter school.
In a presentation published online ahead of Wednesday’s board meeting, FCPS superintendent Terry Alban laid out her recommendation that plans for a charter school with an environmental science-focused curriculum move forward, but only if it can meet a strict enrollment quota.
The seven-member board — which Alban isn’t a part of — is set to take a final vote on the issue Sept. 8.
“We were very excited by her recommendation,” said Alisha Yocum, president of Sabillasville’s Parent Teacher Organization. “All along, we’ve thought that this was a very viable option for keeping a school in the Sabillasville community, so we’re glad that she saw that.”
There was a catch, though.
Alban’s recommending the board grant conditional approval of a three-year charter for Sabillasville Environmental Public Charter School. But to stay afloat, she argued, the school should be required to prove by Dec. 1 of each year that it would meet its projected enrollment for the next year.
That means the school would have less than three months to find 161 students who could commit to enrolling in fall 2022.
“We think that that’s not really a very fair or feasible request,” Yocum said. “Especially given that all the other charter schools — their deadlines for the lottery process are usually around the March timeframe.”
The charter school in Sabillasville would offer a classical model of education, according to its application. The application emphasized that Frederick Classical Charter School has a waitlist of hundreds of students, indicating demand for other classical options in the county.
All but two of Sabillasville Elementary School’s roughly 70 student families have said they’d enroll in the charter school should it be approved, according to survey results in the application Yocum compiled.
And in surveys of families outside the Sabillasville region, another 70 families with more than 100 kids between them expressed interest in attending.
Still, Yocum said, it could be difficult to get all of those families to commit in just a few months — especially when the new school year seems so far away and complications from the coronavirus pandemic are still a factor.
“I highly doubt that parents are going to be making decisions right now in September of what they’re going to do with their child in the 2022-23 school year,” she said.
Plus, the school is applying for a startup grant of $900,000 from the Maryland Department of Education. Advocates won’t know if they’ve received that until November, Yocum said.
That means they won’t be able to access those funds to launch a marketing campaign and generate more interest in the school.
The development marks the latest step in Sabillasville’s long fight to save its school from closure. A small, tight-knit mountain community situated in the county’s northwest corner, Sabillasville depends on the school building to serve as its social center, residents say.
But over time, enrollment at the elementary school has dwindled. Board of education members have argued the cost to maintain the aging building is too great to justify keeping it open. If Sabillasville Elementary shuttered, its students would be bussed down the mountain to attend one of nearby Thurmont’s two elementary schools.
The school’s unique location in the county and proximity to mountains and plenty of farmland inspired its focus on environmental science. The charter application outlines ideas for partnerships with Catoctin Mountain National Park, the county farm bureau and other groups.
Yocum and other community members planned to speak at Wednesday’s board meeting to express their concern with this year’s Dec. 1 enrollment guideline.
Still, Yocum said she was feeling optimistic.
“I think going into this, everyone had doubts about what our community and our founding group could do,” Yocum said. “Over the last year, we’ve spent a lot of time and dedication in really thinking this school through, and it really does provide a unique educational opportunity for all of Frederick County.”