Sabillasville Elementary School

The Frederick County school board approved a charter plan Monday for Sabillasville Elementary School.

The existing Sabillasville Elementary School will be converted to a public charter school focusing on agriculture and environmental studies at the end of this school year, the Frederick County Board of Education decided Monday night.

The vote guarantees enrollment to the roughly 70 students who currently attend the school, located north of Thurmont in the Catoctin Mountains. It also means the charter school gets automatic control of the current Sabillasville Elementary building, rather than having to bid against others interested in the facility.

For the community activists lobbying to save their school from closure, Monday’s decision felt like clearing the last major hurdle in a years-long fight.

Alisha Yocum, president of Sabillasville’s parent teacher organization, was swarmed by cheering friends and neighbors after the vote, many of them wiping away tears.

“Farming and agriculture is the heartbeat of Frederick County,” said board member Jason Johnson. “I’m actually pretty jazzed for what you guys are going to be doing.”

Most charter schools are launched like independent start-ups, rather than through converting an existing public school. But if the board had gone that route for Sabillasville, it would have had to vote to close the school, then vote again to approve the charter.

That process would have opened up the school building to other bidders. And while the board had already green-lighted Sabillasville’s charter application, its approval came with the stipulation that the school secure a facility.

Conversion charters are most often granted to underperforming schools, which Sabillasville is not. In previous meetings, board members had expressed confusion over whether they were allowed to grant a conversion charter to Sabillasville under the complex laws that govern Maryland charter schools.

The board decided in September to favor a conversion charter if it were legal. After consulting with community members, lawyers and state officials, members determined it was.

“We’re forging new territory here, which is great,” said board member Liz Barrett, who has served on the three-person work group dedicated to the Sabillasville issue.

Yocum said all but four of the school’s current students signed letters committing to enrolling in the potential charter school. Adding them to the families across the county who have made the same commitment, the school has 191 students interested for the fall.

The board’s conditional approval of the charter required 160 students to commit by Dec. 1. The building’s state-rated capacity is 161. After Sabillasville’s current students and their siblings are admitted, interested families across the county would enter into a lottery system.

“We might find ourselves with the fortunate problem of having a capacity issue at Sabillasville,” board member Sue Johnson said.

Board president Jay Mason was the only one to vote against the conversion charter. He expressed concern that future boards would have to field conversion charter requests from every aging, low-enrollment school it ever decided to close.

“I think that sets a precedent for future closures,” Mason said. “I don’t think that’s a great way to govern.”

Board members agreed to take a closer look at their policies around school closures. Several congratulated Yocum and her fellow volunteers on their efforts.

“I feel like I have learned so much about public engagement and advocacy from the work of this group,” Barrett said.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

(2) comments

HappySeller2014

Simply welcome and a fortunate dose of good news. Congratulations to all involved. Best wishes as you start up here!

phydeaux994

I think that is a great solution. The Sabillasville Community will make it successful to keep their neighborhood school.

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