After a lengthy discussion that community members watched with bated breath, the Frederick County Board of Education on Wednesday voted to conditionally approve a charter for the new Sabillasville Environmental School.
The decision marked an important milestone for the Sabillasville community, which has spent two years fighting to save its small elementary school from closure.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Alisha Yocum, president of Sabillasville Elementary’s parent teacher organization and the face of the community’s movement.
Yocum broke down into tears outside the board building after the vote, fielding hugs and congratulations from a buzzing crowd of her neighbors. “We did this for our kids.”
If all goes as Yocum and other Sabillasville residents hope, Sabillasville Environmental School will open next fall. It would offer a classical model of education focused on agriculture and environmental science, taking advantage of the town’s mountaintop location in northern Frederick County.
Still, the process isn’t finished.
The board approved FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban’s previously stated recommendation on the matter, which would grant the charter for three years with two conditions. For one, Yocum and the other founding members of the would-be charter school will need to prove by Dec. 1 that they have 160 students ready to enroll.
Plus, the school needs to secure a building.
Community members figure Sabillasville Environmental School would simply replace the existing Sabillasville Elementary School and use the existing facilities. But because of the complicated laws surrounding public charter schools, the process is slightly more complicated.
To open a charter school on the existing grounds, the board first must vote to close Sabillasville Elementary School. Then, Sabillasville Environmental School would apply to take over the building.
But going that route doesn’t guarantee that Sabillasville Environmental School would get access to the space, said board president Jay Mason. Other charter schools in the county could apply to take over the building, he said, and the board couldn’t promise that Sabillasville would win out.
Yocum, meanwhile, is fighting for the board to grant the new school a conversion charter, which would simplify the process.
Unlike a traditional charter, a conversion charter is used to transition an existing public school into a public charter school. That path would guarantee Sabillasville residents retain access to the school building, which has long served as their community center.
Wednesday’s meeting descended into confusion when board members tried to sort out the legal logistics of granting conversion charters. No one was sure whose authority it was to decide on the matter.
Plus, while Mason asserted he’d heard from state education department representatives that conversion charters had historically only been granted to schools that are struggling academically — which Sabillasville is not — he wasn’t confident whether that meant it wasn’t an option for the situation.
Ultimately, the board approved the charter with a stipulation that the issue of a conversion be sorted out. If it’s legal, they decided, they’d favor a conversion charter over a traditional one to ensure the school has a building locked down.
‘We all know it’s just a no-brainer,” said Robert Koontz, the parent of a Sabillasville Elementary student.
He expressed frustration that the school building was still up in the air. For a year, he said, the community has been trying to get answers from the board about whether a conversion charter would be feasible.
“Nobody bothered to look into whether we can do it, although we’ve been asking for the conversion,” he said. “We’re not surprised, unfortunately.”
Still, Yocum said, Wednesday’s decision was a win. And she’s confident that the school’s unique focus on agriculture — Frederick County’s biggest industry — will attract students from across the county.
That would solve the school’s enrollment woes — the reason the board attempted to close it in the first place.
Nearly all of Sabillasville Elementary School’s roughly 70 students have committed to attending the charter school should it be approved, she said. And an additional 73 families had said they’d sign letters of intent to enroll as long as the board granted the charter, Yocum said.
“Hopefully it will have people more involved in the environment and agriculture and have a better understanding of where their food comes from and how plants grow,” Yocum said.
Members of the Sabillasville community, many of them clad in green t-shirts, anxiously awaited the board’s decision, which came near the very end of a three-hour meeting. They sat wringing their hands and tapping their feet in the boardroom, sometimes punctuating board members’ comments with scattered applause or murmurs of frustration.
But when it was over, they stood laughing and embracing outside on East Street.
“We obviously have a lot of work ahead of us in the next three months to try to reach full enrollment,” Yocum said. “But I’m so appreciative of the staff and the board for recognizing that this is a really cool thing to offer.”