Nearly a year after closing Sabillasville Elementary School seemed imminent, the Frederick County school board is now considering several alternatives, including turning it into a charter school.
The idea was discussed at a Board of Education work session Wednesday, which had been specifically scheduled to talk about the future of the school.
In January, Sabillasville Elementary's future was thrown into question after dwindling enrollment numbers caused the board to discuss closing the school. There are currently 70 students enrolled at Sabillasville Elementary — the lowest in the county among non-charter schools.
When the idea of closing the school was brought up earlier in the year, it was met with fierce backlash from the Sabillasville community, the News-Post previously reported.
Following a month of tense community meetings and meetings that saw an outpouring of support for keeping the school open, the board decided in February to keep Sabillasville Elementary open for the 2020-2021 school year on the condition that a final decision on the school's future would be made by December of this year.
Wednesday was the first time since February that the board met publicly to discuss the school. According to a document published on the BoardDocs website, several alternative options to closing the school have been presented to the board, including using the school to expand Career and Technology Center (CTC) programming, implementing a pre-K program to bring in more students, offering an open enrollment option, and turning Sabillasville Elementary into a charter school.
In terms of the charter school option, Superintendent Terry Alban said Carroll Creek Montessori Public Charter School (CCMPCS) has expressed interest in acquiring the Sabillasville school property. The charter school already operates out of a building in the Ballenger Creek area and is a part of FCPS. However, they are also looking at other properties, Alban said, and may choose to go in a different direction.
If they chose the Sabillasville property, and the school was transferred over, according to Maryland's public charter law, the school could prioritize giving up to 35 percent of their open seats to local students who live in the area. FCPS could also ask for a waiver from the Maryland Department of Education to increase that number, Alban said.
But there is also a second public charter school option on the table. Alisha Yocum, president of the Sabillasville Elementary Parent Teacher Association, told board members that families were concerned that Sabillasville Elementary would cease to be a true community school if CCMPCS or any other already-established charter school were to take over. Enrollment at charter schools in the county requires families to enter a lottery. They could be accepted right away or it could take years.
In order to keep the school open and still maintain its identity, Yocum said she and others in the community are interested in creating their own public charter school from the ground up at Sabillasville Elementary.
"When we heard about [CCMPCS] being interested, our first concern was it really doesn't become a community school at that point because we're not really being involved in the decisions," Yocum said. "So there are several of us interested ... in creating our own proposal and putting that forth to the board so that way we would have the ability to create a board of trustees that is reflective of our community... We would be running our own school."
The best-case scenario would be that Sabillasville Elementary remains as is, Yocum said, but seeing that other alternatives may not be viable the community felt creating its own charter would be the best bet.
Board members seemed supportive of the idea.
"I just want to commend everybody for thinking outside the box. The school is really a jewel in your community and I'm all in favor of keeping community schools as long as we can," board member Lois Jarman said.
Board member Liz Barrett told Yocum that becoming a public charter school as a part of FCPS would be beneficial.
"It's really important in Frederick County that your school can still be the center of your community as a public charter school, but it's not separate from the school system and there's folks who think that's a bad thing about Maryland law, but I think it's a good thing," Barrett said. "Everybody here would still be involved and you would still get some support and oversight from the school system."
The challenge now, however, becomes the timeline. Applying for a charter is a long and arduous process, and in order for a proposed charter to be presented to the board for approval, Sabillasville Elementary would either have to be closed first or at the same time. Yocum said her biggest concern is that students would be left in limbo between the closing of Sabillasville Elementary and the opening of the new public charter school.
"We wouldn't want to have [students] have to change schools for a year and then come back to Sabillasville," Yocum said.
Barbara Doney, a teacher at Sabillasville Elementary, was in attendance at Wednesday's meeting and echoed Yocum's words about wanting the school to remain as is if possible and said she is concerned about families who may choose not to attend the charter school.
"I just would hate to see a student at Sabillasville leave our school because a charter school didn't fit them," Doney said. "I don't want a family to feel that our school doesn't suit their needs, so therefore they have to leave the community that they live in."
If Sabillasville Elementary were to be turned into a public charter school, the students who choose not to attend would most likely be redistricted to Thurmont Primary School or Thurmont Elementary School, Alban said. This also would have most likely happened had the school simply been closed.
Board President Brad Young said Wednesday that the two directions the board was most interested in were the charter school options and an open enrollment option.
With open enrollment, students from other crowded elementary schools in the county would be given the option to attend Sabillasville Elementary. Transportation in some form would be provided, according to Alban.
Young said the question is whether families would be interested.
"It would be a long ride and certainly dealing with weather situations in northern Frederick County," he said.
The other options such as bringing in a pre-K program or CTC programming were not seen as practical solutions due to various reasons. The main obstacle was that these solutions would still leave a low enrollment of Sabillasville Elementary's K-5 students and not enough staff. Neither pre-K nor CTC programming would allow an increase in staffing for K-5 grades, meaning the school would have to increase the number of grade levels that are grouped together in one class in order to fit with the number of teachers available.
"I am all in favor of multi-age groupings and I have been very excited about our schools that have done that... My concern, in this case, is if those ages become spread [out]," Alban said. "I think it would be very challenging for a teacher to have students from kindergarten through third or fourth grade in one classroom...at a certain point, delivering your instructional model and meeting your curricular standards becomes a challenge."