After a lengthy discussion that community members watched eagerly, the Frederick County School Board on Wednesday voted conditional approval of a charter for the new Sabillasville Environmental School.
The move marked a milestone for the community of Sabillasville, which spent two years fighting to save their small elementary school from closure.
“I am overwhelmed,” said Alisha Yocum, president of the Sabillasville Elementary School Parents’ Organization and face of the community movement.
Yocum burst into tears outside the board building after the vote, sending hugs and congratulations from a buzzing crowd of his neighbors. “We did this for our children. “
If all goes as Yocum and other Sabillasville residents hope, the Sabillasville Environmental School will open next fall. It would offer a classic model of education focused on agriculture and environmental science, taking advantage of the town’s location on top of a mountain in northern Frederick County.
Yet the process is not over.
The Board of Directors approved the recommendation made earlier by FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban, which would grant the charter for three years with two conditions. On the one hand, Yocum and the other founding members of the future charter school will have to prove by December 1 that they have 160 students ready to enroll.
In addition, the school must secure a building.
Community members believe the Sabillasville Environmental School would simply replace the existing Sabillasville Elementary School and use existing facilities. But due to the complicated laws surrounding public charter schools, the process is slightly more complicated.
To open a charter school on existing land, council must first vote to close the Sabillasville Elementary School. Then the Sabillasville Environmental School would ask to take over the building.
But going this route does not guarantee that the Sabillasville Environmental School would have access to space, said board chairman Jay Mason. Other charter schools in the county could apply to take over the building, he said, and the board couldn’t promise Sabillasville would win.
Yocum, meanwhile, is fighting to get the board to grant the new school a conversion charter, which would streamline the process.
Unlike a traditional charter, a conversion charter is used to transform an existing public school into a public charter school. This path would guarantee residents of Sabillasville access to the school building, which has long served as a community center.
Wednesday’s meeting was confused as board members attempted to sort out the legal logistics of granting conversion charters. No one knew who had the authority to decide the issue.
Further, while Mason claimed he had heard from representatives of the state’s education department that conversion charters had historically only been granted to schools that have academic difficulties – which Sabillasville didn’t – he wasn’t sure that meant it wasn’t an option for the situation.
In the end, the board approved the charter with a stipulation that the issue of a conversion be settled. If it’s legal, they decided, they would prefer a conversion charter to a traditional charter to ensure the school has a locked building.
“We all know it’s just the obvious,” said Robert Koontz, the parent of an elementary student in Sabillasville.
He expressed his frustration that the school building was still in the air. For the past year, he said, the community has been trying to get responses from the board as to whether a conversion charter would be workable.
“No one cared if we can do it, although we asked for the conversion,” he said. “We’re not surprised, unfortunately. “
Still, Yocum said, Wednesday’s decision was a victory. And she’s confident that the school’s unique focus on agriculture – Frederick County’s largest industry – will attract students from across the county.
It would solve the school’s enrollment issues – the reason the board tried to shut it down in the first place.
Almost all of the 70 or so students at Sabillasville Elementary School have committed to attending the charter school if approved, she said. And 73 other families had said they would sign letters of intent to register as long as the board grants the charter, Yocum said.
“I hope people will be 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 dressed in green T-shirts, eagerly awaited the board’s decision, which came at the very end of a three-hour meeting. They wrung their hands and stamp their feet in the boardroom, occasionally punctuating board member’s comments with scattered applause or murmurs of frustration.
But when it was over, they were laughing and kissing outside on East Street.
“We obviously have a lot of work ahead of us over the next three months to try to achieve full registration,” Yocum said. “But I’m so grateful to the staff and the board for recognizing that this is a really cool thing to offer.”