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Pioneering Baltimore church to open public charter school

The Rev. Cecil Conteen Gray, left, shares details of the new charter school with a member of the Baltimore community. The church will start the school this fall.

(BALTIMORE - March 16) - A non-profit organization created by Northwood-Appold UMC in Northwest Baltimore is enrolling students, interviewing teachers and preparing to open one of five public charter schools in September, the first to be approved by the city's Board of Education.

After months of planning, paperwork, promotion and meetings with community leaders, parents and public school officials, the Northwood-Appold Community Academy must complete its enrollment of up to 126 students by April. It plans to start holding classes in the church's education building Sept. 5, beginning with kindergarten to second grade, and then adding a grade each year until enrollment reaches eighth grade.

While the academy expects to draw almost half of its students from the surrounding community, it is open to all children living in Baltimore. Of the five new planned public charter schools, it is the only one connected to a church.

Public charter schools are alternative, community-based, non-sectarian schools approved by the Board of Education to offer students innovative forms of instruction. They must comply with all health, safety and civil rights laws and be offered tuition-free.

"We're committed to preparing students to make a life and a living so they can navigate life's journey effectively and with integrity," said the Rev. Cecil Conteen Gray, Northwood-Appold's pastor. "Our mission is to help young people realize superior results in both academics and character development so they can become servant-leaders in society."

Gray, who has a Ph.D in African and African-American Studies, and also teaches at Morgan State University in Baltimore, developed the concept and is helping to write the specialized freedom and democracy curriculum for the school. The values-based program will meet state instructional standards, he said, but also exceed them by teaching creative, nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution and respect for all cultures.

Students will learn life lessons in monthly visits from renowned freedom and democracy role models, explained Gray, including civil and human rights advocates, writers and artists, entrepreneurs and political leaders.

The curriculum, described as "rigorous and innovative," also calls for annual weeklong visits to freedom and democracy sites in the United States and summer visits to international sites, as well as instruction in music, art and computers. Up to 21 students will be in each class, along with a teacher and teacher's assistant and a volunteer parent. So far, the academy is about halfway to its enrollment goal, Gray said.

"We have high expectations that our students will become exemplary, spreading their wings and realizing their gifts and the contributions they can make to society," he announced at a recent presentation to community residents.

The pastor said the Northwood-Appold congregation is excited and supportive of the new venture, including renting its 30,000 square-foot education building to the academy for only $1 a year. Members have canvassed neighborhoods, made phone calls and met with community associations to drum up interest and support, he said. They have also donated funds and professional expertise.

"I thought we had about 10 career educators in this church," said Gray. "But when we surveyed the congregation, we found out we had about 50 teachers and about five to 10 principals, many of them retired, of course."

He also found help there from architects, engineers, food service professionals and a retired law enforcement officer who agreed to do background checks on staff and faculty applicants.

"This effort has become a catalyst, igniting people here to bring forth their gifts and engaging many of them in this community for the first time," Gray said. "They're loving it."

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