Pair Break Barriers for Charter Schools

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“They won a legal battle to force Maryland to increase public funding for charter schools more than 60 percent. They opened two charter schools in Prince George’s County and befriended the superintendent there even though the county had a reputation as hostile to the charter movement. They run one of the largest charter school networks in the country.

Yet Dennis and Eileen Bakke remain relatively unknown in local education circles.

Dennis, 62, and Eileen, 55, live in Arlington County. He knows business; she is into education. Few people guess, and the Bakkes never volunteer, what an impact they have had on education in the region and beyond. Their Imagine Schools organization, based in Arlington, oversees 51 schools (four in the Washington area) with 25,000 students. By fall, it plans to have 75 schools with 38,000 students.

Jason Botel, who directs KIPP charter schools in Baltimore, is one educator who knows what the Bakkes have accomplished. ‘Their funding of advocacy efforts has helped make sure that . . . charter schools like ours can provide a great education for children in Maryland,’ he said.

Charter schools, which use public money but operate with varying degrees of independence from school systems, have had a tougher time in the Washington suburbs than in the District, where they proliferate. There are no charter schools in Northern Virginia and a handful in Maryland suburbs. Anne Arundel County officials declined to give more space to one of the area’s most promising charter schools last year, forcing it to close, and Prince George’s school officials have sought to keep their few charters on a tight leash.

But the Bakkes’ first meeting with Prince George’s Superintendent John E. Deasy in late February went well. Deasy even scrapped a county policy that had barred the Bakkes from hiring a top candidate for principal of one of their schools because he did not have three years of administrative experience.

‘We had a really good chat,’ Deasy said. Prince George’s has also distributed fliers listing charter schools and traditional schools as options for parents, something few other school systems have done. School systems often see charter schools as unfair competition.

The Bakkes have an unconventional approach to management, patterned after methods Dennis Bakke used to build AES, an energy venture, into a company with $8.6 billion in annual revenue and 40,000 employees. He was co-founder and longtime chief executive of the energy company, retiring in 2002 with a fortune he has put to use as an education entrepreneur. His principal motto in business and education is: ‘Have fun.’ Having fun, the couple say, means giving everyone working in their schools the power to make decisions, or as Dennis Bakke put it, “to give the most chances for people to actually be able to make a difference.”

Nationally, 51 percent of the Imagine Schools’ students come from low-income families. Thirty-nine percent are black, 33 percent white and 22 percent Hispanic. The two Prince George’s schools are Imagine Foundations in Upper Marlboro and Imagine Lincoln in Marlow Heights; two in the District are Imagine Hope-Tolson Campus and Imagine Hope-Lamond Campus. One more is scheduled to open in the District and another in Baltimore County in the fall.

Most Imagine Schools are launched serving kindergarten through third or fourth grade, but they are designed to expand to eighth grade.

Dennis Bakke, president and chief executive of Imagine Schools, reviews data from all the schools every year and grades their performance. Schools in which more than half of students demonstrate more than a year’s growth in reading and math get A’s for academic achievement. In the 2006-07 school year, Bakke said, three-fourths of Imagine Schools received an A. He said he was particularly happy with Tolson in the District. Data provided by the D.C. Charter School Board, Bakke said, indicated that Tolson had the highest two-year gains in reading of any of the city’s charter schools.

Eileen Bakke, vice president of education for Imagine Schools, taught at the National Cathedral School early in her career and was a founder and board chairman of the private Rivendell School in Arlington for several years while she and her husband were raising their three children.

In 2004, the Bakkes bought the Chancellor Beacon Academies network, renamed it Imagine and set out to expand, particularly in the Washington area.

They said the District appeals to them, with its 78 charter school campuses and pro-charter laws. But they also are interested in Maryland and Virginia, even though charter advocates consider them unfriendly states.

Other large charter networks include National Heritage Academies, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., with 55 schools and 35,000 students; Mosaica, based in Atlanta and New York, with 76 schools and 14,000 students; and KIPP, also known as the Knowledge Is Power Program, based in San Francisco, with 57 schools and 14,000 students.

Virginia has three charter schools, in Charlottesville, Yorktown and Hampton, with 239 students in all, according to the D.C.-based Center for Education Reform. ‘School districts authorize charter schools in Virginia, and there is no appeal process for a denied application,’ Eileen Bakke said. ‘So a school district basically has to invite you to operate.’ Still, she added, Imagine is exploring locations in the state.

According to the center, Maryland has 22 charter schools in Baltimore, serving 4,819 students, but the state’s suburban school systems have not encouraged the movement. Local school boards cannot bar charters, as they can in Virginia, but they can make life difficult. There are four charter schools with 771 students in Prince George’s and one charter school each in Frederick, Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s counties, with a total of 608 students.

The Bakkes say parents are attracted to their schools in part because of the emphasis on character. ‘We talk to the kids from Day One,’ Eileen Bakke said. ‘What does it mean to be responsible? What does it mean to have integrity?’

On July 30, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a ruling that granted more generous funding to all state charter schools. The Bakkes provided $500,000 to support the litigation. In Prince George’s, the ruling meant that per-pupil payments to charter schools went from about $5,300 a year to $8,800, Dennis Bakke said.

The Bakkes have plans for two new buildings to house their Prince George’s schools, now in temporary quarters, and plan to open two more charter schools in the county in 2009.

‘Things are getting much better,’ Dennis Bakke said.”

Article written by Jay Matthews on May 12, 2008 and published in the Washington Post