Educators join forces to create new public charter school in Baltimore County

Stacy M. Brown | 11/24/2017, 6 a.m.
Jessie Lehson and Casey McDonough have little problem acknowledging that there are great schools that already exist in Baltimore County. ...
Board Member, Kristie Matthai, offers free face and body painting to future students at Watershed Public Charter School at a summer yoga play date at Honeygo Regional Park in Baltimore County. Courtesy Photo

Jessie Lehson and Casey McDonough have little problem acknowledging that there are great schools that already exist in Baltimore County. However, the two friends haven’t always been sure if those schools were the right fit for their families. They also agree that private schools were just a bit out of reach.

Now, they say that they believe they’ve come up with an answer: the Watershed Public Charter School (WPCS), which they founded this year and have enlisted the help of other stakeholders.

The friends are rallying community support to bring what they call an innovative public school to the county.

“Our founding group is comprised of parents, educators and community leaders who are all passionate about WPCS for different reasons,” Lehson said. “For some of the parents in the group, it’s about creating a school they are excited to send their children to, for the educations in the group, it’s about working within the public school system to create an environment that they’re passionate about, and, for the community members in the group, it’s some of both.”

For Lehson, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, it’s a culmination of years of work in both education and nonprofit administration. She is a passionate believer in the importance of strong and accessible public education for all and she feels that WPCS is a path to partner with the school district to effect positive change in the community.

McDonough is a graduate of Ball State University who moved to Baltimore after accepting an internship. The married mother of two future county school students is also passionate about WCPS, Lehson said about her friend and partner in the new venture.

“The prospectus was submitted and accepted in May 2017 and the board is hard at work on the full application for charter which will be submitted in January,” she said, noting that enrollment would open in November 2018 with a proposed opening date scheduled for the fall of 2019.

While the foundation hasn’t yet determined a location for the school, they are actively seeking a spot with ample outdoor space that is accessible to as many parts of the county as possible.

“We have spent the last year building partnerships with nonprofit organizations, universities, nature centers, county agencies and community groups,” Lehson said. “This past summer, we held multiple free family-friendly play dates at regional parks and nature centers all across Baltimore County.”

One of the foundations of WCPS’ educational philosophy is place-based education, which emphasizes experimental and community involvement, so outreach will continue to be a part of the school’s mission, she said.

The public charter schools receive the same per pupil allotment as a regular public school, however they don’t receive any funds for their facility, transportation and other like needs.

“The school is operated by a nonprofit foundation that will fundraise for additional costs,” Lehson said.

Further, the founders envision the school serving grades kindergarten through eighth grade when fully operational, but when the doors first open, they expect to start with students in grades kindergarten through third grade.

“The school will grow with its students and add a grade level each year,” Lehson said. “If we stick with our initial plan, we will have just under 400 students,” she said.

WCPS will use innovative, hands-on curriculum in core subjects and link disciplines together into larger multidisciplinary projects, according to Lehson.

The school’s values are play, exploration, imagination and unstructured outdoor activity and will incorporate daily recess for students at all grade levels.

“There is scientific evidence that spending time outdoors can reduce hyperactivity and has a soothing effect on children, especially those suffering from attention deficit disorder,” Lehson said. “While modern education reforms place a heavy emphasis on highly-structured, standardized curricula, abundant evidence suggests experiential education is a powerful tool for firming student understanding of core concepts, improving academic performance and attitudes toward self, school and learning.”

For more information about the Watershed Public Charter School, visit: www.watershedpcs.org.