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Next month, if everything goes as planned, the Meridian Public Charter School will open its doors, joining the 18 schools already taking part in D.C.’s three-year old experiment in nontraditional education. So far, Meridian has won a charter from the city’s Public Charter School Board, found a building to use as a schoolhouse, severed a partnership with a controversial for-profit schools chain, and cemented one with a reputable Baltimore nonprofit.

Of course, it still has a few more hurdles to jump. Just last week, a principal was hired. The next task is to find a full crew of teachers. Not to mention wee little matters like establishing a food service authority, setting up computer facilities, and completing modifications on the Florida Avenue laundromat that by Labor Day has to become a schoolhouse.

And then there’s the issue of filling the place. According to Ismay Parrish, a Prince George’s County teacher hired on July 10 to do student recruitment, 10 parents have completed the initial applications that were sent out last spring. An additional 20 have requested new ones. This Thursday, Meridian is holding a parents meeting where, board members hope, still more pupils will sign up. Board members plan for 125 students and have proposed a $1,260,000 budget for the upcoming academic year.

The series of events that led to Meridian’s rushed opening show off all of the pitfalls and potentials inherent in D.C.’s love affair with charter education. Ever since the charter program’s 1996 inception, the promise of public funding coupled with waivers from many school-system rules has created a gold-rush atmosphere, where expectations of profit and national publicity are high—and fears of rigorous scrutiny are apparently quite low.

“As soon as it became apparent that we were going to have charter schools, a lot of groups came in,” says Nancy Opalack, a charter school special education consultant who serves on Meridian’s board. “People think that if they successfully run charter schools in Washington, it will pay off. People want access to Congress, the center of the country. I wonder if the response would have been the same if we lived in Boise, Idaho.”

When Louis Steadwell’s daughter entered Wilson High School in 1994, something went wrong. “My daughter was very talented in junior high,” Steadwell says. “But when she first [went] on to Wilson, she started having problems.”

Initially, Steadwell tried the traditional approach of the dissatisfied parent: He joined Wilson’s PTA, eventually becoming president. He worked with Wilson’s restructuring team, a body that proposed such ’90s-style changes as dividing the school into “academies” and establishing ties between Wilson and institutions like the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

But despite the hard work, Steadwell claims the team lacked one key component: cooperation from the D.C. Public Schools administration. Steadwell says he made up his mind that the solution was to avoid the bureaucracy altogether by building a charter school.

It was a good time to do so. With its school system’s reputation in tatters, D.C.’s liberal new charter school laws were the talk of the town. The laws gave District parents the option of pulling kids from traditional public schools and putting them in publicly funded schools autonomous from the school system in curriculum and administration. And parents—as well as activists, visionaries, and educational hucksters—also had a rare opportunity to start their own schools.

Steadwell found a partner to run the school in Sabis Educational Systems Inc., a for-profit management company based in the United Arab Emirates. The company isn’t exactly the touchy-feely cooperative charter-education boosters may have had in mind: The corporation operates three charter schools in Massachusetts, one private school in Minnesota, and 14 others in England, Germany, and the Middle East.

Sabis, in fact, had applied for its own charter in D.C. in 1997. But because D.C. guidelines bar for-profit corporations that don’t have partnerships with a local nonprofit board, the firm lost out—and went looking for a local partner to smooth its next bid. Sabis Vice President of Business Development Udo Schulz and project developer Bill Phillips had been introduced to Steadwell through Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a pro-charter group of which Steadwell has been a board member since 1996. A real estate agent, he helped them scout out potential buildings during their 1997 bid. A year later, he was their man, signing on as chair of the nonprofit board that would fulfill the charter criteria.

Steadwell claims he had long admired Sabis. He says he even wrote a letter of recommendation for the company’s 1997 bid. “I liked Sabis,” Steadwell says. “It had news clippings, articles supporting them. The principal thing I liked about it was its concept-based curriculum. The first through last day of pre-kindergarten was planned.”

On July 12, 1998, the new partners submitted a charter application. Sabis outlined an ambitious program: By September 1999, it aspired to set up a school—pre-kindergarten through eighth grade—that would serve 1,300 students. Though it was too late for his older daughter, Steadwell hoped his younger daughter could someday enroll at the charter. Like other Sabis-run schools, Meridian was to feature an international curriculum that stressed English and math and required students to start studying foreign languages in kindergarten.

The partners’ strategy worked. Meridian was one of two applicants to the D.C. Public Charter School Board that year to have its application approved. There was just one condition: Meridian’s board had to successfully complete contract negotiations with Sabis.

Getting the charter was probably the high point in the Meridian board’s relationship with Sabis. “Lou and the other members liked the international model, but negotiations went downhill,” says Opalack, who joined the board after its first-stage approval.

Opalack claims Sabis wasn’t really interested in working with its local partner. She says the company simply wanted the local board to rubber-stamp its decisions and stay out of the way. “They didn’t want any of us to manage operations, but they wanted us to fund-raise, write checks, approve a budget, and recruit students,” she says.

And the nonprofit board butted heads with the for-profit corporation on other matters, too—like finding a building to house the school. “I was uncomfortable with the per pupil costs required to pay for the building,” says Opalack. “When I started calling around to other schools, I realized that Sabis wanted to take a huge percentage of our per pupil costs compared to other schools. Sabis wanted to use 20 percent of our money. Most schools planned on using between 12 and 15 percent.”

Sabis officials counter that the company needed to retain control over key management decisions. “Sabis has a structured style and program,” says Schulz. “If we lose control, we can’t perform. They wanted to make changes that we couldn’t agree to. And there were difficulties with the school building.”

Tension escalated as the two entities tried to finalize plans for a September opening. In February, Sabis co-owners Ralph Bastany and Leila Saad flew to Washington from Lebanon to meet with Meridian’s board and ease negotiations. Bastany and Saad brought with them a principal and a curriculum coordinator they had selected for Meridian. For three days, the board and the owners discussed plans and tried to iron out differences.

Steadwell says the negotiations went well, but Bastany and Saad neglected to follow up after the meeting. “After they left, we never heard from them again,” says Steadwell. He says that he called and e-mailed Phillips and Schulz, but that they blew him off.

Schulz claims it was actually the board that blew Sabis off. He says Sabis submitted a revised proposal for the required contract after the visit, but the board didn’t like it. “They requested to talk directly to the owner, not Bill Phillips and myself,” Schulz says. “We turned them down. Mr. Bastany, the owner, was overseas at the time. He wanted us to deal with them. It’s very awkward to talk by phone overseas. He had made a special effort to go to Washington. He thought he had shown enough good faith and will. But the board wouldn’t talk to us. We never heard from them again.”

Either way, they’d reached a breaking point. In April of this year, Steadwell and the board decided to dump Sabis as its partner.

Meridian’s board members weren’t the only Americans booting the firm: In June, Sabis garnered an unfortunate dose of attention when it lost its contract for two charter schools with the Chicago school system. Chicago Charter School Foundation representative Candace Browdy won’t comment on what went wrong, but other educators in Chicago described some unusual Sabis lesson plans. A New York Times article described tests faxed in at the last minute from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, materials regularly written in British rather than American English, and quiz questions completely unrelated to the classroom instruction.

Sabis responded by filing suit against Chicago’s charter foundation for breach of contract, according to Browdy. That case is pending.

Steadwell and his colleagues didn’t just give up. After ditching Sabis, the board recruited a new partner to shape its school’s curriculum: the Calvert School, a well-regarded nonprofit Baltimore elementary day school that also produces home-schooling instructions and recently began offering its curriculum to public schools. Calvert features a heavy focus on phonics. According to Calvert Headmaster Merrill Hall, first-graders write in the cursive Calvert script from the first day of school.

The quick shift in curriculum proves that charter schools do, indeed, shake up the status quo: Just like that, Meridian went from a school for multilingual internationalists to a school for old-fashioned readers. When the board applied to switch to the Calvert model on June 4, the charter school board fast-forwarded the process, granting the brand-new partnership a green light to open.

In place of Sabis’ grand ambitions, Meridian now promises a pre-kindergarten-through-third-grade school to be located in the Manhattan Laundry building, near the corner of Florida Avenue and 14th Street NW. In the event that it doesn’t complete its to-do list before the charter school board’s pre-opening inspection, Meridian’s board will lose its charter. “The story is not over,” says D.C. Public Charter School Board Executive Director Nelson Smith. “We don’t let a school open if it’s not ready to open.”

According to Smith, what may seem like a harrowing tale of a near miss—and the daunting spectacle of a school’s having to completely reboot just months before opening—is actually a positive sign. “What [the break with Sabis] may illustrate is a charter-school process that is rigorous and has controls built in,” he says. “Meridian’s board still has some hurdles. But it is a very capable group. They’re as sophisticated as anyone in town.”

At least one parent seems willing to give the charter a chance. Alemtsahiye Tzion’s 5-year-old and 7-year-old twins attended the Children’s Studio School, an art-focused charter school, for the past two years. But Tzion wants them to receive a more traditional education. Meridian is one of four schools she is examining.

“I am impressed by their community-oriented philosophy,” says Tzion. “They have strong academics and want to prepare children for the diverse culture we live in.”

Tzion—who says she’s not concerned about Meridian’s last-minute changes or the late-summer holes in its staff—is a charter-school true believer. “I used to work with charters,” Tzion explains. She says she helped open the Options Public Charter School last year. “We didn’t get our [final approval] until three weeks before we opened. So that isn’t really a concern.”

And as Meridian scrambles to get ready for September, Sabis employees continue to scout the District. “At some point in time, we will attempt it again,” says Schulz. “Not right now, but sometime in the future.” CP