We’re proud of the Baltimore Curriculum Project’s (BCP) deep roots in Baltimore and its public school system. Before we opened our first three neighborhood conversion charter schools in 2005, we had nearly a decade under our belt working with Baltimore City Public Schools by introducing and supporting the research-based, proven Direct Instruction reading program in as many as 22 schools.
In 2006, we were a pioneering implementation site for the national Restorative Practice program to provide a positive problem-solving and relationship-building program for students, teachers, and parents. Now, many Baltimore schools use the program.
Today, we’re Maryland’s largest charter school operator. We convert neighborhood public schools in need of support into charter schools, serving all students who live in the enrollment zone, and admitting others from a lottery if space allows.
Since our founding in 1996, our work has been guided by an incredible Board of Directors. These leaders are a diverse mix of talent and backgrounds, but each is deeply committed to improving public education in our region. The board is ably led by co-chairs Mike Niccolini, President of MCM Capital, LLC, and George Hess, President of Hess Shoes and founding BCP Board Chair.
I talked with George and Mike about where BCP has been, where it’s going, and why it’s still a singular program that’s educating more than 3,300 students in Baltimore City.
How was the Baltimore Curriculum Project founded and how has the Board evolved?
George: Our founder Dr. Muriel Berkeley was working for The Abell Foundation. She had a huge background in education and had a lot of ideas on how to help City Schools. With Abell President Robert C. Embry, Jr., they founded BCP in 1996 and piloted the Direct Instruction program at six City Schools. She asked me to head the BCP board, and together we started the BCP operations.
We wanted a board that was a cross-section of people, but the common denominator was that they really had to care about our City. We had and have people who were interested in education, finance, and curriculum. We have unlimited consecutive terms, so some of us, like me, are still serving.
At the beginning there were ten of us. I recruited a young guy, David Holder, for the board, and he served until his death in 2008. When he passed, I asked his business partner Mike Niccolini to take David’s place on our board, so he joined the finance committee. For the past four years, he has been helping me run the board as co-chair.
Mike: George has been my business mentor for 25 years. David was relentlessly dedicated to education. We met as buddies at Cornell and went into business together. He championed education in Baltimore in a lot of different ways, from founding Baltimore Bridges to serving on the BCP board. But BCP was his favorite outlet for helping kids in Baltimore City.
When I joined the BCP board, I did a lot of learning about its value proposition. I wanted to add value and expertise based on my career and experience in finance. It just so happened that one of the three BCP pillars is fiscal responsibility for our member schools. I had a chance to add value to the organization by having a commercial perspective on public education, which often doesn’t happen with talented educators who become school administrators. They typically don’t have a ton of experience in higher finance.
What makes serving on the Baltimore Curriculum Project board different from your other philanthropic work?
Mike: Our board really rolls up its sleeves. Our board is diverse in its skill sets, backgrounds, and expertise, which has set up BCP for growth. We’re the largest charter school operator in Maryland and serve nearly 5% of the children, K through 8, in Baltimore. From where we started to where we are today, it’s really exciting and a testament to the work that our staff has done. And it’s a testament to our principals who are our CEOs of our schools.
George: I have been involved with education in so many ways. I chaired the board at Gilman School and am a lifetime trustee there. I was head of the Baltimore Hebrew University and have ‘guest conducted’ other school leadership organizations. But these Baltimore schools that we serve with BCP, there’s a special feeling I get from helping Baltimore City kids.
What makes the Baltimore Curriculum Project charter school model so unique?
George: The magic is the supervision and support that we have been able to give our schools. No question that Jon McGill, previously the Director of Academics and you, Laura, have helped principals hire great teachers and instructional coaches and put in great curriculum. We serve the neighborhoods, whether it’s the Perkins Homes or Frederick. We make our schools a wonderful place to go and a safe haven. Each neighborhood is different, and the needs are different. We try to tailor the school to the neighborhood.
Mike: Also, we’re not a lottery charter school. We are a neighborhood charter school and feel very strongly that every single kid deserves the same opportunity.
What are the challenges that the board is tackling post-pandemic from educational trends to organizational new directions?
Mike: When I think about BCP, there are three pillars that everything is based on, that drives our philosophy and our desire for improvement. The first is the curriculum. By standardizing the curriculum and putting additional resources into classrooms, particularly around reading and math, every child has a chance to succeed. New teachers can be coached to be great teachers with Direct Instruction. The lesson plans bring kids along and they can achieve. It’s too much to ask for a new teacher to have to develop their own lesson plans, so Direct Instruction really helps teachers succeed, which ultimately helps children achieve.
The number two pillar is the climate in the schools. In our schools, in the neighborhoods where we operate, our schools are really the center of the community. We provide a climate of security, both inside and out, that allows kids to have a chance to succeed. Some of that might be physical safety, the availability of food on a regular basis so that they can concentrate on learning. We take that really seriously. We were the first people in Baltimore to implement Restorative Practices, which is a conflict mediation philosophy for our school communities to work through issues together in a non-violent way and come up with resolutions that work for everybody. We can’t solve everything, but within our four walls, we can provide a safe haven for children to be able to learn.
The third pillar is one that I take great pride in over the last 15 years since I have been involved, and that’s financial stability. There are a lot of educators who are fantastic at teaching children, but that skill set doesn’t always translate to understanding finance and fiscal responsibility at an organizational and at a school level. Each principal is the CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation. BCP takes that administrative load off our principals and essentially serve as their CFO, accounting department, grant writing, fundraising team, bulk purchasing, budgeting. We take our fiscal responsibility as a partner with City Schools very seriously.
We’re constantly reassessing and measuring metrics on how we’re doing, how our kids are doing, which teachers are succeeding. Where can we put a coach in the classroom? If there is a teacher who’s not working out, we don’t want the kids to lose an entire year of math because they didn’t get a good teacher.
We currently have a multi-school organizational working group of teachers examining our math curriculum. Direct Instruction is for reading, and we want to provide a better math program that we can have at each of our schools. Read more about the Math Committee.
We just had a board meeting last week and talked about an assessment of science in our schools. Science skills are so important, but they’re not part of high stakes testing, which are focused on reading and math. How can we improve that? How can improve teacher training and professional development and give them the tools to spark someone’s passion in science?
We’re also looking at succession planning. Jon McGill just retired after a long and distinguished career. The fact that Harold Henry, Jr., who is one of our most accomplished principals [at Frederick] decided that the next stage in his career was to become the next Chief of Schools is just awesome. We’re promoting from within with a dynamic leader who’s already respected by all the principals and highly respected at City Schools. Part of my job, even though I’m not planning on going anywhere, is to make sure that this organization is sustainable for the long term.