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Innovative Schools expanding its role in Delaware's charter schools

Delaware Public Media

Gaining approval to start a charter school in Delaware is a challenge.

Getting it open is an even bigger challenge.

Working behind the scenes is a nonprofit that helps smooth the way, the Innovative Schools Development Corporation.

Created in 2002 to help the new Newark Charter School clear a major financial hurdle, Innovative Schools has morphed from a financial backer into a curriculum nurturer and application writer and now, in another transformation, into an organization that will provide on-site and back-office support for a half-dozen charters.

In addition, Innovative Schools runs teacher training programs for several school districts, manages the Delaware Leadership Project, a training program for future principals launched with funds from the federal Race to the Top grant, and assists interested school districts with developing new academic models for their schools.

“We’re shifting from being service-oriented to becoming a full-blown operating organization, one that is actively opening and operating schools,” says Matt Swanson, Innovative Schools’ executive chairman.

The first signs of the organization’s new presence appeared last August, with the opening of Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language elementary school in Wilmington, and the Early College High School, on the campus of Delaware State University in Dover.

Not only did Innovative Schools work with the boards of the two charters to prepare the applications that were approved by the state Department of Education, it has also embedded one of its full-time staff members at the school sites, serving as “operations manager,” a high-powered liaison between the head of school and the staff at Innovative Schools’ Wilmington office, which takes care of bookkeeping, payroll, financial reporting, recruiting, human resources and all sorts of other issues that would otherwise sap the time of the deliberately lean charter schools’ management teams.

Innovative Schools will begin providing the same services to two more new charter schools this fall – the Delaware Met high school in Wilmington and First State Military Academy in Clayton. In 2016, it will add two more charters to its portfolio – Mapleton, an elementary school in the new community of Whitehall, just south of the C&D Canal, and the Delaware STEM Academy, a high school that is looking for a site along the Route 13 corridor south of Wilmington.

The idea behind the concept, Swanson says, is to “free dollars from administrative overhead to put it in the classroom.”

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy group for charters, calls Innovative Schools’ approach “a hybrid charter management organization model.”

The first five years, she says, are the biggest struggle for a school. “You have new kids, a new building, a new academic model, and you need an extra two, three, four, five people that you don’t have capacity for. This idea is a great one, if it can play out,” she says.

Charters, by design, operate as independent schools, but this also means that their managers are responsible for many of the duties handled by district offices in the traditional public school system. This means that they need personnel who understand budgets, bookkeeping and human resources, for example, but such specialists can be costly to hire and the school probably doesn’t need their services fulltime.

One person on the Innovative Schools staff, Swanson says, should be able to handle personnel or budget matters, for example, for four charter schools.

Ideally, the arrangement will take some of the bumps out of a charter’s startup operations, giving them a greater chance to succeed, Massett says. “They roll it out, and after five years, they go away.”

While Innovative Schools is taking on comprehensive management responsibilities for the six new charters, it will continue to serve others in lesser ways.

At one time or another, it has worked in some fashion with almost all the charter schools in the state, most often by providing back-office support but also by helping prospective operators write the applications they submit to the Charter Schools Office of the state Department of Education and in providing guidance and assistance in preparing reports required by the state.

In addition to writing charter applications for the six schools with which it has (or will have) management agreements, Innovative Schools wrote the renewal requests for Sussex Academy of the Arts and Sciences, for East Side Charter and for Odyssey Charter. It also helped Las Americas Aspira Academy and Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security with their applications, and gave technical assistance to Gateway Charter, according to Debbie Doordan, the former executive director who now serves as a senior advisor.

“Without Innovative Schools, I don’t know how we would have done it,” says Nash Childs, board chairman of the new Delaware Met high school. “How they get a charter app approved is beyond me. Our application filled two binders, each one four inches thick.”

Not only did Innovative Schools shepherd Delaware Met through the application process, it also helped the school find its building at 920 N. French St. in Wilmington. The three-story structure, constructed in 2002 as a training center for MBNA, was sold to the state in 2007, and had been empty since then, Childs said.

“We can use it pretty much as is. It meets all the codes for a school facility,” he says.

But Delaware Met, like many charters, did not have the funds to purchase the building outright.

According to Swanson and Childs, Innovative Schools approached the Charter Schools Development Corporation (CSDC), a nonprofit based in the Washington, D.C., area that finance and develops charter school sites and had an interest in entering the Delaware market. Innovative Schools contributed $1 million to CSDC, which then purchased the building from the state. (The actual purchase price was not given on New Castle County property records.) CSDC is leasing the building back to Innovative Schools, which is subleasing it to Delaware Met.

The leasing arrangement, Swanson says, provides a measure of protection for CSDC in the event Delaware Met does not succeed because Innovative Schools, as a charter manager, would be in a position to secure another school as a tenant to use the space.

Innovative Schools’ reentry into the real estate market brings back memories of how the organization got started in 2002.

Newark Charter School had opened in 2001, using trailers as classrooms, and had to be in a new building within two years, according to Greg Meece, the school’s director. In business for only a year, it could not secure a traditional bank loan.

To help the school, the Rodel Foundation of Delaware came up with a $2 million for a loan guarantee, which was supplemented by additional funds from MBNA and the Longwood and Welfare foundations. The loan guarantees enabled Newark Charter to secure the funding it needed and, when the loan was paid off, the guarantee fund became available to assist other charter schools, Doordan said.

The three foundations remain among the primary sponsors of Innovative Schools’ work, according to Swanson and Doordan, but most of the organization’s revenue comes for providing services to charter schools and traditional school districts.

In working with both charters and districts, Innovative Schools officials say their goal is to bring school models that have achieved success elsewhere in the country to Delaware.

“Our goal is not to be exclusively charter. It just so happens that, where Delaware is right now, the charter avenue offers the least resistance and the most opportunity,” Swanson says.

To replicate these school models, Innovative Schools has created partnerships with organizations that developed them, including the New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, Expeditionary Learning and EdWorks Early College.

Innovative Schools brought New Tech to Seaford High School and First State Military, Big Picture Learning to Delaware Met, and Early College to the charter program at Delaware State University. The expeditionary learning format is in use at several charters that serve elementary grades.

“For the next couple of years, we’re going to make sure that the schools we’ve launched do really well, that they come out of the gate strong,” Doordan says.

The way Innovative Schools is working in Delaware has impressed some of its national school development partners, Doordan says. Some of them, she says, are even talking about whether the Innovative Schools model might be replicated in other states.

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