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New charter schools coming to First State face enrollment and other challenges

Delaware Public Media

For five charter schools scheduled to open their doors in August, the day of reckoning is near. In fact, by the start of next month, all five will have a pretty good idea of where they stand.

On April 1, the new schools – three in Wilmington, one in suburban New Castle County and one in Kent County – must give preliminary enrollment projections to the Charter Schools Office in the state Department of Education. According to the department’s rules, they are supposed to have confirmed enrollments equal to at least 80 percent of their authorized enrollments.If they fail to reach that target, the new schools could find themselves on probation months before the ringing of the first bell of the year.

Offices at the new schools will be busy Friday – checking emails, opening letters and answering the phones – because this is the deadline for families who applied to charters and traditional public schools through the state’s choice program to declare which schools their children will attend.

“People have applied to multiple schools. They’re hedging their bets,” says Nash Childs, chairman of the board of directors of the Delaware Met, a high school scheduled to open in a former MBNA building on French Street in downtown Wilmington.

The stakes are highest in Wilmington, where Great Oaks, Delaware Met and Freire Charter School, which already has successful operations in Philadelphia, were aiming to attract Wilmington residents who would otherwise be bused to suburban middle and high schools in the Red Clay and Christina districts.

Tony Allen, chair of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, created last fall by Gov. Jack Markell to seek solutions to longstanding Wilmington education issues, notes that, within five years, there will be a 90 percent increase in the number of charter school seats in the city. Depending on how those seats are filled, he says it’s possible that there will be more Wilmington residents attending charters than traditional public schools.

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The three new city charters have different approaches to their academic programs and, while they will evolve into high schools, they are starting small. Great Oaks, to be housed in the Community Education Building near Rodney Square, is admitting sixth graders and will eventually serve 600 students in grades 6-12. Delaware Met is enrolling ninth and 10th graders and will grow to serve about 560 students in grades 9-12. Freire is admitting students in eighth and ninth grades and will eventually serve 560 students in grades 8-12.

The Delaware Design Lab High School, with a curriculum aimed at students interested in architecture and graphic design, will be opening on the campus of Faith City Church, near Christiana Mall. The school’s site was the original home of another charter, the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security, now located near New Castle, and, before that, the Faith City Christian School. Design Lab is admitting students to ninth and 10th grades and projects an enrollment of 560 in grades 9-12.

Both Delaware Met and Design Lab had originally planned to open in Wilmington last fall, but delayed their starts because of problems with site selection.

Although Design Lab was banking heavily on partnerships with the Delaware College of Art and Design and some Wilmington-based graphics and technology shops, founder Cristina Alvarez said enrollments did not start picking up until the school chose a suburban location.

“There is concern about safety in the city,” Alvarez says. Many parents “want kids in a safe place, and they didn’t perceive Wilmington as being as safe as our suburban location,” she says.

“We thought of the city as a resource, but we weren’t attracting students,” Alvarez says. Once the location change was announced, “parents started saying, ‘now you’re in the suburbs, hot diggity dog.’”

Not being downtown may make the logistics of partnerships with DCAD more challenging, but Alvarez hopes to make connections with retailers at Christiana Mall – Apple, Microsoft and others whose products align with Design Lab’s orientation.

While Design Lab had problems attracting students to a downtown location, Freire is experiencing some difficulty establishing friendships with its neighbors.

Freire is leasing space in the former Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware headquarters on West 14th Street, adjacent to the Hercules Building but tucked in the corner of the Midtown Brandywine neighborhood, a close-knit community with narrow streets where a new home is about 70 years old.

Residents did not learn of Freire’s imminent arrival until November, and they’re questioning whether the site has adequate parking for the school’s staff, concerned about the impact of students walking through their neighborhood (because the streets are so narrow, Freire wants its students to use DART buses, which would drop them off at Rodney Square or on Washington Street) and fearful of congestion when parents decide to pick up and drop off their children rather than have them take the bus.

Longtime resident Lyn Doto says the Freire leadership “has not been transparent” about its plans. She says that she and her neighbors are unhappy that state education officials have not taken residents’ concerns into consideration while granting approvals for the school.

Some residents believe that renovation work is under way but Doto isn’t certain whether required permits have been secured from the city. If work is being done with a permit, residents would like the city to put a halt to it, she says.

“We’re working to make sure neighbors understand what is happening, what a great school we will have, that it will be an asset to the community,” says Bill Porter, Freire’s head of school. But, he acknowledges, “you can’t win everyone over.”

Should Freire run into problems with the renovations, “we are aware of properties that could be potential schools,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. “If Freire was not able to go into that building, we would be able to help them if needed.”

Two sites likely to be available would be the former Kuumba Academy location on Market Street and the Moyer Academic Institute building on East 17th Street. Kuumba moved last year into the Community Education Building. Moyer will close this spring; its charter was not renewed because of poor academic performance and management deficiencies.

Meanwhile, the sole new charter opening downstate, the First State Military Academy, is anticipating smooth sailing for a program that will feature technology-oriented and a Marine Corps Junior ROTC unit. Based in Clayton in buildings recently used by the Providence Creek Academy, a charter school that recently constructed a new facility on adjoining property, the school received applications from more than enough students to meet its first-year target of 125 ninth graders and 75 10th graders, according to Scott Kidner, head of the school’s board of directors.

Charters are allowed to exceed enrollment targets by 5 percent, so the school may enroll up to 210 students and place the others on a waiting list, Kidner says. Most applicants are from the Smyrna and Dover areas, with some from the Appoquinimink School District and central Kent County, and a few from as far away as Wilmington and Lewes, he says.

Of the other new charters, Great Oaks expressed the most confidence in reaching its enrollment targets. Launch director Patrick Ryan said this week that the school has received signed enrollment forms for 178 students, short of the 200-student target but comfortably over the state’s 80 percent April 1 benchmark. It anticipates having to place some applicants on a waiting list.

While Wilmington residents have been the school’s primary target, a significant number of suburban students have applied, he says. Great Oaks, which also operates charters in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn., will provide all students with two hours of one-on-one daily tutoring in language arts and math by hiring tutors to supplement its teaching staff.

With 272 applications in hand early this month and more come in almost daily, Delaware Met officials say the big question was how many of those students would actually enroll. With 280 seats to fill, and 224 enrollments needed to hit the 80 percent mark, the school had more than 80 confirmations last week.

Delaware Met’s key selling point is a project-based learning model that blends classroom instruction with internships in local businesses. Sophomores, juniors and seniors will spend three days a week in class and two days in their internships, Childs says.

Neither Freire nor Design Lab would provide interim enrollment numbers, and officials at both schools, like Childs at Delaware Met, expressed concern that so many families were waiting for the choice program deadline to make their decisions.

Alvarez called Design Lab’s application status “robust” and said 60 percent of the school’s applicants live in the Newark and Bear areas.

About half of Freire’s applicants are from Wilmington, and the rest from the suburbs, Porter says.

Design Lab’s enrollment target for this year is 280 students, Freire’s is 224. Design Lab would need 224 confirmed enrollments to reach the 80 percent goal by April 1, while Freire would need 179.

If a school fails to meet the 80 percent goal, it can be placed in “formal review” status, which could lead to “probation” until enrollment goals are met. Academia Antonia Alonso, a charter school that opened last year, went through this process after its April 1 enrollments were at 28 percent of its target.

Charters, like traditional schools, can continue to accept new students to fill vacant seats up to the start of the school year. Academia Antonia Alonso did so last summer and enrollments approached capacity by the time school opened.

“Opening a charter is a heavy lift,” Alvarez says. “It requires a tremendous amount of passion.”

No matter what the numbers will show on April 1, Freire is moving forward. “We’re close to reaching our goal,” Porter says.

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