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Four First State charter schools placed on formal review

Delaware Public Media

The State Board of Education assented Thursday to requests from Secretary of Education Mark Murphy to place four charter schools on “formal review” status.

Three of the schools, including two high schools scheduled to welcome their first students in August, are currently far short of their enrollment targets for the coming school year. The fourth, the Academy of Dover, is under investigation for issues related to financial management and oversight as well as academic performance.

When a school is placed on formal review, the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee conducts a detailed review of the issues that have raised concern and reports back to the secretary of education. The process can lead to schools being placed on probation or being ordered to close. Decisions would be announced at the June meeting of the state board.

Schools placed on formal review are:

Prestige Academy, the only boys-only charter school in the state, had enrolled 186 students in grades 5-8 as of April 1. With an enrollment target of 315 students, the Wilmington school needed an enrollment of 252 students on April 1 to meet state guidelines.

Delaware Design Lab High School, to be located in the Faith City church complex near Christiana Mall. As of April 1, the school had enrolled 137 students in its ninth and 10th grade classes. Its enrollment target is 300 students and, under state guidelines, it should have enrolled 80 percent of that total, or 240 students, by that date.

Freire Charter School, to be located in the former Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Delaware headquarters a few blocks from Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington, had enrolled 78 students for its eighth and ninth grade classes as of April 1. With an enrollment target of 224 students, it should have had 179 students enrolled on April 1.

In all three cases, the Department of Education cited enrollment shortfalls and their potential impact on the schools’ financial viability, since state funding for schools is based on enrollment. Prestige also was cited for academic performance issues; under the performance framework used to evaluate the success of charter schools, Prestige failed to meet targets for student growth in most categories during the last four school years.

Academy of Dover, a K-5 elementary school in Dover, was placed on formal review because of concerns with financial management and oversight, academic performance and compliance with its charter.

Questions first came to light in October, when Noel Rodriguez, the school’s leader abruptly resigned. Jennifer Nagourney, executive director of the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Office, told the board that there are “serious allegations of financial mismanagement” that have triggered separate investigations by her office and by state Auditor Thomas Wagner. It is also unclear whether the school has established a budget oversight committee, as required by state law, and whether that committee is operating, she said.

In addition, Nagourney said her office has learned that the school is involved in litigation that could have an impact on its financial viability, but she has yet to see court documents related to the matter.

Academic performance, measured by scores on the state’s assessment program, also declined significantly between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said before Thursday’s meeting that site selection issues contributed to Design Lab and Freire failing to meet their enrollment goals.

Design Lab had planned to open in Wilmington but was unable to attract prospective students to a location on Market Street. Enrollments picked up in January after the school leased the Faith City building, but still fell short of required numbers.

Interior renovations are now underway at Freire’s site. That, Massett noted, stands in sharp contrast to the Delaware Met, another new charter high school in Wilmington, which leased a former MBNA office building in move-in condition in downtown Wilmington and met its enrollment projections. In addition, Friere has run into opposition from its neighbors in the cozy Midtown Brandywine neighborhood, who are concerned about the increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic the school would bring to its narrow streets.

In a related action, the state board assented to Murphy’s recommendation to remove Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language charter elementary school housed in Wilmington’s Community Education Building, from probationary status. The school was put on formal review last spring after it had enrolled 85 students, only 28.3 percent of its 300-student target, by April 1. It was then placed on probation, and required to submit monthly enrollment reports through September, even though it had enrolled 263 students by late May. The school has since scaled down its enrollment goals and revised its financial plan so it can deliver all of the services provided in its charter agreement, Nagourney said.

The experience with Academia Antonia Alonso demonstrates that charters that fall short of April 1 enrollment requirements can, with successful recruiting, bring their numbers up to targeted levels by the start of the school year, Massett said.

“We have 300 applications and more coming in each day,” said Bill Porter, Freire’s head of school, expressing confidence that the school will eventually meet its target. School officials are meeting and communicating with applicants and their families to ensure they are making the right choice before completing the enrollment process, he said.

“We expected this,” Design Lab founder Cristina Alvarez said after the school was placed on formal review. Enrollment is now up to 160 students, she said, and new applications are still being processed. “We handle admissions carefully. We insist on informing parents fully about the school and we insist on showing them the building before they enroll,” she said.

At the meeting, Nagourney gave the board lower enrollment figures than those given earlier in the day by Porter and Alvarez. She said Freire had 90 students enrolled and Design Lab 138 as of Tuesday.

Design Lab, whose charter was approved in 2013 for a fall 2014 opening, delayed its start by a year, as permitted by state law, because it could not find a site in time to start enrolling students. The law does not permit another delay for Design Lab, but that option is open to Freire, if its enrollments fall short, because its charter was approved in 2014 for an opening this year. If Freire desires to exercise that option, it must do so by May 15, Nagourney said.

During the next two months, the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Accountability Committee will review the enrollment, financial, management and academic issues that led to the schools being placed under formal review. Schools will have until May 15 to develop a financial plan based on their enrollments as of May 1, and the committee will then study whether that plan would enable each school to meet the goals specified in its charter. Public hearings will be scheduled as part of the process, Nagourney said.

The accountability committee’s recommendations will then be forwarded to Murphy, who will announce his decisions at the June meeting of the State Board of Education

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