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Diagnosing Delaware Met's near demise

Delaware Public Media

After a problem-plagued first month, the board of directors of the new Delaware Met charter school voted this week to keep the school open and vowed to get its operation on track.

Of the five new charter schools to open in the state this fall, Delaware Met, which serves ninth and tenth graders in downtown Wilmington, was the only one to experience major operational difficulties.

While two other new charters – Freire in Wilmington and Delaware Design-Lab near Christiana – encountered some anxious moments before their opening days. Officials and observers reported smooth launches at those schools and at the Great Oaks Charter School in Wilmington and First State Military Academy near Clayton.

The troubles at Delaware Met started at the top and wound up impacting almost every aspect of school operations, said Ryan Harrington, acting chair of the school’s board of directors.

Nash Childs, the board chairman, went on leave for medical reasons, and the school leader, Tricia Hunter Crafton, went on maternity leave last week.

“When a school is starting up, it needs a lot of stability,” Harrington said. But Childs’ sudden illness was “a blow to our school’s leadership” and the planned transition from Crafton to the school’s interim leader, Sean Gallagher, did not go as smoothly as hoped, he said.

The result was a snowballing of significant problems – students adjusting to a new environment, teachers and students alike struggling to adapt to the unfamiliar “Big Picture” instructional model, and an array of discipline issues, ranging from disrespect to teachers and staff to student use of cellphones at inappropriate times.

“There were structural things that had not been put in place that should have been in place. I’m sure every member of the school’s staff and board of directors would say that,” said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools.

In an attempt to address its issues, Delaware Met canceled classes for three days last week in order to give the teachers additional training. The unexpected cancellations fueled rumors that the board had decided to shut down the school and turn in its charter, Harrington said.

As the problems piled up, 38 of the school’s original 261 students withdrew in the first month, prompting the state Department of Education’s Charter Schools Office to express concerns over the school’s financial viability with the approach of the Sept. 30 deadline for verifying the enrollment totals that are used to determine state funding. Innovative Schools, the education management service that provides administrative and logistical support to the school, has updated budget projections for the school and “we know we’re financially viable,” even with lowered enrollment levels, Harrington said.

State regulations require that charter school enrollments equal at least 80 percent of their projected capacity. In Delaware Met’s case, this would be 208 students.

Failure to sustain this enrollment level could result in the school being placed on “formal review,” which could lead to state sanctions ranging from probation to closure.

“Formal review – that’s their right to do,” said Harrington, referring to the powers of the state’s Charter Schools Office. “We recognize that the school needs stability but we believe we’ve answered their questions [on financial viability].”

Meanwhile, Massett said she is creating an informal program called “Intentional Connections” that tries to pair newer charter schools with more established ones that may have had similar experiences in the past. For example, she paired Delaware Met with the Positive Outcomes Charter School in Dover, which uses the Big Picture instructional model that Delaware Met is attempting to implement.

She hopes the program can serve as a sort of safety net for the newer schools whose leaders are still becoming established and “don’t know what they don’t know.” The network wants its member schools to assist others when they encounter problems but “safety nets only work if the people who need the net allow it to be used,” she said.

Freire Charter School, also in Wilmington, opened smoothly in late August after a protracted war of words with residents of the Midtown Brandywine neighborhood where the school is located. Residents questioned whether there was adequate on-site parking for the school’s staff and feared the impact of increased traffic and students walking on their narrow, tree-lined streets between the school and bus stops two or three blocks away.

Residents even took the parking issue to the Court of Chancery, leading to an out-of-court settlement in July requiring the school to comply with all city zoning requirements regarding off-street parking.

“It’s too early to tell,” says Lyn Doto, a Midtown Brandywine resident who opposed the school’s opening. “There are less than half as many students as there will be when the school reaches full enrollment [in the fall of 2018], and we haven’t had any bad weather yet.”

Freire has enrolled 235 students, 5 percent of this year’s target of 220 for its eighth- and ninth-grade classes. When it begins serving grades 8 through 12, it is projected to have 550 students. It is currently “on probation” with the Department of Education, due to its failure to meet enrollment targets by an April 1 benchmark date.

“We’re committed to working with our neighbors,” said Paul Ramirez, Freire’s head of academics, noting that a group of residents greeted students and handed out apples to them on the first day of class.

The first month has gone smoothly, in part because the school’s leadership team is working off the model developed at Freire’s two original locations in Philadelphia, he said.

Great Oaks Charter School, serving 212 sixth-graders in Wilmington’s Community Education Building, opened without any hiccups, launch director Patrick Ryan said.

“Opening a new school is hard work, especially if you’ve never done it before,” Massett said. In that respect Freire and Great Oaks, which also has campuses in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn., have the advantage of having a checklist and established procedures that have worked well in other locations, she said.

“Every member of our leadership team has had experience opening a school somewhere else in our organization,” Ryan said. “We may be blessed with having a better understanding of potential problems and how to deal with them.”

Design Lab, which had originally planned to open in downtown Wilmington, chose instead to locate on the campus of the Faith City Church, near Christiana Mall, after finding that its curriculum had greater appeal to suburban students than those who live in Wilmington.

Design Lab officials could not be reached for comment, but Massett said the only significant opening issue the school faced was in organizing its bus routes. “Transportation is a problem for everybody but it hurts some schools more than others,” she said, noting that much of the school’s relatively small enrollment (projected in the spring at between 224 and 280 students) is spread over the expansive Newark-Bear-Glasgow area. Like Freire, Design Lab is “on probation” for failing to meet enrollment targets on April 1.

“So far so good,” reported Patrick Gallucci, commandant of the First State Military Academy. “We just had one late bus on the first day.”

But that doesn’t mean the school, whose New Tech curriculum model and Marine Corps Junior ROTC program has attracted 200 ninth- and tenth-graders, is where Gallucci wants it to be. “It’s a work in progress, probably a year-long process,” he said.

It’s a challenge he said to bring together students who attended multiple schools and get all of them to adjust to a new set of expectations, Gallucci said. One major issue – reminding students that they are visible representatives of the school when they are off campus wearing their JROTC uniforms.

“We have to keep working hard to make everything better,” he said. “If we’re going to fail, we’re going to fail forward.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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