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Community Education Building navigates changes

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Delaware Public Media
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Was it a case of trouble in Paradise, or merely a “learning moment” that played out over several months?

The words in the document spelled trouble, but conversations with the key players suggest that the “learning moment” description might be more apt.

The players here are the leaders of Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language charter elementary school that is completing its second year this week, and the officers of the Community Education Building, the plush high-rise two blocks from Wilmington’s Rodney Square that had served as the school’s first home.

On January 29, Academia filed for a “major modification” of its charter with the Charter Schools Office of the State Department of Education.

How major? It was requesting approval to move from the Community Education Building, regarded as the jewel of the state’s charter school movement, to suburban Barley Mill Plaza, across a soccer field from the rapidly growing Odyssey Charter School.

In explaining the rationale for the proposed move, Academia set out a litany of issues with the Community Education Building, including:

  • The school had no access to the building on weekends or after 8 p.m. on weekdays.
  • Students were losing significant instructional time moving two or three times a day from their classrooms on the sixth floor for physical education classes, dance classes, library, lunch and recess.
  • Outdoor recess on a paved parking lot a block and a half from the building posed additional time and safety concerns.
  • Building management set restrictions on the use of a large atrium for physical education classes, and suggested use of the Walnut Street YMCA was impractical because it would involve having young children walk three blocks in each direction.

 
Academia officials were aware of the rules for building access because they were spelled out in their lease, said Thère du Pont, chairman of the Community Education Building board of directors. And, he said, closing time for the building was extended from 7 to 8 p.m. for the second year of operation. The weekend and evening restrictions were established due to safety and security concerns and for budget purposes, since later hours would require extended coverage by the building’s security and custodial personnel, du Pont said.

 

The other issues, according to Aretha Miller, the building’s CEO, were discussed with Academia leaders and at regular meetings of the building’s leadership and the heads of the three schools housed in the building.

Officials of the other schools, Kuumba Academy and Great Oaks Charter, have not raised concerns similar to those cited by Academia in its major modification request, du Pont and Miller said.

 

Luz Garcilazo, president of Academia’s board of directors, minimized the seeming conflict. “Being in the Community Education Building has been great,” she said.

 

“When you write a [request for a] major modification, you have to list everything” in order to justify the change, she said. In this instance, that meant identifying problems with the current site and showing why the proposed new site would be better.

 

While the Community Education Building is outfitted with amenities seldom seen in traditional schools – like a cafeteria that was once an executive dining room – its design helped create some logistical issues that Academia officials had not anticipated, including the amount of time it would take students in kindergarten through second grade to walk up and down the four flights of stairs between their classrooms and the cafeteria. “Little guys with little legs take longer to get around the building,” says Mark Phelps, Academia’s head of school.

 

However, Garcilaza and Phelps, Academia’s head of school, said the primary reason for requesting permission to move was a belief that the school could better implement its exploratory learning curriculum in a suburban setting that will include outdoor classroom areas.

 

The state Department of Education approved the modification request in April, and Academia expects to have as many as 425 students enrolled in kindergarten through third grade when it reopens at its new home in August.

 

Academia’s departure leaves a significant hole in the long-term plan for filling the Community Education Building with four high-quality charter schools serving about 2,400 students.

 

After opening with two schools – Academia and Kuumba – in 2014 and adding Great Oaks last year, the Community Education Building needed only one more school to complete its roster. Now, once again, there are ostensibly two slots to fill. Complicating the issue, the General Assembly last year passed legislation halting the creation of new charter schools in Wilmington until 2018, or until the Department of Education writes a statewide strategic plan for education.

 

Du Pont and Miller, however, remain hopeful.

 

Both Kuumba, with a K-8 program, and Great Oaks, which started with a sixth grade and will grow into a 6-12 program, will be steadily adding students, du Pont said.

“We had 1,200 students in the building last year with three schools and we’ll have about 1,200 in the building next year with two schools,” he said. “We’re not shrinking, but we’re not growing as we would have liked.”

It is possible, he said, that adding a third school with a large enrollment could bring the building close to capacity.

 

Two sources familiar with the building and with Kuumba’s thinking raised the possibility that Kuumba could seek to add a high school program with a focus on the arts. Sally Maldonado, Kuumba’s head of school, did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Du Pont said that Community Education Building officials have reached out to several existing charter schools, located in Wilmington and in the suburbs, to gauge their interest in moving into the Community Education Building. He declined to name the schools that had been contacted.

 

Another option, Miller said, would be to lease space to a nonprofit organization whose mission is aligned with the building’s mission of promoting high-quality education in an urban setting. Potentially compatible tenants might be a behavioral health organization that could serve students or a group that would provide professional development support for school personnel.

 

A third possibility, du Pont said, would be for a college or university to place its teacher education program in the building. One benefit to such an arrangement would be for the college to offer the student teaching portion of its program on site and in an urban setting.

 

Moving forward, Miller characterizes the issues surrounding Academia’s departure as “a learning moment,” part of an evolutionary process in which a 2-year-old school discovered that the direction it had to take to thrive was not what it anticipated when it started and in which the building’s managers must continue to work out the logistical kinks associated with housing multiple programs serving students of different ages in a single building.

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