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Mixed results for Delaware's charter schools in 2015-2016

Delaware Public Media

When the opening bells rang last August, they ushered in a year of great promise for Delaware’s charter schools.

Three new schools opened in downtown Wilmington, a harbinger, some hoped, of a new era in urban education, one which would put more city students into schools closer to home, giving their parents a better opportunity to become partners in their children’s learning journeys. One of those new schools would be the third to locate in the Community Education Building, the high-rise donated by Bank of America and fitted out with support from the Longwood Foundation to become a hub for high-performing urban charters.

Two more charter high schools also opened – Delaware Design Lab, near Christiana Mall, and First State Military Academy, in Clayton.

As school bells toll for the final time this month, some schools are showing signs of meeting their promise, but there are other indicators of dreams dashed and unfulfilled.

Consider these developments:

  • The Delaware MET, one of the three new schools in Wilmington, had its charter revoked after one semester after state education officials determined that the school’s management team was unable to carry out its educational mission and provide a safe environment for students.

“Delaware MET was almost a case study for what not to do” in opening a new school, says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools.
The school suffered from multiple problems at start-up, including the head of school going on maternity leave and the head of its board of directors, Nash Childs, contracting an illness that led to his death in December. “Nash was the heart and soul and glue of the school. His loss was huge,” said Matt Swanson, executive chairman of Innovative Schools, a nonprofit that provides support services to charter schools and had embedded an operations officer onto the Delaware MET staff.

  • The Red Clay Consolidated School District in December revoked the charter it had issued to the 7-year-old Delaware College Preparatory Academy, an elementary school serving fewer than 200 students in Wilmington. The school, which is closing this month, had been plagued by financial mismanagement and below-par student performance.
  • The founders of the Mapleton Charter School at Whitehall, an elementary school scheduled to open this fall in a new community being built just south of the C&D Canal, turned in their charter last November after encountering problems with a proposal to open the school instead in the Dover area.
  • The Delaware STEM Academy, a high school scheduled to start ninth- and tenth-grade classes near New Castle this fall, may not open at all. Enrollments far below targets prompted the State Board of Education to place the school on formal review, and the state’s Charter School Accountability Committee has recommended that the school be closed. Secretary of Education Steven Godowsky will announce whether he affirms that recommendation at the state board’s monthly meeting on June 16.

Following the state’s closure of the Pencader Charter High School, Reach Academy for Girls, the Moyer Institute and Delaware MET, “the bar has been set really high for us,” says Brett Taylor, Delaware STEM executive director. “The Department of Education wants to make sure they don’t have another failing charter school on their hands.”
Despite an extensive marketing campaign – a billboard on I-95, digital marketing, four postcard mailers to all eighth- and ninth-grade students in New Castle County public schools, open houses over the last five months and outreach to students on the waiting lists at other charters – Delaware STEM had only 125 students enrolled – one-half of its target – at the start of the week.

Taylor cites three reasons for the enrollment shortfall. “Because we’re a new school, you have to convince parents to take a leap of faith,” he says. On top of that, due to the recent failures of other charters, “parents are worried about whether charter schools are going to stay open.”

Finally, despite a statewide and national push to advance instruction in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, math and engineering, “STEM is a hard sell,” largely because of a perception that the curriculum is too demanding for all but top-echelon students, he says.

  • Prestige Academy, a Wilmington charter that had been serving grades 5-8, requested and received permission to eliminate its fifth-grade class, thus cutting its enrollment target from 300 students to 240, and to take 10 days off its school year, and making up the lost hours by extending the length of its school day. Prestige had experienced difficulty recruiting fifth-graders because sixth grade is the typical transition year into middle school and its longer school year was not appealing to families who had other children in schools with more traditional calendars.
  • The Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security, a high school located near New Castle, received permission to reduce its enrollment targets by 22 percent. Its new targets range from 330 students in grades 9-12 for the coming school year to 375 in 2020-21. Its previous plan called for enrolling up to 480 students in 2020-21. The school has been in a leadership transition and its directors felt it could better focus on its mission by serving fewer students, Massett says.
  • Back at the Community Education Building, the projected steady growth has stalled with the dual-language Academia Antonia Alonso moving out this month to a new home in the suburbs, where it will share a campus with Odyssey Charter School at Barley Mill Plaza. The building’s managers are considering alternate paths to filling the building to its 2,400-student capacity. (See related story)

“Opening a new charter school is challenging,” says Jennifer Nagourney, director of the Charter Schools Office at the State Department of Education.  For that reason, “we must ensure we only approve applications that demonstrate the ability to meet this challenge and ensure that charter holders execute those charters with fidelity.”
While each of those developments represents a setback for charter school operators, the year has seen a number of positive indicators as well.

  • The 2-year-old First State Montessori School, located on French Street in downtown Wilmington, has received permission to add seventh and eighth grades to its K-6 program, starting in the fall of 2017. As part of its expansion, it will move it will move fourth through eighth grade students next door, into the building formerly occupied by Delaware MET.

Courtney Fox, the school leader, said the school risked losing as much as 40 percent of sixth graders who would to transfer into a middle school with their peers but could cut that loss to about 2 percent by transitioning into a K-8 program. The school enrolled about 325 students in grades K-6 last year, and will add another 100 students in grades K-3 in the coming year. Full enrollment for grades K-8 would be about 700 students.

  • Delaware Design Lab, which experienced a slow start in reaching enrollment goals last year as it moved its planned location from downtown Wilmington to the Faith City Church complex formerly used by two other charter schools, wound up enrolling 230 students in grades 9-10 and has registered more than 85 percent of its 350-student target for grades 9-11 in 2016-17, says Cristina Alvarez, head of school. The school will add four modular classrooms for the fall and one or two more in the following years.

Alvarez is proud of the work of some of her students, including 12 ninth-graders who finished their math curriculum ahead of schedule and developed a proposal for accelerated math instruction for the fourth quarter of the year and the 35 “ambassadors” who developed their own presentations for guiding prospective students and their families around the school’s 12-acre campus.

  • Freire Charter School, which opened the year under a cloud of suspicion from neighbors worried about the prospect of increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic on their narrow streets, took a proactive step by appointing a resident of the Midtown Brandywine community to its board of directors. Enrollments for grades 8-9 hit the 224-student target, and the school is at 93 percent of its 336-student goal for grades 8-10 for the coming year, says Paul Ramirez, head of academics.

A hybrid transportation system seems to be working well, Ramirez says, with three school buses depositing students from suburban areas a block or two from the school, just outside the neighborhood, and others taking DART buses to Rodney Square and walking three blocks to the school.
“It’s quite peaceful. Over time, I think neighbors will see that having a fantastic school in their neighborhood will raise their property values,” says Laurisa Schutt, executive director of the Wilmington office of Teach for America, whose office in Hercules Plaza overlooks Freire’s building.

  • Great Oaks Charter School, which started last fall with 210 sixth graders, will add a seventh grade and 125 more students next year. A few students will not be returning, so there are some openings in the seventh grade, but there is already a waiting list for sixth-grade spots, according to Head of School Kia Childs.

“I wouldn’t call it easy, but this year was easier than last year,” she says. “Last year, we had to get people to sign up for an idea. This year, we’ve got a school.”
About half the students are from Wilmington, and half from the suburbs, and many came in performing below grade level, and some “significantly behind,” Childs says. With an academic program that includes two hours of daily one-on-one tutoring in math and language arts, “we hope they’ll be ready for Advanced Placement classes in ninth grade,” she says.

Three of the new charters that opened this year – Great Oaks, Freire and Delaware Design Lab – were based on established models (Great Oaks in three locations and Freire and Design Lab in Philadelphia) and had leaders with charter experience.

“If you have a strong leader, you are not about to fail,” says Schutt, the Teach for America leader.

However, both Schutt and Massett say Delaware has traditionally been weak in training for school administrators.

The most effective new schools, Nagourney adds, “had the strongest plans for the first year and had the best execution against those plans.”

“It’s about how fast and gutsy you are, how quickly you can make changes to live up to your organizational values,” Design Lab leader Alvarez says.

And, two years after the state implemented a Performance Framework with high and measurable standards for accountability, schools must keep themselves focused on meeting the objectives set out in their charters.

“When you’re in compliance,” Great Oaks’ Childs says, “there are no issues at all.”

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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