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Del Tech may edge out UD professors from high school program

Courtesy of Delaware Technical Community College
Delaware Technical Community College's Owens campus in Georgetown hosts the Academic Challenge program, which may end its ties with University of Delaware

Delaware Technical Community College is potentially severing ties with University of Delaware faculty who help run an accelerated learning program for Sussex County students.

The Academic Challenge program began in 1987 and ushers gifted and talented students from southern Delaware through high intensity math and English courses beginning in eighth grade.

Del Tech and UD faculty currently share the course load, but it’s unclear who will teach these classes in the future.

UD spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippet says, “The university learned in the spring that Del Tech administrators are staffed to take over the program and UD professors were no longer needed.”

But a Cape Henlopen School District spokeswoman says they were under the impression a decision would be made in an upcoming meeting with Del Tech officials.

Students currently enrolled in Academic Challenge would still have the option of taking UD classes until they graduate.

But some Academic Challenge alumni are frantically trying to avert this loss of student access to Delaware’s flagship university in Georgetown.

“We were too far away from some of the big cities, from the university, so it was really a special thing that we benefited from in a really rural part of the state,” said Jessica Williams-Nguyen, a 1998 Indian River High School grad.

She says there weren’t many opportunities to be pushed academically in southern Delaware.

Now working on her PhD in epidemiology at the University of Washington, Williams-Nguyen doesn’t want future students to be without the options she had.

“Those courses were a place where they really treated us like grownups – like learners whose minds were just sort of expanding and ballooning out at that moment.”

And she’s worried a roster of solely Del Tech instructors won’t cultivate a similar environment.

38-year-old Jane Rigby, who graduated from Seaford High School, agrees.

Academic Challenge, she says, helped lay the foundation she needed to realize her dream of becoming an astrophysicist for NASA.

“It’s a small pond and it’s easy to get bored because everything is so easy. Academic Challenge was the first set of classes I had that were hard, that I had to work.”

Now living in suburban Maryland, Rigby sees just how rigorous public schools can be outside of Sussex County.

“They have advanced courses out the wazoo and Academic Challenge has been a way to provide those sorts of opportunities and then some to students in southern Delaware,” she said.

Rigby also worries future grads will have a harder time transferring the dozens of college credits they earned from Del Tech if UD no longer signs off on them.

Ileana Smith, who runs Del Tech’s Georgetown campus and has overseen Academic Challenge for years, says the school has more than 200 transfer agreements with other institutions.

She adds the student experience won’t change, pointing out University of Delaware professors only joined the program several years after it started.

“The changes that are being planned are part of the normal evolution of programs and they’re really focused on providing our students more flexibility and more choices,” Smith said.

She didn’t say whether that means more classes would be offered under the proposal and questions to the school seeking clarification weren’t answered.

When asked why UD learned about these plans in the spring, while school districts weren’t notified until the fall, Smith says there’s still plenty of time for districts to adapt to any changes.

“So we’re talking about something that is five years away. The timing to be planning five years from the time it happens, I would say, is very well thought out and gives abundant time to make the changes that are needed.”

Two alumni asked Del Tech’s Board of Trustees to add the proposed changes to their agenda last week, but that request was denied.

Rigby and others say they will keep fighting these proposed changes as long as they can.

“What they have is a very solid, academically very rigorous program and I think people are nervous because why would you want to mess with something that is a demonstrated, very successful program?”