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Handful of Wilmington charter schools make downtown location work

Delaware Public Media
Kuumba Academy was Wilmington's first charter school, opening in 2001

The anticipated blossoming of charter schools near Wilmington’s Rodney Square hasn’t worked out quite as envisioned, but four city charters say they’re thriving as they deepen their downtown roots.

Kuumba Academy, which moved from its original home at Fifth and Market streets into the new Community Education Building nearly three years ago, has completed its expansion into a K-8 program, with 745 students enrolled and about 300 more on a waiting list.

Great Oaks Charter, also in the Community Education Building at 12th and French streets, is wrapping up its second year, with 340 students in sixth and seventh grades, with an eighth grade being added in the fall, bringing enrollment to about 440. Great Oaks intends to add a grade a year until it becomes a 6-12 program with 750 to 800 students.

Also wrapping up their second year downtown are Freire Charter School, with 322 students in grades 8-10 in the former Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building, across from Hercules Plaza on West 14th Street, and First State Montessori Academy, with 430 students in kindergarten through sixth grade in two former MBNA/Bank of America buildings at the corner of 10th and French streets. Both are still growing. Freire hopes to add about 130 students in each of the next two years as it builds into an 8-12 program. First State will add seventh grade in the fall and eighth grade the following year, with its enrollment projection capped at 660 students.

While those four schools have settled relatively comfortably in their downtown digs, one charter high school, the Delaware Met, lasted only one semester, in the fall of 2015 before shutting down because of management problems. Also, Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language elementary school, left the Community Education Building last year for a greener suburban environment.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The Community Education building, opened in 2015, has struggled to reach its goal to be a downtown charter hub.

With Academia’s departure, the Community Education Building was left with only two charters as tenants, half the number anticipated when the Longwood Foundation engineered the transformation of the former MBNA/Bank of America high-rise from executive suites to classrooms. The original goal was to have four charters serving 2,400 to 2,800 students in grades K-12 in the building by this fall.

Linda Jennings, the building’s CEO, says it’s possible that a third school could open in the high-rise in 2018, but there are currently no charter applications in the approval pipeline at the state Department of Education. “We’re looking for the right charter, one that will serve the kids in Wilmington well,” she says. “I’m always talking … to whomever will listen.”

Kuumba, which opened in 2001 as the first downtown charter, draws about three-quarters of its students from neighborhoods in or near downtown, says Sally Maldonado, the head of school. Its enrollment is 91 percent African American and 7 percent Hispanic, with 85 percent coming from low-income households.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
First State Montessori started expanding this school year and now occupies two former MBNA/Bank of America office buildings on French St.

First State Montessori, with a grade structure similar to Kuumba’s, draws about one-quarter of its enrollment from the city, according to Courtney Fox, its head of school. “There’s no one set population or area that we’re serving,” she says. “We draw from all over New Castle County. Some walk to school, some come from as far as Odessa.”

According to Fox, about 20 percent of the school’s population is considered low-income, 20 percent require special education services, and 40 percent are classified as minorities.

While the two schools’ enrollment characteristics may differ, both share two important characteristics: a supportive cadre of parents and a commitment to leveraging the cultural and artistic opportunities provided by their locations.

“We have a culture of volunteering, involvement and giving,” Fox says. “Families want to be a part of it.”

“Parents are choosing us intentionally,” Maldonado says. “Whether it’s our arts integration component or the cultural engagement piece, parents can see their core values reflected in Kuumba’s program.”

For both schools, artistic and cultural opportunities are practically right around the corner. Both regularly participate in events on Rodney Square and use the Grand Opera House for dance classes. Kuumba also has a partnership with the nearby Christina Cultural Arts Center. First State Montessori students regularly use the Wilmington Institute Free Library and its students have taken more than 100 field trips to locations in the city this year, Fox says.

Both Great Oaks and Freire primarily serve city residents, and each has a distinctive academic characteristic. Great Oaks, in addition to its teaching staff, has a corps of 58 tutors who provide each student with 50 minutes of one-on-one supplemental math and English language arts instruction each day. At Freire, the curriculum features a full-year class on building learning skills in eighth grade and double doses of both English and math in ninth and 11th grades.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Freire Charter School is finishing its second year of operation tucked in a downtown Wilmington neighborhood.

When Academia Antonia Alonso moved last year from the Community Education Building into a refurbished office building in suburban Barley Mill Plaza, its leaders cited several problems with the school’s original home. In addition to complaints about limited after-hours access to the building, they noted the challenge of small children navigating several flights of stairs to reach their classrooms and having to walk a block and a half to a paved parking lot that they used as a playground during recess. These issues were less of a problem for Kuumba, housed on the building’s lower floors, and Great Oaks, whose students are older.

Jennings says she is working with Kuumba and Great Oaks leaders to find solutions to problems as they develop. “No location is the ideal location for any charter school,” she says, but, at the Community Education Building, she believes “the benefits outweigh the challenges.”

Those benefits include a cafeteria originally designed to serve bank executives, a library that both schools use, a still-developing health clinic, a food bank and other resources for school families.

But the building doesn’t have its own gym – that’s why Kuumba and Great Oaks use the Walnut Street YMCA – nor are there any athletic fields in the area, a concern for Great Oaks as it develops middle school and high school sports programs.

Great Oaks head Kia Childs isn’t worried, however. Like several other Wilmington schools, Great Oaks is using Baynard Stadium for some sports, and she says the Community Education Building staff is taking the lead in scouting out other facilities.

Although it’s housed in two less prominent former MBNA/Bank of America office buildings, First State Montessori boasts a facility with two features missing in the Community Education Building: a gym and a interior courtyard that serves as a play area during recess. (One of the two First State buildings had been the home of Delaware Met.)

While the three newer downtown charters spent most of the 2015-16 school year getting acclimated and settling into their routines, they have made greater efforts at collaboration during the current school year.

Kuumba and Great Oaks are already collaborating on teacher recruitment and training and they contract with Delaware Guidance Services to provide counseling for their students. Some evening events Childs says that she and Maldonado are also exploring share some of Great Oaks’ special activities with Kuumba’s sixth- through eighth-grade students. For example, Great Oaks has an annual “college day,” during which its teachers and tutors share experiences about the colleges they attended with their students. Next year, Childs says, Kuumba students will be invited to participate.  In addition, Childs says she has been having discussions with Paul Ramirez, Freire’s head of academics, about sharing activities and learning more about what each school does well. As one example, she mentioned Freire’s use of DART passes as an alternative to school buses to get its students from home to school and back as a procedure other schools might want to consider.

Meanwhile, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, which is currently struggling to convince the General Assembly to approve its proposals to move the Wilmington portion of the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District and to increase funding statewide for low-income, English-language learners and K-e special education students, is also nudging charters and traditional school districts toward greater collaboration.

At a meeting this week, WEIC members discussed a report and preliminary proposal from its Charter District Collaboration Committee that suggests a compact among charters, traditional districts and the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District to share best practices and selected resources.

“It’s the opposite of the competitive model,” which has resulted in an often cool relationship between charters and traditional districts since Delaware authorized charter schools in 1995, says Eve Buckley, a Christina parent and University of Delaware faculty member who serves as co-chair of the committee.

WEIC, she notes, has no authority over the charters or districts, so any compact “would have to be voluntary, and it should focus on tangible early wins for both schools and children.”

More than 20 communities nationwide have used compacts to promote collaborations among traditional and charter schools, Buckley says.

Among areas for possible collaboration: professional development for teachers in high-poverty schools, coordination in kindergarten applications, continuing charter schools’ dual-language immersion programs in traditional middle and high schools, and adjusting transportation system so students at both charter and traditional schools could be served by the same route.

The committee has been working for two years, and the second was better than the first. The first year was “dreadful,” Buckley says, with officials of traditional schools claiming they were “undermined” by the movement of district funds into charters and charter leaders “feeling tarred by suggestions of racism and segregationism.”

In the past year, as members of both groups shared experiences, they began to learn that “the enemy isn’t as bad as they thought, that there’s a benefit to doing things in a more cooperative way,” she says.

And, Buckley notes, with the state currently staring down a $400 million budget deficit, “we don’t know what next year is going to look like.”

The “resource scarcity,” she says, “does present an opportunity” for more collaborations to develop.

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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