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Unique plan pursued to save a struggling First State charter school

Delaware Public Media

Having won approval Thursday for its survival plan, the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security now begins the real work of overcoming the biggest obstacle to its survival: recruiting 31 new students for the coming school year before a May 1 deadline.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education assented to Secretary of Education Susan Bunting’s decision to let the troubled New Castle-area charter high school remain in operation for another year, provided it meets four conditions specified by the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee following a review of the school’s performance and several new conditions added by Bunting.

Should the school meet those conditions and remain open through the 2018-19 school year, its leaders then plan to seek a new charter, one issued by the Colonial School District rather than by the state. That change, should it occur, would mark the first time in the 23-year history of charter schools in Delaware that a district would assume authority over a charter school previously overseen by the state.

Three of the conditions – submitting paperwork on how the school will begin using Colonial’s system for evaluating educators, hiring a new instructional leader by July 1 and hiring certified teachers in core subjects by August 1 – should not pose challenges, says Margie Lopez-Waite, who took over last month as president of the DAPSS board of directors.

Recruiting new students could be an obstacle, she admits, because Saturday is the deadline for students who applied to charter or district schools through the state’s choice program to select the school they will attend in the coming year. As a result, DAPSS (and any other charter schools that still have spaces to fill) may now only tap students from a smaller recruiting pool – those who have not previously applied to a school through the choice program.

“The timing is unfortunate,” Lopez-Waite admits.

But the larger issue cannot be ignored. “You can’t run the school without the enrollment,” she says, and if 200 students aren’t enrolled for the fall by May 1, the school will close in June.

One of the new conditions added by Bunting could also lead to the school’s closure this year. She added a June 29 deadline for DAPSS to deliver a plan for transitioning the school’s charter to Colonial.

For now, Lopez-Waite is optimistic. DAPSS couldn’t recruit effectively for the last two months, she says, because the uncertainty surrounding the Charter School Accountability Committee review meant that DAPSS couldn’t assure parents of prospective students that the school would continue to operate for another four years. With that cloud removed, the school can ramp up a full schedule of open houses, tours and informational meetings.

While the Colonial School District has played a key role in the DAPSS rescue, its superintendent, Dusty Blakey, said he had no intention of encouraging eighth graders in the district’s middle schools to consider enrolling there.

But Lopez-Waite, who is the head of the K-8 Las Americas Aspira dual-language charter school near Newark, said she would encourage her eighth-grade students to consider looking at DAPSS for their high school years.

DAPSS, which opened in 2011 with 117 ninth-grade students, saw its enrollment grow to 363 for the 2014-15 school year, when it graduated its first senior class. Even so, the school never reached an enrollment of 480, the projected target when its charter was issued in 2010, and it did win approval to for a reduction in its authorized enrollment.

The school landed in its current predicament in January, when it was placed on formal review status for failure to meet conditions specified when its original charter was renewed in December 2014. For the past three school years, DAPSS has failed to meet academic standards in set out in the Delaware School Success Framework and has fallen short of most financial and organizational standards as well.

During those three years, the school’s enrollment has declined sharply, dropping to 228 students by the state’s September 30, 2017 enrollment count, only 67 percent of its targeted enrollment of 340. To ensure academic strength and financial sustainability, charter schools are expected to maintain an enrollment of at least 80 percent of its authorized total. In addition, DAPSS lost 11 more students between September 30 and mid-January.

Lopez-Waite blamed the enrollment drops on several factors, including changes in school leadership, inconsistency in management, the failure of leadership to focus on the school’s mission, and a lack of commitment by some students and their families to the school’s vision.

“You’ve got to be sure people are here for the right reasons, and they have a vested interest in the success of the school,” Lopez-Waite says, referring to the staff, the students and their families.

The rescue effort came together largely through the intervention of Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, a support and lobbying organization for charter schools.

“The charter schools network is a very close-knit community,” Lopez-Waite says. “Kendall called me [in late January], told me what was going on and asked me if I had an interest in helping out.”

Next, she says, she got a call from Dennis O’Brien, one of DAPSS’s founders, asking her to lead the school’s board of directors.

Meanwhile, Massett had contacted Blakey, and explained the situation to him. He said he stepped forward because he knew Lopez-Waite, had served on the Aspira board of directors, and was concerned about the fate of the one-third of the DAPSS student body that resides in the Colonial district, where the school is also located.

Both Blakey and Lopez-Waite believe they are in positions where they can provide additional resources to reverse the school’s downward trend, while potentially benefiting their current school populations as well.

For example, Blakey points to students at Colonial’s McCullough Middle School, whose curriculum offerings include study in allied health fields. While this provides a natural lead-in to some of the career pathways offered at the district’s William Penn High School, some of those McCullough students might also be interested in some of the specialties at DAPSS – like training to become an emergency medical technician.

Similarly, Lopez-Waite has been looking for a way for eighth graders graduating from Aspira to continue their dual-language education in high school. While she doesn’t envision DAPSS becoming a dual-language program, she sees a benefit to the community in having students who can speak both English and Spanish trained as first responders so they can better communicate with a broader cross-section of the population.

She also believes she can use Aspira’s resources to help the Spanish teachers at DAPSS teach the language in a way that is more relevant to the students’ interests.

“Medical vocabulary needs to be part of their education,” she says. “For them, it’s not [knowing how to say] ‘how’s the weather?’ but it’s ‘how are you feeling?’ and ‘on a scale of one to 10, how bad is your pain?’”

Moving forward, as DAPSS begins recruiting new students, its next step will be to send the Department of Education, by March 29, documentation on how it will use Colonial’s system to evaluate its own teachers. Related to that, Lopez-Waite and Blakey say, arrangements will be made to have the DAPSS staff participate in the professional development training sessions that Colonial offers throughout the school year.

Then, assuming a sufficient number of students are enrolled to keep the school open, there’s the July 1 deadline for hiring a director of curriculum and instruction for the school. Lopez-Waite says the school already has someone in mind for the job but can’t bring the new hire on board until July 1, the start of the fiscal year for both the state and the school.

Meanwhile, Lopez-Waite says all of the current DAPSS staff – from Head of School Herb Sheldon on down – are being interviewed and evaluated to determine what role, if any, they will have at the school next year.

“There will be some changes” in management, she says. “I can’t say whether any job will be safe. Every person will have to validate their value going forward.”

Then comes the August 1 deadline for hiring certified teachers – two in each of the four core subject areas: math, science, social studies and English language arts.

While carrying out those steps, Aspira, Colonial and DAPSS will be putting together a written memorandum of understanding detailing responsibilities for each partner in the collaborative arrangement. In some instances, Blakey and Lopez-Waite say, DAPSS will be paying Colonial and Aspira for contracted services.

Lopez-Waite says she has made an eight-month commitment to lead the DAPSS board of directors. She expects to leave the board around the end of August, leaving the school’s new leadership to execute the details of the collaboration.

Blakey says he and other Colonial officials will be monitoring performance at DAPSS through the upcoming school year. If the school does not show signs of improvement during that time, Colonial will not step in and become a charter authorizer, he says.

While Colonial is stepping in to assist DAPSS get back on track, Blakey said Colonial currently is not interested in becoming an authorizer of other charter schools. It might have an interest in the future if a charter, like DAPSS, offers programming that is not available in Colonial schools.

That might provide an opening for Lopez-Waite in the future, as Aspira contemplates adding high school grades to its operation. Should it decide to locate in Colonial territory, it could request a charter for a high school either from the state or from Colonial.

Chuck Taylor, who wears multiple hats as head of Providence Creek Academy charter school, a member of the Charter School Accountability Committee and president of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, says he is pleased to see Colonial stepping in to assist DAPSS and hopes other districts would do the same if a need arises in the future.

But he doesn’t see it as the start of a trend. Nor does he think local school districts are better positioned than the state to oversee charter school operations.

“It all depends on the situation,” he says.

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