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State seeks to create more charter school seats with federal funds

Delaware Public Media

Earlier this fall, Delaware received a $10.4 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education to improve state’s charter school system.

In addtion to supporting efforts to share charter schools' best practices, Delaware's Dept. of Ed. says the money will help add thousands of new charter seats in the First State.

Contributor Larry Nagengast examines the state's initial plans for these funds.

Starting next year, Delaware’s charter schools will strengthen their efforts to share best practices with each other and with traditional public schools.

Starting next year, charter schools will do more to evaluate and enhance the impact they have on student achievement and on the families and communities they serve.

Starting next year, charter schools will work harder to make disadvantaged students and their families more aware of the opportunities the charters provide.

Starting next year, charter schools will heighten their emphasis on growing high-performing programs and replicating successful schools in other parts of the state.

Those who have been following the development of charter schools in the state might note that the projects slated to expand in 2019 are items that most charter officials have been saying these less-regulated, less bureaucratic public schools have been doing since the state’s first charter school opened in 1996.

So, why the big push in 2019?

The primary reason for this heightened activity is to boost enrollment in Delaware’s charter schools by 19.5 percent – adding about 3,200 students over the next five years. And the state now has the means to finance this accelerated activity to support the charters – a three-year, $10.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Currently, are we doing all these things? Yes,” admits Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, a lobbying and support group for charter schools, who helped the state Department of Education write the application for the federal grant.

“Can we do these things better? Yes. Can we do them bigger? Yes,” she continues. “And do we need more funding? Yes.”

“Schools have a finite budget to do what they have to do,” notes John Carwell, an associate in the state Department of Education’s Charter Schools Office, “so a lot of the sharing of best practices is done out of kindness,” with administrators and staff members putting in extra hours without compensation. “The grant can free them up to do this work in coordinated fashion.”

According to budget figures submitted with the grant application, most of the funds would be channeled from the state Department of Education to individual charter schools, with 10 percent of the total set aside for technical assistance and administrative costs.

Neither officials in the Charter Schools Office nor Massett could break down where the 3,200 students they anticipate adding to charter school rosters would come from. “Some would come from existing schools, some would come from people moving in [to the state],” says Chuck Longfellow, associate secretary of education for operational support and chair of the Charter School Accountability Committee, which is responsible for reviewing requests for charter renewals and modifications.

However, Longfellow noted that overall public school enrollment – in both traditional and charter schools – grew by only 793 students between September 2017 and September 2018. At that pace, roughly 80 percent of the enrollment increase in public schools over the next five years would have to go to charters, whose 16,088 students now account for about 12 percent of total public school enrollments.

Massett contends that there is a demand for additional charter seats, saying there are 8,000 names on charter waiting lists. However, three schools whose charters are expected to be renewed next week – Great Oaks Academy and Freire in Wilmington and First State Military in Clayton – have recently requested charter modifications to reduce their enrollment projections by 5 or 10 percent.

In the grant application, the state projects that two new charter schools will open in the next five years, that nine existing schools will expand the grade levels that they serve and that four other schools will replicate their programming at a second site. Schools fitting into these categories could apply for some of the federal grant money.

Details of the grant application process are still being worked out, according to John Carwell, an associate in the Charter Schools Office. The grant application form should be available in February, with requests due in April, and the first awards made available before the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

Even though it’s too soon for schools to file grant requests, charter officials appear to have a good idea of which schools are likely to receive the grants. “We’ve already heard from a number of existing schools that could possibly apply for charter modifications to expand,” Carwell says.

Others are, as Massett puts it, “in the pipeline.”

For example, the Department of Education has already approved a charter proposal for the Sussex Montessori School, due to open next fall. The grant budget allocates $1.5 million in grants for two new charter schools, so Sussex Montessori could qualify for a $750,000 grant to fund its early operations.

The budget includes $4.5 million allocated for nine grants to schools that are expanding by adding grade levels or additional students at current grade levels. Schools that are currently building out their grade levels, such as the Greek-themed Odyssey Charter School, Great Oaks and First State Montessori, all in Wilmington, could qualify. So might Las Americas Aspira Academy, a dual-language school near Newark, which will submit a charter modification proposal by the end of the month for permission to add high school grades, starting in the fall of 2020. Assuming that the grant funds are divided equally, each could receive $500,000 to assist in their expansion efforts.

East Side Charter School in Wilmington is also considering an expansion to include high school grades, as part of the recently announced REACH Riverside revitalization project, but Charles McDowell, East Side’s former board chairman, said the expansion is several years down the road, so it might not be ready in time to secure funds from the federal grant.

None of the existing charters have announced plans to replicate their programs at a second site, but Massett mentioned Newark Charter School and Positive Outcomes Charter School as possibilities. A total of $3 million has been set aside for four replication grants.

According to the federal grant application, schools that receive funds must be deemed “highly effective” under the standards of the state’s performance framework, a template of academic, organizational and financial standards used to evaluate charter schools each year. Also, to receive a grant, schools must include in their applications goals for collaboration – sharing their own best practices with traditional schools and other charters in areas like “special education, STEM programs, data-driven instructional practices, response to intervention, literacy addressing the mental health needs of students.”

“Funding creates opportunity,” Carwell says. “I think of it as ‘venture capitalism for schools,’ creating new energy around ideas that are working.”

The collaboration requirement should be helpful to schools that have limited resources available to strengthen their curriculum offerings, says Leroy Travers, who recently moved from head of the Campus Community School into the role of lead associate in the Charter Schools Office. Schools that use grant funds to develop successful new programs could then share those successes with other charters or traditional schools, he says.

Some of the grant funds will be used to expand the fall “School Choice Expo” that the Charter Schools Network started several years ago and subsequently broadened to include traditional schools in the statewide school choice program, Massett said. In addition to the expo, outreach efforts could include producing more marketing materials and distributing them through churches and community centers in order to reach more disadvantaged students and their families to make them more aware of charter school programs, she said.

“Access to information is a major problem for the economically disadvantaged,” says Carwell, adding that he often receives calls from parents seeking help in navigating the Department of Education website for information about choosing the best school for their child. “A lot of parents feel they’re locked into their feeder pattern,” he says.

The grant does not call for hiring any additional fulltime personnel in the Department of Education, but some temporary employees might be brought on board to handle some of the outreach portions of the grant, he says.

While all the grant funding will be directed toward charter schools, Massett insists that the state’s traditional public schools will see some benefits too, primarily through the collaboration requirements included in the grants made to individual schools.

“We’re looking at how we partner to do good things for all of Delaware’s kids,” she says. “We hope that the funding will allow us to figure some of those things out.”


In other charter school news …

Charter renewal requests for seven of the 22 schools chartered by the state will be on the agenda for next Thursday’s meeting of the State Board of Education. The Charter School Accountability Committee, which reviews requests for charter renewals and modifications, has recommended that Secretary of Education Susan Bunting renew all seven requests.

The committee recommended that Newark Charter School receive a 10-year-renewal, rather than the standard five years.

The committee attached conditions to three recommendations. It is requiring the Design Thinking Academy, a high school near Christiana, to make numerous changes in its internal policy and procedures manual. Great Oaks Charter, a middle school in Wilmington that is adding high school grades, was told to provide proof that three of its board members had received required financial responsibility training. First State Military Academy, a high school near Clayton, was told to schedule a date for governance training for its board members.

Renewals with no conditions are being recommended for Freire Charter School and Kuumba Academy, both in Wilmington, and Positive Outcomes Charter School in Dover.

Delaware’s first charter school, the Charter School of Wilmington, is also up for renewal this year. It is one of two high schools chartered by the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Correction: A earlier version of this story said Leroy Travers previously served as head of the Positve Outcomes Charter School.   He was previously head of Campus Community School.  Delaware Public Media apologizes for the error.

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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