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Work remains to address troubled charter schools in First State

Delaware Public Media

In the last six-plus school years, about one-third of Delaware’s charter schools have encountered significant enrollment, management or financial problems. Six of them have either closed on their own or had their charters revoked while three others have required some form of intervention by the Department of Education’s Charter School Office.

“We need to do more sooner,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, a lobbying and support organization for the state’s charter schools, describing her desire to see officials at member schools do more to help their peers identify and solve problems before they get out of control.

“It’s not necessarily the authorizer’s role to support” schools that are encountering problems, she says. State law permits the Department of Education and individual school districts to authorize charter schools, but only the Red Clay Consolidated School District, authorizer of the Charter School of Wilmington and Delaware Military Academy, has done so in the 23 years since the enabling legislation was passed.

In recent years, the Department of Education has created a “performance framework,” a template of academic, administrative and financial standards that charter schools are expected to meet in order to continue their operations. Schools that fail to meet the standards risk having their charters not renewed, or even revoked. The department can also place schools on “formal review,” a status that requires them to make specific improvements in order to stay in business.

“Formal review is a great tool,” Massett says, “but it is sometimes seen as a bad thing, and it can start a downward spiral,” if the designation results in a lowered public perception of a school’s capabilities.

Retired Wilmington attorney Charlie McDowell, who served for 12 years on the board of the East Side Charter School and stepped in to serve on the board of the Family Foundations Academy, now the Charter School of New Castle, as part of a rescue effort, believes the state’s Charter School Office is doing well.

“I would say they are pretty good in getting on top of things when there are problems,” he says. “They’re doing a pretty good job with the annual reviews, the annual report cards [the performance framework], and they meet with school leaders and their boards.”

Even so, “there has been some turnover in that office” that might have had an impact. Massett says. Jennifer Nagourney, who came on board soon after the performance framework system was developed, resigned as of July 1, 2016, to take a job with the New York City Board of Education. Her successor, Denise Stouffer, took over that fall but left this spring to become head of Providence Creek Academy, a charter school in Clayton. Her position remained vacant until Leroy Travers, former head of Campus Community School, a charter in Dover, took over in November.

“When I was at Campus Community School, we found the Charter School Office very supportive. When we had a question, when we needed an answer, it was easy to call and get a reply,” Travers says.

Now that he’s leading the office, Travers says he would like to see “more boots on the ground,” with office staff getting out to visit the schools it oversees more often.

“We will not be satisfied until every school is demonstrating high performance,” he says. Recent changes, implemented before he arrived, include closer collaboration with state finance agencies to monitor charter school usage of “p-cards,” procurement cards used to charge purchases to state accounts, and sending a staff member to all meetings of charter schools’ Citizens Budget Oversight Committees.

Nonetheless, there are some critics of the quality of the Charter School Office’s oversight. Kevin Ohlandt, writer of the Exceptional Delaware blog, believes the office is reactive when it could be more proactive. “They’ll make periodic visits to schools, but not until problems come out publicly … that’s when they act,” he says.

Massett acknowledges that, especially with newer charters, sometimes the leaders “don’t know what they don’t know.” Having experienced leaders providing advice to those at newer schools might head off problems before the Charter School Office begins using it enforcement tools.

“Sometimes we’ve done that without knowing we were doing it,” Massett says, pointing to a mismanagement issue four years ago at Family Foundations Academy in New Castle. “We saw there was an issue, but didn’t realize there was criminal activity going on. I called Lamont Brown [head of East Side Charter School], who called Charlie McDowell [chair of the East Side board of directors], and we came up with a solution,” she recalls. That solution involved having McDowell and other East Side board members replace many of the members of the Family Foundations board.

Members of the network are discussing how they can provide mutual assistance to each other, perhaps even conducting an annual review that would be similar to the Charter Schools Office’s performance framework, but more advisory in nature, Massett says.

While the mantra at charter schools has long been, as McDowell says, “if you don’t perform, you get terminated,” Massett points out that “closure hurts kids too,” as occurred when the Delaware MET high school was shut down two years ago at the end of its first semester and the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security closed two months ago because of low enrollment, forcing students to find new schools and quickly get acclimated to a new academic environment.

“The network could determine what’s going on, in its early stages, figure out how to find the resources [to solve the problem], and help establish a different path for the school,” she says. “If we can provide help earlier, we can support each other and lift each other up.”

Here’s a summary of problems faced by Delaware charter schools since the start of the 2012-13 school year:

Pencader Business and Finance Charter High School, based in New Castle, had its charter revoked at the end of the 2012-13 school year due to governing board and leadership deficiencies, poor academic performance, procedures for serving students with special needs, and financial viability.

Reach Academy for Girls, which moved from a Brandywine Hundred location into Pencader’s former building, did not have its charter renewed after the 2014-15 school year due to poor academic performance.

Academy of Dover experienced financial mismanagement that was identified by the Charter School Office’s oversight process during the 2014-15 school year. The Department of Education placed the school on formal review process while the violations were reviewed. The school’s leader was eventually charged with stealing nearly $150,000 from the school between 2011 and 2014. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison and ordered to repay the stolen funds after pleading guilty to a single theft charge.

Since that time, the school's performance has greatly improved, according to the Charter School Office.

Moyer Academy, based in Wilmington, had its charter revoked during the 2014-15 school year due to poor academic performance, procedures for serving students with special needs, and educational program implementation, and school discipline and attendance procedures.

Family Foundations Academy, now known as the Charter School of New Castle, was placed on formal review by the Charter School Office during the 2014-15 school year after financial mismanagement was discovered as part of the office’s oversight process. Two administrators were fired and subsequently charged and convicted of theft and misuse of school funds. The school’s board of directors was reorganized, and the school was renamed. Since then, its performance has improved, according to the Charter School Office.

Delaware MET, a high school in Wilmington, had its charter revoked before it completed its first semester in the 2015-16 school year due to governing board and leadership deficiencies, educational program implementation, procedures for serving students with special needs, and financial viability.

Delaware College Preparatory Academy, an elementary school based in Wilmington and chartered by the Red Clay Consolidated School District, did not have its charter renewed following the 2015-2016 school year. It had experienced financial problems related to steadily declining enrollment.

Prestige Academy, a Wilmington-based charter school for boys, surrendered its charter at the end of the 2016-2017 school year after experiencing enrollment declines. It had previously been placed on probationary status by the Charter School Office.

Delaware Design Lab High School, located near Christiana Mall, requested and received a charter modification following a dispute between the school’s cofounders and its board of directors during the 2016-17 school year. The modification, in addition to addressing the leadership issues, authorized the school to reduce its enrollment projections, which the school had struggled to meet in its first two years. Earlier this year the school rebranded itself as the Design Thinking Academy. 

At Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, the board of directors removed Thomas Salome-EL as principal in September 2017, and reinstated him several days later, following protests from parents, students and staff members.

Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security, a high school housed in the former Our Lady of Fatima building near New Castle, surrendered its charter early in the 2018-19 school year after experiencing financial issues associated with a failure to meet its enrollment targets.

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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