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Charter school expansion eyed in Sussex County

Delaware Public Media

Charter schools are finding a new place to take root in Delaware – in the fertile fields of Sussex County.

Since the passage of state legislation enabling the creation of charter schools in 1995, only one – the Sussex Academy of the Arts, which opened 19 years ago as a middle school and now includes high school grades – has managed to prosper in Delaware’s southernmost county. The Georgetown Charter School, an elementary school in Laurel, opened in the fall of 2001 and closed the following March when it ran out of funds.

Now a new charter, the Sussex Montessori School, is poised to open in Seaford in the fall of 2020 and organizers of a new high school expect to file a charter application with the state Department of Education by the end of the year. If it secures the necessary approvals by next spring, the Bryan Stevenson School of Excellence could open as early as the fall of 2021.

Sussex Montessori purchased the former Wheaton Farm site, on Stein Highway, last year and has begun transforming the barn and farmhouse into a school facility, says Linda Zankowsky, chairman of the school’s board of directors. Zankowsky was formerly head of the private Wilmington Montessori School and principal of the Mount Pleasant Elementary School in the Brandywine School District.

The school plans to start with an enrollment of about 260 students in kindergarten through third grade and expand over the following three years into a K-6 configuration. As a charter school, it is open to all Delaware residents, but its target area for drawing students is western Sussex County, from Bridgeville south to Laurel, and from Georgetown west to Seaford.

"We know there's not a lot of choice in Sussex, and families deserve an opportunity for choice." - Linda Zankowsky, Sussex Montessori board chair

In Sussex County, most public school residents attend schools based on local attendance zones. “We know there’s not a lot of choice in Sussex, and families deserve an opportunity for choice,” Zankowsky says. “We’re very comfortable with our enrollment target, and we hope to need a lottery for enrollment.”

Under state law, if a charter school has more applicants at a particular grade level than there are seats available, it must hold a lottery to determine admissions. (The law does permit certain enrollment preferences, such as for the children of board members and faculty.)

The school is committed to having a diverse community, and hopes to have at least 51 percent of its enrollment comprised of students in the minority and/or low-income demographic, Zankowsky says. The school has hired a community engagement specialist, Kaneisha Trott, to do outreach work in low-income and minority neighborhoods to inform those residents about the school.

Sussex Montessori received an $850,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation to jump start its development and anticipates securing about $800,000 this month through the state Department of Education – part of a federal grant to the state to promote creation and development of charter schools, Zankowsky says.

The school has been conducting a fundraising campaign to cover its site acquisition and construction expenses and is also applying for financing through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Zankowsky says.

“In comparison with [the history of] most charters, we really are far ahead of the game,” she says.

Meanwhile, organizers of the Bryan Stevenson School for Excellence are meeting with real estate agents as they search for a suitable site in the Georgetwown-Milton-Lincoln area, says Alonna Berry, chairman of the school’s board of directors.

Preliminary plans call for the school to open with about 200 students in ninth and tenth grades and add a grade a year to become a four-year high school, Berry says.

The school would be named after Stevenson, the Milton native and Cape Henlopen High School graduate who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing legal representation to people who have been wrongly convicted, prisoners who lack the resources to pay for legal representation and those denied a fair trial.

Berry, who has traveled to rural areas throughout the nation in developing plans for the school, says the needs of low-income students in rural communities don’t always get the same attention as those who live in urban areas, but “their challenges are similar.”

The goal, she says, is to “create a service learning school … with a hands-on curriculum.” The school would build partnerships with nonprofit and community organizations that would give students workplace experience that is closely related to what they are learning in the classroom. This approach, she says, would give students an opportunity to see the impact they can make in their own communities – and potentially persuade them to remain close to home when their education is completed, rather than moving far from the county.

Berry, a manager in the Delaware office of Teach for America, has experience as a math and English teacher and formerly worked in the state Department of Education.

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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