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First State charter schools face a round of “educational Darwinism”

Delaware Public Media

Charter schools were in the headlines a fair amount over just completed school year - and those headlines certainly offered a mixed bag of news.

Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look the current state of charters in the First State.

For Delaware’s charter schools, the recently completed academic year was one of extreme highs and lows.

In September, less than a month after the school year started, the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security shut down because it didn’t have enough students enrolled to sustain its high school program.

In January, the state renewed charters for three schools even though they had requested reductions in their enrollment projections for the upcoming years.

In April, U.S. News and World Report issued its annual ranking of public high schools and listed two charters, the Charter School of Wilmington and the Sussex Academy of Arts and Sciences, among the top four in the state.

In May, the Design Thinking Academy, formerly known as the Delaware Design Lab High School, which two years ago won a $10 million grant to design a prototypical high school of the future, announced it too was closing, because it didn’t have sufficient enrollment to operate in the fall. It collected only a small portion of its grant money and never got around to developing its prototype.

In June, the state’s Charter School Accountability Committee recommended that the Odyssey Charter School, the second-largest charter in the state with 1,800 students, be placed on probation because of a series of incidents involving conflicts of interest, misuse of state funds and lack of transparency. A final ruling on the matter is due next week.

Sometime this month, the state Department of Education will start doling out the first awards from a three-year, $10.4 million federal grant to help new charters to launch and existing schools to expand or strengthen their programs.

What do all those ups and downs mean?

“This year epitomized how the charter school world is supposed to work,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools.

“The bottom line is that everyone wants great schools,” says Leroy Travers, who heads the Charter Schools Office in the state Department of Education, “but school closure is an essential part of the charter bargain…. No school should have a perpetual right to exist.”

"This year epitomized how the charter school world is supposed to work." - Kendall Massett, Delaware Charter Schools Network executive director.

Broadly speaking, in this public school niche where the key criteria for success are solid academics, strong finances and capable leadership, what’s occurring is something that might be considered “educational Darwinism.” The strong survive, and the weak fall by the wayside.

Travers and John Carwell, an associate in the Charter Schools Office, note that the last three charters to shut down – Design Thinking and Public Safety and Security this year and Prestige Academy two years ago – were all “self-closures,” recognition by those schools’ leaders that they could not sustain their programs rather than revocation or non-renewal by their state overseers.

“The way things played out show the system is working,” Travers says.

“If you’re not performing as you should, you have to fix the problem or stop operations,” Massett says. “And, in a market economy, if you don’t have enough students, you don’t have the money to run a school.”

That, she says, is essentially what happened with the Design Thinking Academy and the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security.

While both closures have officially been designated as the result of insufficient enrollment, other factors came into play at both schools.

The public safety academy, often referred to as DAPSS, came under heavy scrutiny in early 2018, when it was placed on formal review by the Department of Education for failure to meet academic goals for three consecutive years and for missing the mark on many financial and administrative objectives as well. The department set a series of new conditions for the school to remain open, including having at least 200 students enrolled by May 1, 2018, for the upcoming school year. The school met that target, but fewer than 200 students showed up in September, and it closed by the end of the month.

Before rebranding itself as the Design Thinking Academy, Design Lab underwent an explosive change of leadership, as cofounders Cristina Alvarez and Martin Rayala left the school in early 2017 following disagreements with newly elected leaders of the school’s board of directors over management and contractual issues. There were conflicting reports as to whether they resigned voluntarily or were forced to leave, but the school’s new leaders requested and received a charter modification that deleted all references in the charter to the management corporation that Alvarez had created to serve as the school’s management entity. After Alvarez’s departure, the school’s financial statements made reference to a “disputed liability” of $768,081; subsequent statements said the dispute had been resolved, but there has been no public accounting.

Design Lab continued to participate in the XQ Super School Project, but apparently received little more than $200,000 in start-up funding and $700,000 for the just-completed school year before XQ dropped the rebranded Design Thinking Academy from the project in April, citing “continuing deficiencies” and “no substantial evidence” that the school was making progress to carry out the promises made in the application that brought it the $10 million Super School prize.

In addition to those closings, three schools – Great Oaks Academy and Freire in Wilmington and First State Military in Clayton – were granted charter modifications in January permitting them to reduce their earlier enrollment projections by as much as 10 percent.

While those developments might suggest declining interest in charters, whose 16,088 students account for about 12 percent of Delaware’s public school enrollment, there is evidence of upticks as well. Las Americas Aspira Academy, the Newark-based K-8 charter, has received authorization to expand its dual-language Spanish-English program to include high school grades starting in the fall of 2020.

In addition, the Sussex Montessori School will also open next year near Seaford, starting with kindergarten through third grade and gradually expanding into a K-6 program.

Read more about charters coming to Sussex County here.

“Absolutely, there is still a market” for expansion, Travers says, noting that some charters have waiting lists of 1,000 or more students. “Our high-quality schools are able to expand,” and others want to improve to be considered high-quality operations, he says.

Other positives for charter schools, Massett says, include plans by Eastside Charter in Wilmington to create a new honors program that involves partnerships with four private schools and the involvement of students from Odyssey, Design Thinking and Newark Charter in advocating successfully for a new state law that bans single-use plastic bags from larger supermarkets and convenience stores.

Further hints of the vitality of the charter movement may come later this month when the Department of Education announces the recipients of the first awards from the $10.4 million federal grant.

The grant application proposed awarding $1.5 million to the operators of two new charter schools. Sussex Montessori was the only applicant in this category, so it is likely to receive an award, with the amount dependent on how evaluators score the application, Carwell says.

The grant budget also set aside $4.5 million for nine grants to schools that are in the process of adding grade levels. Las Americas, Great Oaks, and First State Montessori in Wilmington could qualify for some of this funding, Massett says.

"We're better equipped to head off poor ideas, poor strategies, poor management." - Leroy Travers, Delaware Department of Education Charter Schools Office

Travers, who joined the Charter Schools Office late last year after heading the Campus Community School, a charter in Dover, says some of the grant money will be used to improve operations of the office, a process that he says began shortly before his arrival.

“We’re better equipped to head off poor ideas, poor strategies, poor management,” he says.

One reason for that, Carwell adds, is that the office has learned from its past experiences with unsuccessful charters.

Each year, he says, the office hosts “technical assistance sessions” for groups interested in starting charter schools. These programs don’t get much publicity, but they offer “a full cup of reality…. We give them a sense of what it takes to run a successful charter school,” he says.

“I use real-life examples, either in the local context or from other states,” Carwell says. “We don’t sugar coat.”

And, he adds, telling stories about how charters have run into trouble – at least 10 have closed, had charters revoked or have been placed on formal review in the last six years – has convinced several prospective school operators to abandon their efforts.

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