Delaware State University’s Early College School prepares to expand
Delaware State University's soon-to-be completed acquisition of Wesley College means major changes for students and staff at both institutions,
But contributor Larry Nagengast reports it's also helping usher in changes DSU’s charter school - the Early College High School.
What Evelyn Edney calls “a perfect alignment of all the stars” fell into place last week as the State Board of Education approved plans for the Early College High School at Delaware State University to expand and move to a new location.
The expansion will give add 150 to 200 students in grades seven and eight, creating a middle school curriculum. The move will place the entire grades 7-12 program in downtown Dover, on what is now the Wesley University campus, which is being acquired by Delaware State.
The changes – officially a “major modification” to the school’s state charter – will take effect on July 1, 2022 and will also give the school a shorter name: Early College at Delaware State University.
“We’re in a really good place now. We’re very excited,” says Edney, the school’s principal. “And we have a whole year to get the planning done.”
“When we started the Early College High School, the goal was to build our own talent pipeline,” says Tony Allen, Delaware State’s president. “Now we’ll be starting earlier at getting students into the university of their choice, and hopefully it’s Delaware State.”
Early College, one of 23 charter schools in the state, opened in the summer of 2014 and graduated its first senior class in May 2018. As its name implies, the school’s objective is to give its students a head start on their college education.
The charter modification request notes that the early college school model represents a commitment “to serve students underrepresented in higher education: low-income youth, first-generation college attendees, English language learners and students of color.” However, as a public school, it is open to all students; as a charter institution, if there are more applicants than seats available, admission is determined by lottery.
Thus far, the typical Early College student has amassed 24 to 38 college credits – roughly one-fourth of the number needed for a bachelor’s degree – at Delaware State by the time they have completed high school, Edney says.
One 2018 graduate earned 77 college credits while in high school, and a 2019 graduate earned 85, Edney says. Three members of the Class of 2018 completed work on bachelor’s degrees in 2020 – wrapping up a four-year program two years after they started, she says.
Many graduates enter Delaware State as second-semester sophomores or even as first-semester juniors and, as Delaware residents, may qualify for the university’s Inspire Scholarships, Allen says. Adding a scholarship worth at least $3,900 a year on top of college credits earned tuition-free while in high school can save families about three years of tuition expenses, and possibly more, he says.
It’s not clear yet which of the 21 buildings on the 50-acre Wesley campus that Early College will occupy. Delaware State has hired a master planning team to determine how all of the university’s programs, including Early College, can make the best use of Wesley facilities, Edney says.
According to the charter modification proposal, Early College will need 20 classrooms, two science labs and two music rooms as well as an auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, conference rooms and office suites.
The only thing that’s certain now, Allen says, is that Delaware State will consolidate complementary programs into a new Wesley College of Behavioral and Health Sciences on the Wesley campus this year while Wesley students who continue at Delaware State will take classes in other disciplines on the main DSU campus.
The move to the Wesley campus, Edney says, not only will give Early College the room to add two new grades but will also consolidate most Early College operations in one location.
Currently, Early College has its ninth graders learning in a “freshman academy” at the DSU Living and Learning Commons, formerly the Dover Sheraton Hotel, while grades 10-12 are based in Grossley Hall, an older building on the main campus.
With the change, Edney says, Early College students will take all their middle school and high school classes on the Wesley campus. They will continue to take college classes alongside regular DSU students on the main DSU campus, using the university’s shuttle bus service to move between the two sites. To minimize movement, Early College will set up a “study group room” on the main campus that students can use during downtime between classes, she says. A member of the school staff will be assigned to the room.
The change will likely bring significant improvement in facilities available for Early College’s student athletes. Edney says it is likely they will be able to use the gym and athletic fields on the Wesley campus. Currently, Early College’s basketball and volleyball teams play some of their games in an auxiliary gym at DSU but other teams play all their games at other schools.
Early College’s high school curriculum serves students at both ends of the academic spectrum – those who are struggling to make progress and those who are seeking the challenge of more difficult classes – and the middle school program is being developed to serve students with a broad range of academic needs.
“It’s the hardest job to take 14-year-olds and turn them into college students overnight,” Edney says. To take 12-year-olds – the typical seventh grader – and start preparing them for college might “is a challenge not to be taken lightly,” she says, but research shows that the earlier start can lead to a smoother transition to more advanced work.
The curriculum will be “rigorous but not stressful,” she says. Middle school students will likely have opportunities to take one or more high school courses while they are in eighth grade, she says.
When the middle school launches in 2022, new seventh- and eighth-grade students will participate in an introductory “bridge program” in the summer to prepare for the new experience, just as incoming ninth graders have been doing since Early College’s opening.
According to the charter modification proposal submitted last December to the state Department of Education, Early College plans to admit 75 students in seventh grade and 75 in eighth grade for the 2022-23 school year and expand those classes to 100 students each the following year. Currently, the school has about 100 students at each grade level. (It will graduate 91 seniors this year.)
According to that proposal, nearly one-half of Early College’s current high school enrollment consists of students who live in the Capital and Caesar Rodney school districts. Students travel from both ends of the state to attend the school, with 24 of the 407 students having addresses in ZIP codes that include the city of Wilmington and four students enrolled from both the Laurel and Indian River districts in Sussex County. Early College anticipates a similar distribution for enrollment in the middle school grades.
"Now we'll be starting earlier at getting students into the university of their choice, and hopefully it's Delaware State." - DSU President Tony Allen
The Early College program has proven to be an efficient feeder for Delaware State, with more than one-half of its graduates making DSU their college choice.
While other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have also been popular choices for Early College graduates, Edney speaks proudly about the valedictorians from the Class of 2018 and the Class of 2020 – both of whom enrolled at prestigious Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
The idea for having a middle school program was planted in 2015, Edney’s first year at Early College after a career in traditional public schools, when Tom Ford, an education consultant who was mentoring her, took her on a tour of other early college programs, including one that included a middle school. Then, during the 2016-17 school year, the Early College board of directors set up a task force to study the possibility but held off making a decision because the graduation of the first senior class was still more than a year away.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the state a $10.4 million grant to promote expansion of charter schools and replication of successful programs. Early College applied for a share of the grant money and received $750,000 but was unable to tap into the funds until the charter modification was approved last week, Edney says. That money will be used for planning and start-up costs for the middle school.
In its first seven years, the high school “has become a reliable pipeline of students who fit our profile at the university,” Allen says. “We’re drawing not only from the Dover area but from all three counties. The only problem I see is that we may be the best-kept secret in town, and now we want to change that.”