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Two charter schools get green light to expand

Delaware Public Media

A pair of charter schools become the latest to gain approval to expand by adding grades.

Academy of Dover and Gateway Lab school  will both become K-8 schools in the next few years.

Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at each school’s expansion plans and what they’ll mean for their students.

A pair of Delaware charter schools have received state approval to satisfy their longstanding objective of turning themselves into K-8 programs – one by adding the primary grades and the other by adding a middle school curriculum.

Gateway Lab School, near Prices Corner in suburban Wilmington, which now offers third through eighth grade, will phase in kindergarten through second grade classes, starting in September 2022.

The Academy of Dover, which added sixth grade last fall to its K-5 program, will add seventh grade this fall and eighth grade at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

"Parents love the way we know everybody here. Students in middle school often get lost." - Michele Marinucci, head of Academy of Dover.

The State Board of Education accepted Secretary of Education Susan Bunting’s approval of the modifications to the schools’ charters at its April meeting.

Also approved in April was a plan for the Early College High School at Delaware State University to add middle school grades and to move onto the Wesley College campus in downtown Dover, which Delaware State is in the process of acquiring. A request by Great Oaks Charter School, in downtown Wilmington, to phase out its current sixth through eighth grades and become high school only will be resolved in June.

“That’s the beauty of charters,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, referring to the approved expansions. “We can pivot quickly and be nimble,” meeting the needs of their constituencies more rapidly than a traditional school district can.

Credit Academy of Dover
Academy of Dover
Plans for the new Academy of Dover building

The recent approvals will bring other changes that extend beyond adding grade levels. The Academy of Dover expects to move its seventh and eighth grade students into a new building on its campus at 104 Saulsbury Road in the fall of 2022. Gateway is looking to own its own building – either by purchasing the former St. Catherine of Siena school building it now occupies or by finding another centrally located site in northern New Castle County.

Gateway also plans a name change – from Gateway Lab School to Gateway Charter School – but Head of School Catherine Dolan says that change is about “clarity” and will have no impact on the school’s programming.

Leaders at both schools say the expansions were triggered by parental requests.

“We had been kindergarten through fifth grade. When we added sixth grade last year, parents asked us why we didn’t go higher,” says Michele Marinucci, head of Academy of Dover.

“Parents love the way we know everybody here. Students in middle school often get lost,” she says, noting the school’s small size. Academy’s enrollment cap will grow from 330 students to 370 this fall and then to 410 after the expansion is complete. Currently, K-3 are its largest grade levels, with between 52 and 58 students, each split into three sections.

Credit Delaware Public Media
The Academy of Dover's current building on South Saulsbury Rd. in Dover

Academy has enough room to fit seventh graders into its current building for the coming school year but will rent another building, soon to be built, on its campus to house seventh and eighth graders starting in the fall of 2022.

Most of its students live in the Capital School District, which serves Dover and nearby areas, with smaller numbers coming from the Caesar Rodney, Milford and Smyrna districts, Marinucci said.

Parents whose children are doing well at the school would rather not have to move their children into a traditional middle school, only to have them move again into a larger high school two years later, she says.

As an example, Marinucci mentions a sixth grader who transferred into the school this year and now describes himself as “a changed person.” This student, she says, “regularly got into fights at his prior school. Here, he’s one of our leaders.”

Gateway’s Dolan provided further insight into this dynamic.

“When parents consider moving a child into middle school, it sometimes becomes daunting, especially if the child has learning difficulties or is young developmentally,” Dolan says. “Parents will look for something smaller and safer,” not only a place that is physically safer but also one that emphasizes the child’s social and emotional needs.

"We help kids who have not been successful in a traditional setting." - Gateway Lab School head of school Catherine Dolan

For these reasons, Dolan says, Gateway has tended to have a waiting list for children wanting to enroll in sixth through eighth grades even though it sometimes struggles to meet class-size projections for third through fifth grade.

Having children enter the school when they start kindergarten or first grade should help Gateway stabilize enrollment at the upper elementary grades, she says.

Gateway parents, Dolan says, want their younger children to attend the same school as older siblings, both because of the curriculum and for convenience.

Also, the charter modification application notes that many students entering Gateway, whether in third grade or above, are already achieving below grade level. By having students start at kindergarten, the school believes its instructional model will enable more children to perform at grade level as they advance to upper grades.

Gateway currently has an enrollment cap of 218 students. After K-2 grades are added, the cap will increase to 264.

The school’s strength, Dolan says, is attracting a blend of families whose children have special needs and those who prefer smaller class sizes and an arts-integrated curriculum. “We help kids who have not been successful in a traditional setting,” she says.

About half of Gateway’s enrollment consists of special education students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEP), while another 10 percent require special accommodations because of their disabilities.

Credit Gateway lab School
About half of Gateway Lab School's current enrollment of 218 students is comprised of special education students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEP).

“We have inclusion here,” Dolan says. “We have the regular ed mixed with the special ed students. When you look in the classrooms, you can’t tell the difference.”

In addition to the changes in grade level and enrollment cap, Gateway received approval to change its name to Gateway Charter School, which is actually its legal name.

The Gateway Lab School name, used since the school’s opening in 2011, was chosen because founder Pam Draper, now Gateway’s business manager, modeled its programming after the Lab School of Washington, a private school in the nation’s capital that serves children with learning differences and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“The problem is, nobody in Delaware knows what the Lab School of Washington is,” Dolan says, and that forced Gateway leaders to have to explain not only the school’s mission but also to clarify that it is a public charter school, not a private school.

She says the school will likely engage in a marketing and rebranding campaign before the name change takes effect.

As for a possible move, Dolan says that will depend on whether the school can find a suitable location.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Gateway Lab School currently occupies the former St. Catherine of Siena Catholic school building

Just like many families, Gateway now wants to stop renting and have a home of its own, Dolan says. A purchase would give the school greater control of its destiny and most likely reduce annual costs.

Vacant school buildings and open office space are options, and so is new construction, she says.

According to Massett, there are at least five vacant school buildings in New Castle County – three former Catholic schools and two former charter sites – plus several now-open public schools operating at below 50 percent capacity.

Aiming to remain centrally located in New Castle County, Gateway has looked at sites near Newark and New Castle and along Kirkwood Highway. As businesses emerge from the pandemic, many will reassess their needs for office space, potentially creating more options, Dolan says. “We’ve been doing a lot of networking. We want to be ready to act if something comes up.”

While Dolan would like to find a permanent location sooner rather than later, she points out that Gateway isn’t in a must-move situation. “It’s not like St. Catherine of Siena is asking us to leave,” she says. Its lease of Siena runs through the next school year, and there is an option to extend it until June 30, 2023.

Purchasing the current rental space is also possible. “We may end up where we are now,” Dolan says.

Massett recalled a situation with the Positive Outcomes Charter School which resulted in that outcome.

Five years ago, Positive Outcomes, located in Camden, learned that the owner of the property it had been leasing for many years had decided to sell. The school, rather than deal with the uncertainty of a new owner, purchased the site, saving itself nearly $60,000 annually – the difference between monthly rent and mortgage payments.

For charter schools, there is not always a clear answer to whether it is better to rent or own.

If a school is pleased with lease terms and amenities offered by a landlord, as is the case with Academy of Dover, it may make sense to continue renting, Massett says, but the Positive Outcomes example demonstrates that a purchase can result in stability as well as long-term savings.

While not sure where Gateway might land, Dolan wants an outcome that delivers stability and savings.

“It will be nice to find a home that belongs to us,” she says.

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