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Great Oaks Charter School takes less is more approach to its future

Delaware Public Media

Two weeks ago, we looked at some charter schools expanding to meet the demands they are seeing.

This week, we look at one - Great Oaks - looking to shrink in coming years to address issues it's having.

Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at their plans for the future.

Great Oaks Charter School, still struggling to find its niche after six years in Wilmington, will learn next week whether it can phase out its middle school program and become a high school only.

Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting will announce her decision on the school’s request for a major modification of its charter at the June 17 meeting of the State Board of Education.

The modification, if approved, would put Great Oaks’ grade structure in closer alignment with other charter and traditional public schools in Wilmington, where K-8 and 9-12 configurations have become more common. As city schools serving lower grades have added middle school programs, it has become harder for Great Oaks to attract and retain students for grades 6-8.

"We can use our resources better as a high school. Spreading them over grades six through 12, that's too broad a range."- Leland Kent, Great Oaks' executive director

The change would be phased in over three years. Students moving into seventh and eighth grades this fall will continue at the school if they desire but seventh and eighth grade classes will be phased out over the next two years, leaving a 9-12 grade alignment with a projected enrollment of 345 students for the 2023-24 school year

“We’re a small school, a little over 300 students,” says Leland Kent, Great Oaks’ executive director. “We can use our resources better as a high school. Spreading them over grades six through 12, that’s too broad a range.”

The state’s Charter School Accountability Committee has recommended approval of Great Oaks’ request, but with strict conditions to make reports on teacher certification, student recruitment and budgeting between July 1 and next April. In the quarter-century history of charter schools in the state, the secretary of education has seldom made decisions that did not align with CSAC recommendations.

The school has already begun taking steps to comply with the conditions, which include a July 1 deadline for submitting two plans – one for recruiting students for the coming school year and the other to ensure that at least 65 percent of its teachers are fully certified in their content areas by September 1.

In addition, recommendations include having to submit monthly updates on student recruitment and enrollment through September 30; submitting a budget by October 31 demonstrating financial viability based on the September 30 unit count; and having an enrollment of at least 260 students, or 80 percent of its authorized total, by April 1, 2022. If enrollment falls between 80 and 90 percent of its 325-student authorization, it must submit a revised budget based on those numbers.

“The conditions given to us by CSAC are all achievable and doable,” says Kent, who was named executive director during a management shakeup a year ago.

“We are well on our way with teacher certification,” he says, and the student recruitment effort includes multiple channels, including social media, mailings and door-knocking.

If the school does not satisfy the recommended conditions, it could be placed on “formal review” status, putting it at risk of losing its charter.

Kent, who taught sixth-grade math at Great Oaks when the school opened in 2015, says 2021-22 will be a “show-me year” as the school strives to firm up its position in Wilmington’s education landscape. He says he has been spending much of his time “building rapport [within the community] and changing the narrative” about the school.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Great Oaks is among the schools operating in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington.

As one of the three original charter school tenants in the Community Education Building near Wilmington’s Rodney Square, Great Oaks started with great promise, enrolling 212 sixth grade students in 2015 and planning to add one grade and 100 more students annually, with its first high school seniors scheduled to graduate in 2022. A key selling point for Great Oaks was its extended school day and its use of high-dosage tutoring – at least two hours of individual instruction daily in English and math – to improve outcomes for its target demographic, children from low-income families whose academic work had fallen below grade levels in their elementary years.

While the first three years went pretty much according to plan, both Kent and Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said problems began to develop when the first students entered the ninth grade.

Kent, observing the situation as a middle school faculty member, said the school had “strong leaders” as it expanded rapidly but those leaders left before establishing the support systems needed to serve students at both the middle and high school levels. Massett described the problem as “growing pains,” noting that there have been several instances of Delaware charter schools having management issues as they transitioned out of their startup mode.

Massett noted that the school was part of a larger organization, headed by the Great Oaks Foundation based in New York City that operated schools spread between Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Baltimore. While being part of an organization known for managing solid charter schools was perceived as an asset at the outset, the distance between the foundation’s leaders and Wilmington became somewhat of a liability when trying to resolve problems that required quick responses, she said.

Enrollment swings and management issues negatively impacted the school in the year or more before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For example, the original sixth-grade class had dropped to 106 students in 10th grade in 2019 and to 65 in 11th grade for the just-ended school year. For the 2019-20 school year, the school had enrollment targets of 100 students for grades 6-8, but actual enrollments ranged from 70 in sixth grade to 123 in eighth grade. For 2020-21, only 16 sixth graders were enrolled while numbers for grades 7-10 ranged from 42 to 87 students.

"We talk to schools about having a succession plan. You want to make sure your number two person is ready to step into the number one spot." - Delaware Charter Schools Network executive director Kendall Massett

Meanwhile, Great Oaks’ leadership experienced unanticipated changes as two administrators moved out of state and others decided to quit the education field, leaving the school with a management void. “When you lose strong leaders without having a good structure in place it becomes chaotic,” Kent says.

“We talk to schools about having a succession plan. You want to make sure your number two person is ready to step into the number one spot,” Massett says.

As part of its reorganization, the school retains its ties to the Great Oaks Foundation but decision-making is vested in a Delaware-based board of directors.

Kent was still settling into his new role, trying to solidify the school’s management, when the pandemic hit, adding another layer of challenges.

Great Oaks’ vision, Massett says, is “to build a bridge between the school and the community.”

Some of that vision, especially the curriculum model and employing tutors, known as “fellows,” who agree to live in the community where they work, is rooted in the traditions of the Great Oaks Foundation. Other pieces of the vision show up in the partnerships the school is trying to develop.

Two are with WAVE, a new nonprofit that set up learning pods for small groups of students who required childcare while receiving remote instruction during the pandemic, and the Community Intervention Team, which provides similar services while focusing on reducing violence in Wilmington neighborhoods.

Another is with Network Connect, which provides summer, weekend and after-school programming in academics, athletics, the arts, youth leadership and social emotional learning. Also under development is a partnership with The Warehouse, the teen-focused recreation, education, arts, career and health center on Wilmington’s East Side.

In addition, Kent says Great Oaks is offering a summer enrichment program that will be open to students from other schools as well. Summer offerings will cover a range of interests, including math, science, the arts and community service. Some of the summer program participants may eventually decide to enroll at Great Oaks, he says, “but whether they come or not, we want them to be able to say they had a great experience here.”

Just as the summer program will include some community service activities, Kent intends to build that component into programming for the regular school year. He says he will be working to establish partnerships with city businesses and nonprofit organizations, with the hope of attracting mentors into the school and providing students with opportunities for community service.

“We want our students to have a feeling of pride, and a sense of ownership in the community,” he says.

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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