A handful of First State charter schools are seeking renewals this year, and this week the state’s Charter School Accountability Committee met to weigh in on their status.
Contributor Larry Nagengast was at this week’s committee hearing and outlines each school’s situation.
The five Delaware charter schools up for renewal this year are virtually certain to gain approval to continue their operations for another five years.
Four of the five – Eastside Charter School, Charter School of New Castle, Gateway Lab School and Las Americas Aspira Academy – sailed through their second renewal meetings Monday with the state Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC). The fifth, Odyssey Charter School, which had been placed on probation earlier this year for charter violations related to its management and financial dealings, faced tougher questioning from the committee.
Other than Las Americas Aspira, all the schools up for renewal had previously encountered issues associated with finance, governance or academic performance.
Ultimately, CSAC voted to recommend that Secretary of Education Susan S. Bunting approve the charter renewals, which would run from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2025. Bunting is required to deliver her decisions to the State Board of Education at the board’s meeting on December 19.
The relative calm of the proceedings gave an impression of steadiness within Delaware’s charter school universe, which endured two high school closings during the 2018-19 school year. The Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security shut down in September because too few students had enrolled. The Design Thinking Academy, formerly Delaware Design Lab, ceased operations a week before the scheduled end of classes in June because its projected enrollment for 2019-20 was too low for the school to operate effectively.
The closures left the state with 22 charter schools, public schools that are intended to offer distinctive programs and are authorized to operate without having to adhere to all the regulations associated with traditional public schools. Charters currently enroll 16,366 students, about 12 percent of the state’s public school population. Two schools – the Charter School of Wilmington and Delaware Military Academy – are chartered by the Red Clay Consolidated School District. The others are chartered by the state. The state-chartered Sussex Montessori School is scheduled to open next fall.
The Odyssey meeting, the only one of the five to extend beyond the allotted 30 minutes, consisted largely of an update on actions the Greek-themed school’s leaders have taken to comply with the terms listed in Bunting’s July 22 letter that imposed the probation. Although the probation continues until June 30, a January 1 deadline was set for meeting three conditions: a bylaws revision, completion of an investigative audit and improving access of the school’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee to the school’s financial records. The school’s board of directors is scheduled to vote on the revised bylaws later this month and the audit is expected to be completed by December 15, school leaders said. New procedures for the budget oversight committee have already been implemented, they added.
The proposed bylaws revisions drew sharp questioning from Audrey Noble, the State Board of Education vice president, who is a non-voting CSAC member. She asked about provisions that would expand the board from nine members to 11 and “strive for” gender diversity in the board’s composition. Both queries were related to a key issue in the formal review process: a board whose majority would consist of members of the “AHEPA Family,” a group of Greek fraternal organizations instrumental in establishing the school, and ensuring a majority of “AHEPA Family” members of the board would be men.
Noble suggested that raising the size of the board “gave the appearance” of preserving the seats of “AHEPA Family” members even though they would no longer constitute a majority.
“It categorically was not” the intent, replied Josiah Wolcott, the Odyssey board chair, noting that an expansion would be beneficial in consideration of the school tripling in size since its creation.
On the gender diversity matter, Noble contended that the “strive for” wording in the proposed revision appeared weaker than the “provides gender balance” phrasing in Bunting’s letter.
“Some of the recommendations [in the bylaw changes] do not match the language” used by Bunting, Noble said.
Despite Noble’s observations, CSAC voted to recommend renewal of Odyssey’s charter without requiring changes to the revised bylaws (other than heeding a suggestion from the Delaware Association for Nonprofit Advancement to tweak a section on the length of the terms of the president and vice president). If the bylaw changes do not have the results CSAC intended, members noted, they can take further action on or before the school’s probation expires on June 30.
Here is a summary of the discussions on the other schools up for renewal:
Las Americas Aspira: The dual-language immersion school, which now provides instruction in Spanish and English to 946 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will open a high school program at a second Newark-area site next fall. Questioning Monday focused primarily on anticipated enrollment for the high school and how students are being recruited.
Head of School Margie Lopez Waite said an enrollment of 100 ninth-graders is expected. Three open houses have already been held, and school leaders are visiting other charter schools whose programming ends at eighth grade, she said.
The school has already received 44 applications for ninth grade. Las Americas students have been asked to register by Dec. 20 for the high school program, and 11 of them are among the first 44 to apply.
Eastside Charter School: Discussion at the meeting Monday focused largely on development of a strong leadership team and its relationship to academic performance. The K-8 school in northeast Wilmington, on the edge of the Reach Riverside revitalization area, enrolls about 480 students. Last year, the school met its proficiency goals for student performance in English language arts, math and science, but not in social studies and visual and performance arts.
At the initial CSAC meeting in October, Charles McDowell, former chairman of Eastside’s board of directors, noted that some of the school’s strongest academic performance occurred during the 2017-18 school year, when Aaron Bass, the head of school, was also serving as building principal. Performance slipped the following year, when Bass spent less time in the building because he was serving in a dual role as CEO of the then-struggling Charter School of New Castle. In April, the partnership between the two schools was dissolved and Bass subsequently signed a three-year contract to lead Eastside.
“It’s wonderful when there is a charismatic leader,” Noble said Monday, before noting that, for a variety of reasons, charismatic leaders don’t always remain in place. And Chuck Longfellow, the CSAC chair, said he “did not see a lot of meat” in Eastside’s plans to develop its next level of leaders.
In response, McDowell and Jocelyn Stewart, the current chair of the school’s board of directors, and Bass, participating in the session via teleconference, noted that several administrators and teachers are being trained to take on greater responsibilities. Bass pointed out that Katelyn Whalen, assistant principal for student report, managed the school well when he was out recently for health reasons.
Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network and a non-voting CSAC member, also cited Eastside’s partnership in the Reach Riverside redevelopment initiative. Reach Riverside is part of a network associated with Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that is providing consulting and technical assistance for the redevelopment. That alliance, she pointed out, can bring Eastside assistance from a successful charter school under the Purpose Built umbrella in Atlanta.
Charter School of New Castle: When known as the Family Foundations Academy, this school had a reputation for poor academics, disruptive students, financial mismanagement and an unhealthy staff culture, according to statements by school leaders that were included in the CSAC initial report prepared in November. In the last four years, a combination of new management and a short-term partnership with Eastside Charter, which ended in April, have produced a more stable environment. The K-8 school, housed in adjacent buildings in a business park near the Delaware River, enrolls about 790 students. The curriculum review in the renewal process showed that the school is meeting expectations in English/language arts and math, partially meeting expectations in science, and not meeting expectations in social studies and visual and performing arts.
One issue raised at the hearing was the $3.4 million mortgage the school holds on its former site on Delaware Street in New Castle. McDowell, currently the chair of the school’s board of directors, said the school hopes to sell the property, which is partially rented, but will refinance the loan if necessary.
Gateway Lab School: Gateway’s session was the shortest of the five meetings Monday, lasting only eight minutes. Gateway, housed in the former St. Catherine of Siena School building near Prices Corner, offers programming for elementary students who learn differently. More than half of its students require either an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan, federal requirements to ensure that a child receives the educational services or special accommodations needed for academic success or access to their learning environment. Since opening in 2011, it has experienced management turnover and difficulty in maintaining enrollment levels. The school currently enrolls 177 students in grades 3-8 and is planning to add kindergarten through second grade. Joyce Henderson, chair of the board of directors, told CSAC that the school has transformed its leadership. With the return of Catherine Dolan as head of school, a strong infrastructure is in place and the school can focus more on academic rigor, Henderson said.
The Charter Renewal Process:
Charter schools are required to submit renewal applications by September 30 of the year before their current charter expires.
After the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC) reviews the applications, a sequence of meetings, reports and public hearings follows.
CSAC held meetings with each of the schools on October 28-30 and issued its initial reports to the schools on November 7. Public hearings followed on November 13 and schools had until November 22 to submit their responses to the initial CSAC reports.
The second round of CSAC meetings with the schools took place on December 2, and CSAC delivered follow-up reports to the schools on December 4.
A second public hearing will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, December 10, in the Cabinet Room of the Townsend Building, 401 Federal St., Dover, and public comments on the renewal applications will be accepted by mail or email through Friday, December 13. Comments may be emailed to email@example.com or mailed to Charter School Office, Delaware Department of Education, 401 Federal St., Suite 2, Dover, DE 19901.
Secretary of Education Susan S. Bunting will deliver her renewal recommendations to the State Board of Education at its December 19 meeting. The state board may assent to or reject the secretary’s recommendations