Delaware Public Media

Language-themed charters come together to collaborate

Feb 10, 2017

Before finding its permanent location in a onetime office park, the Odyssey Charter School embarked on a journey befitting its name.

In comparison, Academia Antonia Alonso’s move was just a short hop, but its relocation was dramatic – from a plush urban palace to the same suburban setting that Odyssey calls home.

It’s a unique situation in Delaware – two schools that emphasize multiculturalism and learning a second language, albeit with different approaches – sharing a campus and finding new ways to interact with each other.

Both schools are now housed in Barley Mill Plaza, once a major office site for the DuPont Co., off Lancaster Pike west of Wilmington. Odyssey purchased one-third of the 92-acre office complex from the Stoltz real estate organization in late 2014 after community opposition and a Court of Chancery decision doomed the developer’s controversial plan to build apartments, condominiums, stores, offices, restaurants and a hotel on the site.

Odyssey, with an emphasis on Greek language and culture, is now in its third year at Barley Mill. After two years in the Community Education Building near Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington, Academia, with its dual-language Spanish-English immersion program, moved in last fall, renting a portion of the space that Odyssey purchased. A soccer field separates the two schools, and a  vacant building owned by Odyssey gives both schools room to grow – or perhaps for a third charter to join them on the site.

Opened in 2006 in Wilmington, Odyssey operated at several sites as it grew into a kindergarten through fifth grade program. Then, at the urging of parents, the school’s board of directors received authorization from the State Department of Education to add a middle school and then a high school program. The school now has about 1,440 students in kindergarten through ninth grade and will add a grade a year until it becomes a full K-12 school with about 1,800 students, Headmaster Nick Manolakos says.

Before settling in at Barley Mill, Odyssey tried unsuccessfully to purchase the former Wanamaker department store site on Augustine Cut-Off, where Incyte, the pharmaceutical business, is now building a new headquarters, and eventually bought the historic Mundy farm site on Lancaster Pike near Hockessin, only to sell it after its plans ran into opposition from neighbors.

“It’s been quite a journey,” says Manolakos, with only a bit of understatement. “We’re having a lot of success, but there are still a lot of challenges as we grow.”

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

Academia had its struggles too, experiencing a stream of management and logistical problems since its opening in August 2014 with about 300 kindergartners and first-graders in the former MBNA/Bank of America office building it would share with two other charter schools. A significant number of students dropped out in the first few months as the school churned through three leaders, according to Mark Phelps, the current head of school, who took over in July 2015. Not long after Phelps took over, he recognized a series of problems with the gleaming facility. Teachers couldn’t access the building at night or on weekends, and the young students lost significant classroom time walking up and down stairs from their sixth-floor classrooms for gym classes, library periods, lunch and recess on a paved parking lot a block and a half away.

“It was a gorgeous space, but we had so many logistical issues,” Phelps says. “Out here, it’s better in every aspect.” This year, Academia has about 415 students in kindergarten through third grade. It hopes enrollment to reach 625 when it becomes a K-5 school in two years.

The schools – with Odyssey as the landlord and Academia as the tenant – have begun to collaborate in small ways.

“When we had our Hispanic Heritage Celebration, we invited Odyssey,” Phelps says. “When they did their Greek Olympic event (marking the school’s 10th anniversary), they invited us.”

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

Next year, around Halloween, when Academia does its annual “vocabulary parade,” when students dress in costumes depicting English and Spanish words, it hopes Odyssey students participate as well, showing off their Greek vocabulary, Phelps adds.

Other examples of sharing are under way or in the planning stages.

Odyssey’s cafeteria, big enough to cook for 1,500 people in its DuPont days, provides lunches for Academia’s students.

Students from both schools play on the soccer field during recess. Phelps expects Academia students to use a playground Odyssey is building on its side of the soccer field.

Academia now provides psychological services for its students through an internship program for doctoral students with a couple of regional universities, and Odyssey is negotiating to have the doctoral students serve its children too.

Both schools are also talking about pooling their transportation efforts – having Odyssey and Academia students who live in the same areas ride the bus together rather than have separate routes.

Inside their classrooms, the schools emphasize multiculturalism and acquisition of a second language, but not always in the same fashion.

The walls and whiteboards are a tribute to multilingualism – decked out with vocabulary words and student projects written in two languages. At Academia, kindergartners will count to 20 in Spanish; at Odyssey, they’ll do the same in Greek.

But the approach to learning the language is different.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

At Academia, Spanish is taught through an immersion program. Kindergartners take a half day in English, then a half day in Spanish, and reverse the sequence each day of the week. In first through third grade, it’s a day of Spanish followed by a day of English, with all subjects taught in both languages. Teachers, one using Spanish and the other English, must collaborate closely, making sure one picks up where the other left off.

The immersion system at Academia differs somewhat from the one used at traditional public schools that have launched immersion programs. In those schools, students get a half day of instruction in Spanish (or Chinese) and a half day in English, with certain subjects, like science or social studies, taught in only one language.

At Odyssey, students in kindergarten through eighth grade have two 42-minute periods a day in Greek – one in language and the other in math. Every fourth day, they take a class in Greek culture. At the high school level, students must take at least three years of Greek, a combination of courses that cover both language and culture.

While the goal of dual-language immersion programs is for students to pass Advanced Placement exams (and possibly earning college credits) in ninth grade, the bar isn’t set quite as high at Odyssey.

“At the elementary level, they learn contextual stuff – the seasons, colors, clothing,” Manolakos says. “In middle school, it becomes more rigorous, but we’re not where you’re going to hear someone give a speech in Greek. Greetings, common types of communications – that’s our focus.”

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media

Next to the door outside the classroom of eighth-grade teacher Alexandra Mylonas is a crossword-like array of Greek lettering that translates as “Education in Greek I love.” Inside, Mylonas is working with her students on food vocabulary – the words for fruits, vegetables and utensils. Next week, she says, the class will be learning words for items of clothing.

“And we’re really good on mythology,” she adds, breaking into a smile.

Like other charter schools, Odyssey and Academia cannot charge tuition and they are open to anyone who applies, with lotteries held if there are more applicants than available seats. Academia isn’t at the lottery stage yet, but Odyssey had more than 500 applicants last month for its 132 kindergarten seats.

The selection “was like an NFL draft setting,” Manolakos says, with the names being placed in a drum and drawn out one by one. “For many families, this was their first child starting school. There was lots of cheering when the names were called out.”

Because the school is popular and open to all, only about 6 percent of its enrollment is of Greek heritage, Manolakos says. A little more than 10 percent of the student body has special needs, and 32 percent are racial or ethnic minorities.

As it fills out its program, Odyssey is fitting out the second floor of its high school building and is conducting a capital campaign to raise $5 million for a multipurpose building that would include a gymnasium, auditorium, library, science labs and 20,000 square feet of classroom space.

Meanwhile, behind Academia’s building is an identical vacant structure, connected to Academia by a second-floor pedestrian walkway. Phelps says that Academia’s board of directors is thinking about adding a middle school in that space.

But that’s hardly a sure thing. Other charter schools have been asking about using the space, Manolakos says.

Might there be another charter on the horizon – one that would focus on a third language?

“I don’t know,” says Phelps, “but how cool would that be to have a campus that honored and celebrated multilingualism and multiculturism? That would send a powerful message to the community.”