Delaware Public Media

Odyssey Charter's probation ends as first class graduates

Jun 24, 2020

A tumultuous year for Odyssey Charter School has ended on a high note, with the removal of an 11-month probation imposed by the state Secretary of Education and the awarding of 61 diplomas at the school’s first graduation ceremony.

Following a vote by the State Board of Education, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting released Odyssey from its probation on May 29. Two weeks later, on June 13, the Greek-themed school held its first commencement exercises on the athletic field at its campus off Lancaster Pike west of Wilmington.

“We’ve concluded one chapter, building a K-12 program, and now we’re moving forward to create and maintain a baseline of excellence,” said Elias Rigas, who served as president of the school’s board of directors following the resignation of Josiah Wolcott in February.

Odyssey’s probation began last July, following a review by the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee, which found, among other things, that the school spent more than $90,000 in a manner inconsistent with its charter and provisions in its bylaws that created conflicts of interest by vesting control of the board of directors in the hands of the Greek fraternal organization whose leaders founded the school.

On top of that, Odyssey underwent a second formal review in February following the posting of recordings of school board members making comments about the race of a candidate for an opening on the board and jokingly referring to “building a wall” as a way of solving traffic congestion that occurred when parents of Odyssey and Academia Antonia Alonso were picking up and dropping off their children. Academia Antonia Alonso is a Spanish-themed dual-language charter school that rents a building on Odyssey’s campus.

“All probation conditions have been fully met,” Bunting’s letter stated.

The actions Odyssey took to end the probation included:

  • Repaying the $90,000-plus in questionable spending by agreeing to a reduction in state funds for the fiscal year that ends on Tuesday.
  • Revising its bylaws to remove the language that ensured that representatives of the local chapter of AHEPA (the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) and its affiliated organizations controlled a majority of the seats on the board.
  • Undergoing an audit of selected school accounts too determine whether any other funds might have been misspent.
  • Establishing policies to improve transparency, including giving the school’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee greater access to the school’s financial information.
  • Developing a plan to improve trust and communications between the board and the school community, including staff and families.

In addition, the controversy over the insensitive comments by board members led to four resignations, including Wolcott and those responsible for the remarks, and officials of Academia Antonia Alonso raised the possibility of moving the school to a new location.

Rigas said Tuesday that he has spoken several times with Academia officials in the past few months and they have not brought up the controversial remarks or mentioned the possibility of not renewing their lease. The lease runs through the end of the 2020-21 school year and notice of intention not to renew must be given by the end of November, he said.

To improve communications with the school community, the board has launched a monthly newsletter, called “Board Bytes,” on the school’s website and plans to resume occasional “town meetings” after the current state of emergency is lifted, board member Alisa Moen said. The board will also use the Zoom conferencing app for committee meetings, making it easier for interested school constituents to keep up with its activities, she said.

Despite the controversies during the year, Odyssey did not experience any reduction in interest during the school choice period last winter, Moen said.

“We’ve got a pretty heavy waiting list across all grades,” Rigas said.

Odyssey enrolls about 2,000 students.

The school also earned a significant honor, Moen said, winning recognition from the U.S. Department of Education as a “Green Ribbon School” for its sustainability initiatives and reductions in energy use, including tree plantings, gardening and participation in a range of environmental protection and conservation activities.

Odyssey will enter the new school year with yet another transition. The board of directors decided in December not to renew the contract of Head of School Denise Parks. A search for a permanent head of school is under way, Rigas said, and an interim head will be named in January until a long-term successor for Parks is hired.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, characterized the situation as “a changing of the guard” and said such a change is not unusual given the board saw a turnover of four members in February prior to expanding its composition from nine to 11 members.

“The board is looking to the future,” she said. “Change is not always bad. This will be the [newly organized board’s] hire. They need to be comfortable with their choice.”