Delaware Public Media

State seeks to hold Delaware's charter schools to ‘you deliver or you close’ standard

Mar 16, 2015

Some might call it educational Darwinism. Others would say it’s simply the charter school bargain playing out as it was intended.

But this much is clear: new management in the state Department of Education’s Charter Schools Office and the introduction of a new application for proposed schools and a performance framework for reviewing expiring charters has forced charter operators to pay more attention to detail — in academics, in finances and in school management.

Even with the changes, the system is still far from perfect but officials, school leaders and charter advocates say it’s much better than it used to be.

And, they say, with five new schools opening this year but only two in 2016 and none the year after, the charter movement in Delaware is entering a period of stability, with its emphasis focused more on accountability and less on growth.

“The fundamental premise of charters is ‘you deliver or you close,’” says Jennifer Nagourney, who took over as executive director of the Charter Schools Office in November 2013. “We see a lot of schools that are doing great things, but not enough of them are.”

Indeed, the Charter School of Wilmington, opened in 1996 as one of the state’s first charters and featuring a curriculum that emphasizes the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math, has received national recognition for academic excellence. And Kuumba Academy and East Side Charter School, both in Wilmington, are often cited for their success in serving heavily minority and low-income populations. And the Thomas A. Edison Academy, also on Wilmington’s East Side, has a reputation for developing some of the nation’s best young chess players.

On the other side of the ledger, the Reach Academy for Girls and the Maurice J. Moyer Academic Institute have been ordered to close this spring after their charters were not renewed last fall because of poor academic performance. And four other schools — Family Foundations Academy, Gateway Lab School, Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security and Odyssey Charter — had strings attached to their renewals.

Also, in January, the Charter Schools Office rejected the only two applications it received for new charters at the preliminary review stage, the first step in the process.

“Neither application was viable,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy and support group for charters.

Nagourney, Massett and others attribute the increased rigor to the introduction of a new application format and the performance framework for the 2013-14 review cycle. The application requires prospective school operators to include more detail in their proposals. More importantly, the performance framework template establishes benchmarks for schools to achieve in academics, finance and administration and provides more consistent standards for measuring a school’s performance.

The result, Nagourney says, “has been a greater clarification of the Department of Education’s role, which is to establish expectations, hold the bar high, let the schools know how they’re doing and stay the heck out of the way.”

“There is more rigor at all levels, and it is a welcome rigor,” says Matt Swanson, executive chairman of the Innovative Schools Development Corporation, a Wilmington-based nonprofit that has helped numerous charters prepare their applications and provides back-room support to charters when they’re up and running.

Swanson believes that total charter enrollment “should never be more than 10 to 15 percent of the entire [public school] system.

Currently, the state’s 24 charter schools – 21 authorized by the Department of Education and three by the Red Clay Consolidated School District – enroll 12,521 students, or 9.3 percent of the state’s 134,932 public school students.

The addition of new charters in the next two years and anticipated expansion of additional schools would likely bring charter enrollments over the 10 percent mark, but they would not approach 15 percent of the total.

“There are not going to be a lot of new charters approved in the next couple of years,” Swanson says. If more new schools are proposed, they’re more likely to be located in Kent and Sussex counties, Massett adds.

“It’s not a matter of whether we have enough charter schools, or whether we have too many,” Nagourney says. “I think we should look at it in terms of quality.”

Thus, the big question facing charters in the next few years will be how well they deliver on the promise of quality.

While charter schools with strong academic records like to tout their performance, some critics have contended that enrollment preferences have enabled schools to skew admissions in a way that creates student bodies not representative of the broader population, and that this skewing has resulted in higher scores for the schools in statewide achievement assessments. For example, the Charter School of Wilmington has a “specific interest” preference that is based largely on an applicant’s scores on a placement text and on science and math grades in seventh and eighth grades.

The Newark Charter School offers a preference to applicants who live within a five-mile radius of the school. But state Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, says “it’s really not a five-mile radius” because the school is located within a mile of the Maryland state line. “It’s just wrong,” he says, arguing that the school should be open to all suburban residents of the Christina School District.

Such preferences concern Nagourney.

“I don’t know how much longer we can talk about the high-performing charter sector if there’s an asterisk next to some of them” because of the preferences, she says.

Jaques says the House Education Committee may consider legislation this spring to remove preferences from the admissions process.

Performance could well become an issue for some of the new charters in Wilmington. Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language elementary school, opened last August with a significant minority, low-income population.  Great Oaks Charter, a middle school, and two high schools, Freire and the Delaware Met, will open this August, and both have made city residents their primary recruiting target. The demographics at all three schools will likely be similar to those at the six heavily minority, low-income schools in the Wilmington portion of the Red Clay and Christina districts whose low scores on state tests led them to be labeled “priority schools” and threatened with a takeover by state-appointed leadership.

Freire and Great Oaks have come to Delaware with reputations for improving performance of low-income minority students, Freire in Philadelphia and Great Oaks in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn.

Successfully operating a charter school requires more than strong academics. Poor management and financial problems led to the closure of the Pencader Business and Finance Charter High School two years ago, and management woes contributed to the decisions to close Moyer and Reach.

Another charter, Family Foundations Academy, was about to have its charter renewed, with certain conditions, by the State Board of Education at its December meeting when it was learned that two school leaders had improperly used school funds. The financial mismanagement was not uncovered during the renewal review by the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee. The renewal vote was deferred and Family Foundations was placed in “formal review” status.

Since the start of the year, the administrators responsible for misusing funds have been dismissed, and, in an arrangement brokered in part by leaders in the Delaware Charter Schools Network, the Family Foundations board of directors has been reorganized, with several members resigning and four directors of the East Side Charter School board being added to the Family Foundations board. In addition, Lamont Browne, East Side Charter’s head of school, was appointed executive director at Family Foundations, giving him responsibility for guiding two schools simultaneously.

The Charter School Accountability Committee has recommended to Secretary of Education Mark Murphy that Family Foundations be placed on probation for a year. Murphy is expected to announce his decision at next Thursday’s meeting of the State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the state auditor’s office is examining the school’s spending records.

While Family Foundations’ problems weren’t caught during the review process, Massett says the issue’s resolution shows that members of the Charter School Office “are taking their oversight role seriously.”

It also illustrates the ongoing tension between the belief that charter schools prosper when they are freed from many state regulations and the need to ensure that taxpayer funds appropriated for charter schools are used properly.

“The situation with Family Foundations’ leadership calls for the need for more oversight, but we have to protect the autonomy that charters have,” Nagourney says.

“The more the state seeks to regulate charters, the less flexibility we have, the more we look like traditional schools, the more we get away from why we created charters in the first place,” says Scott Kidner, board chairman for the First State Military Academy, scheduled to open in August in Clayton.

However, if charter operators feel they are subject to too many regulations, they must acknowledge that bad apples in their ranks have made that necessary, Kidner says. “Unfortunately, it is in response to outright theft and malfeasance in some charter schools over the past few years,” he says.

Some of the state’s regulations are frustrating to charter operators.

Sometimes it seems that the state offers charters “a false autonomy,” says Bill Porter, head of the new Freire Charter School. For example, he says, Freire wants to use scores on the ACT test as an indicator of college readiness because minority students tend to do better on the ACT than on the SAT, but the state insists on using SAT scores only. Also, Friere in Wilmington wants to use the same database software to track student information that it uses at its Philadelphia locations, but the state wants it to use the same system other Delaware public schools use. Porter sees that as an extra cost and an inconvenience.

Massett says she is working with the Charter Schools Office to resolve concerns like these. “We are the advocating agency. Sometimes we have to say to the department, ‘just because we’ve never done it this way before doesn’t mean we can’t.”

Next week: Challenges facing new charter schools