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Charter school applications seek new schools in New Castle and Sussex Counties

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The state’s Department of Education is considering a pair of new charter school applications.

One - in Sussex County - has been in the works for a few years. The other is in New Castle County and faces some pushback from nearby traditional public schools. If approved, the schools would open in Fall 2023.

Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at these proposed charter schools.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss two new charter school applications.

The State Department of Education began its review process for two proposed charter schools this week and one of the applications is already showing signs of reviving the recurring battle between charters and traditional public schools.

The potential controversy involves the proposal by the Freire Charter School Network to open a high school in the greater Newark area. Freire, whose headquarters are in Philadelphia, has operated a high school in downtown Wilmington since 2015. About half of that school’s enrollment lives outside of Wilmington, many of them in the Newark-Christiana area, Freire officials say.

The second application is for the Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence, named after the Milton native who has become a noted civil rights attorney and human rights activist. The proposed school, for grades 6-12, would be located in the Georgetown area, starting temporarily on Delaware Technical Community College’s campus a building now used by the Howard T. Ennis School.

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Delaware Academy for School Leadership
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Univ. of Delaware

The application process for each proposal includes two meetings with the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee, two public hearings, public comment and the back-and-forth of committee reports and applicants’ responses. Secretary of Education Mark Holodick will issue his decision on whether to approve the applications at the State Board of Education’s meeting on April 21.

The Freire application has already resurrected hard feelings among supporters of the Christina School District’s three traditional high schools – Newark, Christiana and Glasgow. Those schools are currently operating at well below capacity, in large part because of the growth of high school programs at the Charter School of Newark and another charter, the dual-language Las Americas Aspira Academy.

Thus far, that debate is being played out largely on social media. Supporters of the school district say the charters are draining Christina of resources needed to keep the traditional schools strong. Charter supporters say their schools offer students the choice of a better educational program than the district provides. Some critics of the school district say attribute the popularity of charters to the inability of the district’s administration and school board to improve the high schools.

In setting its annual legislative priorities, the Christina Board of Education last month passed a resolution asking that the General Assembly approve a moratorium on the approval of new charter schools or the expansion of existing charters. Board of Education President Keeley Powell said Monday that the resolution was not directed at Freire. Rather, she said, a moratorium would help “stabilize who the players are at the table” as Gov. John Carney advances his plan for a Wilmington Learning Collaborative and the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity develops proposals that could lead to realigning school districts in New Castle County and reforming school funding statewide.

The proposed moratorium also has the support of two other organization, the Friends of the Christina School District and the Newark NAACP, Powell said.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, expressed opposition to the moratorium idea, especially as it might relate to Freire. The Wilmington Learning Collaborative, as currently proposed, would have no impact on high schools and it may take several years for any Redding Consortium recommendations to come to fruition, she said. “In the meantime, why should we wait to provide students with an option that we know is excellent?” she asked.

State Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, who is co-chair of the Redding Consortium and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she understands Christina’s interest in a moratorium. There are significant issues associated with charter schools and the state’s larger choice option for public school attendance that could be addressed by either the Redding Consortium or the Legislature, she said.

However, she said, “the appetite for a moratorium [among members of the General Assembly] is pretty weak.” She cited two reasons: any action by the General Assembly would be perceived as an attack on the pending applications and there’s little time on the legislative calendar to move such legislation to passage before the Department of Education completes its review proess.

Here is a look at the applications for the two proposed charter schools.

Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence

If its charter application is approved, the Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence would open in the fall of 2023, starting with sixth and seventh grades and adding a grade a year until it serves the 6-12 spectrum in its sixth year. Organizers project an enrollment of 250 students in the first year, increasing to 750 when all grade levels are served.

Chantalle Ashford
Chantalle Ashford, Board of Directors chair - Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence

Chantalle Ashford, chair of the board of directors, says organizers are looking for a permanent site for the school but will start by leasing the current Ennis School building on the Delaware Tech campus. The Indian River School District has a new building for the Ennis School under construction north of Millsboro, and it should be ready for occupancy before the end of the year, district spokesman David Maull said.

The Stevenson School will place an emphasis on service learning, getting students out into the community to apply what they are learning in the classroom, Ashford says. The idea, she says, is for students to explore “how can we make change, how can we be leaders, how can we give back to the community?”

As an example, she cited ongoing discussions about Sussex County’s water supply: its quality, its use, conservation and the impact of poultry plants. “Students could learn what happens to our water supply, write letters to businesses and to legislators, host events and educate the community…. There is power in students doing those things,” she says.

“For me, the biggest thing is that this school will be a place that I would have loved going to."
Chantalle Ashford, chair of the Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence board of directors

The school will have a rigorous academic curriculum, with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program available to students at all grade levels. It also expects to partner with area colleges and universities to offer dual-learning classes, enabling students to earn college and high school credits at the same time, Ashford says.

“We want our students to have the opportunity to attend the best-rated colleges in the country. We will also offer career preparation, so they will have practical experiences too,” she says.

While the school is founded on the life philosophy of Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative has won the exoneration of death row prisoners and whose book “Just Mercy” became the subject of a film starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, Ashford is not clear what role Stevenson will play at the school beyond serving on its principal advisory board.

“We do share everything that we’re doing with him,” she said, and the first classes of students will read “Just Mercy” as a start-of-school assignment.

The Stevenson School has begun lining up its leadership.

Julius Mullen has been named executive director and Kirsten Croner dean of academic excellence. Mullen has more than 20 years of experience in executive leadership and nonprofit management with two Delaware organizations, Children and Families first and Delaware Guidance Services. Croner is a former teacher and served as manager of teacher leadership development for Teach For America Delaware.

Ashford, a Dover High School graduate who now teaches at Indian River High School, is also a former manager at Teach For America Delaware. “For me, the biggest thing is that this school will be a place that I would have loved going to,” she says.

Freire Newark

In its application, Freire projects an enrollment of 225 students in grades 9-10 in 2023-24, then adding a grade year, with enrollment growing to 435 in 2025-26 and topping out at 500 a year later.

Freire plans to replicate its current Wilmington program in most respects. “Think of it as a 2.0 version,” says Kelly Davenport, a Freire co-founder. “The heart and soul of the program will be the same.”

Freire schools, both in Philadelphia and Delaware, are based on the thinking of Paulo Freire, a 20th-century Brazilian philosopher-educator and champion of the oppressed who believed that education would enable the poor to regain their sense of humanity and overcome their condition.

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Friere Wilmington
Nate Durant, co-head of Freire Wilmington and proposed head of the new Freire Newark school.

“Our mission is college preparedness,” says Nate Durant, co-head of Freire Wilmington and proposed head of the new school. “We are anti-racist in teaching and learning. We emphasize social justice. We value acceleration over remediation.” The school preaches a “graduation x2” mantra, preparing its students to complete college as well.

Durant notes that 98 percent of Friere Wilmington’s first graduating class, in 2019, was accepted to college and that 79 percent of its 2021 graduates, despite dealing with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, were accepted to at least one college.

“What they’re doing for kids [in Wilmington] is amazing,” Massett says. “They’re getting kids who may not have had an opportunity to go to college and building a real sense of family and community.”

If the charter application is approved, the two Freire schools would be overseen by a single board of directors.

In addition to Durant, Freire has designated two other Wilmington staff members for key leadership positions at the proposed suburban site, Darren Rainey as head of academics and Khyle Nelson as dean of students.

“Our mission is college preparedness. We are anti-racist in teaching and learning. We emphasize social justice. We value acceleration over remediation."
Nate Durant, co-head of Freire Wilmington and proposed head of the new Freire Newark school.

Although its application states that Freire is negotiating to lease approximately 60,000 square feet of space in a commercial building on a 6.72-acre site, Davenport said Freire would be willing to explore the possibility of locating within a building owned by the Christina School District. Davenport would not say whether Freire had approached Christina to discuss the idea; Powell, the Christina school board president, and Alva Mobley, a district spokesperson, said there have been no communications between Freire and the district concerning a possible lease. she was not aware of any communications between Freire and the district.

Overall enrollment at Christina’s three high schools is 3,145 students, or 82 percent of those buildings’ rated capacity, Mobley said. The district does not have any buildings with sufficient space to accommodate Freire that would be available for lease, she added.

Davenport and Massett indicated that the site Freire is negotiating for is near Route 273 and close to the boundary between the Christina and Colonial districts. Massett said that there was significant interest in a charter school several years ago from families in the southern portion of the Colonial district but none were conveniently located.

Massett said she hoped Freire would discuss possible options with Christina. When Delaware’s charter school law was enacted in 1995, it was expected that some charters would locate in vacant public school buildings. Two charters in Wilmington, Eastside and Thomas Edison, did acquire public school buildings that had been declared surplus. Also, the Charter School of Wilmington rents a portion of the former Wilmington High School from the Red Clay district, sharing space there with the Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

Families interested in learning more about applying for the proposed charter schools may visit their websites: freirenewark.org and basseinc.org

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.