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Where does Great Oaks Charter School go from here?

Great Oaks Charter School in Wilmington.jpg
Delaware Public Media
Great Oaks Charter School in Wilmington

A decision on the fate of a Wilmington charter school under ‘formal review’ by Delaware’s Department of Education comes later this month.

In its eighth year, Great Oaks Charter School’s enrollment is falling short of its authorized minimum number of students as it phases out its middle school program and becomes a high school only.

Contributor Larry Nagengast examines what to expect as the state wraps up its review of Great Oaks.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on what to expect from the state's review of Great Oaks Charter School

The state Department of Education’s Charter Schools Accountability Committee (CSAC) is recommending that the struggling Great Oaks Charter School be placed on probation as it tries to stabilize its enrollment and complete a transition to a high school-only program.

The committee’s recommendation, approved unanimously at the conclusion of a three-hour meeting on Nov. 29, includes 22 conditions that the school would have to meet to return to good standing. Many of the conditions must be met in January or February, but the deadline for some extends into the start of the 2023-24 school year.

To take effect, the recommendation requires the approval of Secretary of Education Mark Holodick, who is scheduled to announce his decision at the Dec. 15 meeting of the State Board of Education. The state board must also assent to Holodick’s recommendation. In the 25-year history of Delaware charter schools, no secretary of education has made significant changes to a CSAC recommendation, nor has the state board declined to accept the secretary’s decision.

Great Oaks, which opened in 2015 as a middle school, was one of the original tenants in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington. It experienced steady growth over its first three years but has since struggled with management issues and maintaining its enrollment. The school was placed on formal review by the Department of Education in late September after it once again failed to meet the enrollment levels required by the charter it was granted by the state.

Great Oaks, which is offering instruction in grades 8-12 this year, has been phasing out its middle school over the past three years. The school’s current charter authorizes an enrollment of 325 students, and state regulations require it to enroll at least 80 percent of that number, or 260 students. Great Oaks currently enrolls 216 students.

The Nov. 29 meeting was alternately tedious and contentious. Great Oaks officials tried to emphasize its effort to “right-size” the school’s enrollment and a major restructuring of the school’s leadership. CSAC members, most of them Department of Education managers, homed in on topics like professional certifications for current faculty and the use of a private company to deliver virtual lessons to a small group of students who are unable to receive in-person instruction, largely due to Covid-related health or anxiety issues.

“The team before us now is making a valiant effort to improve things, but this review is about what has happened.”
Audrey Noble, State Board of Education member

A staffing list the school presented to the Department of Education last month showed that five of 16 staff members did not have Delaware teaching certifications. The virtual learning issue relates to the school’s contract with Edmentum, a service that employs certified teachers to deliver online instruction. CSAC members expressed concern that Edmentum instruction might not meet state standards for lesson content and that it could become a long-term substitute for in-person learning.

“We have to be realistic about what we’re doing here,” said CSAC chair Kim Klein, the department’s associate secretary for operations support. CSAC “has to grapple with where we’ve already been [with Great Oaks]. It has not been a good place.”

“The team before us now is making a valiant effort to improve things, but this review is about what has happened,” not about the future, said State Board of Education member Audrey Noble, a non-voting CSAC member.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network and a non-voting CSAC member, countered by stating that the purpose of the review is “not to beat a dead horse.” She said the school had answered questions directly related to the review and that CSAC was now asking questions that ranged beyond the scope of the review. “This is not an autopsy,” she said.

“Digging into greater detail is to the benefit of the school, not to its detriment,” Klein replied.

The restructuring, Great Oaks Board President Angela Perry said, included signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Charter School of New Castle to have LaRetha Odumosu, head of that school’s middle school program, serve as Great Oaks’ “critical advisor” as it goes through the formal review process and seeks a renewal of its charter late next year. In addition, Brett Taylor, president of the New Castle school’s board of directors, has been added to the Great Oaks board, along with Edward Emmett, longtime head of the Positive Outcomes Charter School in Camden.

As part of the restructuring, and because lower than anticipated enrollments required budget reductions, Great Oaks eliminated four administrative jobs, including that of Leland Kent, the former executive director. Odumosu is now overseeing the work of a reorganized three-person administrative team led by Tamara Price, the high school principal.

“While I greatly appreciate the adjustments made in the last two months, we would have liked them to have been made in the spring,” Klein said.

The changes being made at Great Oaks have a sense of déjà vu, reminiscent of the events of 2015-17, when the former Family Foundations Academy ran into trouble, faced a formal review, and eventually emerged as the Charter School of New Castle. During that transition, Lamont Browne, the head of Eastside Charter School, temporarily assumed additional duties as head of Family Foundations, oversaw its restructuring and its relocation to new buildings, and also hired a new management team, including Odumosu.

Her familiarity with the transition at the New Castle school will help her oversee the restructuring at Great Oaks, Odumosu said Tuesday. Meeting the conditions laid out in the CSAC report “will be challenging, but I don’t think it will be impossible,” she said. “We’ll be able to do it, with some perspiration and some gumption.”

“While I greatly appreciate the adjustments made in the last two months, we would have liked them to have been made in the spring."
Kim Klein, CSAC chair and Associate Secretary of Operations Support for the Delaware Department of Education

Great Oaks’ previous troubles, Odumosu said, were largely related to its leadership by charter school managers based in New York who had previously had success opening and operating charter schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “They were planning a school in a state where they had never planted one before. There were different standards and requirements,” she said.

Others familiar with Great Oaks’ history have said that having top management located out of state made it difficult for leaders in Wilmington to act quickly and decisively.

Now, Odumosu said, Great Oaks hopes to become “a small, trauma-informed high school” capable of meeting the educational needs of a student demographic that is largely low-income and often performing below grade level academically when they enter.

Odumosu also confirmed, as hinted by Massett during the Nov. 29 meeting, that she may be hired next year as Great Oaks’ school leader and that she would likely continue to serve in her current role at the Charter School of New Castle.

The New Castle school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, draws about 30 percent of its enrollment from within Wilmington. She said the school tries to make its eighth graders aware of all their high school options – traditional public, charter and private.

With Great Oaks needing a strong recruitment campaign to reach its enrollment goals, New Castle Charter could become a significant source of new students.

“I can’t say that all the kids are going to follow me,” Odumusu said. "I’m not the Pied Piper.”

Proposed conditions for Great Oaks

The 22 conditions listed by the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Accountability Committee for Great Oaks Charter School cover six areas: enrollment and finance, staffing, state assessments, virtual programming, academics and special education. If past experience continues, those conditions will be included in Secretary of Education Mark Holodick’s decision on Great Oaks’ formal review. If the conditions listed in Holodick’s decision are not met, the Department of Education could take immediate action against the school, including revoking its charter.

The recommended conditions include:

  • Preparing a revised budget for the current school year by Jan. 1; the revisions must include changes discussed at the Nov.29 meeting.
  • Authorized enrollment for the 2023-24 school year will be 200 students. Great Oaks must have 90 percent of that enrollment (180 students) committed by April 1 and 200 students enrolled by Sept. 30.
  • Beginning in January, Great Oaks must make monthly reports to the Charter School Office on recruitment, enrollment and finances. Also starting in January, school officials must meet monthly with Charter School Office and the Department of Education’s finance office.
  • By Feb. 1, the school must submit plans to ensure that six teachers who are not currently licensed or certified qualify for those licenses or certifications.
  • By June 1, performance evaluations for all teachers and administrators must be completed. 
  • By Sept. 1, all administrators must be licensed and certified for the positions they occupy.
  • By Feb. 1, the school must submit a plan to ensure that 95 percent of its students participate in mandated state assessments during the current school year. In the spring, the school must meet that target when assessments are administered.
  • By Jan. 15, the school must detail how its virtual learning program meets state content standards for each course students are taking. By Feb. 1, the school must provide a detailed learning plan for each student now receiving virtual instruction.
  • By Jan. 1, the school must submit a detailed plan that details the timeline for each of its 40 current seniors to graduate. 
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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.