[caption id="attachment_225258" align="alignnone" width="1931"] Charter school growth in the First State has been modest but steady, coming with many successes and a few failures – 13 schools have closed. Yet many schools have performed well for several years, with nine charters this year celebrating 20 or more years of teaching students. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ADOBE[/caption]
In early May, the governing board of the Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence (BAASE) in Sussex County received good news from the Delaware Department of Education – it had received approval to become the county’s third charter school and was cleared to begin classes with the 2023 fall semester. As requested, it would be a gradual startup – 125 students would be enrolled in each of the seventh and eighth grades.Two months earlier, supporters of Freire Schools, whose headquarters are in Philadelphia and which operates a charter school in Wilmington, received bad news – it had withdrawn its proposal to open a charter school in Newark after receiving bitter opposition in public forums as well as directly from the Christina School District.The two occurrences reflect the progress and the problems charter schools face.It has now been 27 years since the Delaware legislature passed the Charter School Law “to create an alternative to traditional public schools operated by school districts and improve public education overall by establishing a system of independent ‘charter’ schools throughout the State.” According to the Delaware Charter Schools Network (DCSN), today there are 17,201 students attending 23 charter schools across the state, representing about 12.4% of total Delaware public school students. Nationwide, it is estimated that about 3 million students attend one of the more than 7,000 charter schools, according to a National Alliance for Public Charter Schoolsreport for the 2019-2020 school year.
[caption id="attachment_225252" align="alignleft" width="300"] Thomas Edison Charter School, which was established in 2000, specializes in Chess as a way to give students more problem-solving skills. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR[/caption]
Charter school growth in the First State has been modest but steady, coming with many successes and a few failures – 13 schools have closed, most recently Design Thinking Academy in 2019. Yet many schools have performed well for several years, with nine charters this year celebrating 20 or more years of teaching students. Parents, many of whom are former charter students themselves, have come to consider the annual school application window from November to early January as a routine event. Demand has been such that admission lotteries are often necessary. More charter schools are on the horizon, including a possible second attempt by Freire Newark.Nevertheless, charter schools continue to face two primary headwinds as they expand. One is the misconception that they are not public schools – they are, receiving limited funding from the state and being prohibited from charging tuition – and the contention that they sap resources, including funds, teachers and specialized programs, from traditional public or “district” schools – which is at least debatable.In reply, charter school advocates argue their schools were created to give parents and their children more than one tuition-free option for the kind of public education they want to receive. Some schools have philosophical orientations that district schools cannot have or specialized curricula that standard public schools do not have.“You have to remember that charter schools came out of the school reform movement of the 1980s,” said Salome Thomas-EL, who for the past 12 years has been head of Thomas Edison Charter School, a K-8 facility in Wilmington founded in 2000 at the beginning of a three-year period when seven of today’s existing charters were launched.“Charter schools trade off lesser public funding for the opportunity to be more creative,” said Thomas-EL, who has authored several books on education.Many charter schools have educational specialties, and at Thomas Edison it is chess.“Chess is good training in how to solve problems,” Thomas-EL explained. “We have 200 students who play chess every day, and we have won the national chess title two times.”In 2017, Rachel Valentin and LaRetha Odumosu were asked to take over a New Castle K-8 school that was in trouble, Family Foundations Academy, and have since guided it to stability as the Charter School of New Castle.“We worked with the Department of Education in securing financial stability and we’ve also worked hard to regain the trust of our parents,” said Valentin, principal of the elementarycurriculum.Odumosu, principal of the middle school, added, “We have a high school fair every year with parents and students. Most of our students go to vo-tech schools when they graduate, and a minority continues in district or private schools.”Like most charter schools, New Castle depends heavily on funding from grants and foundations in addition to what they receive from the state, which is less than district schools. A four-year grant from the 21st Century Fund has allowed New Castle to open additional after-school activities for its students. Such funding is also crucial for launching startups.“Our largest donation was a $1 million grant in helping us get established was from the Longwood Foundation,” said Chantalle Ashford, dean of academic excellence at BAASE, referring to the Wilmington-based philanthropic organization started by Pierre du Pont.As with all beginning schools, BAASE will have three years to prove itself before undergoing a thorough DOE review, which, if things are not going well, can result in warnings of the need for remedial action. For charters on firm ground, reviews become less-frequent.Sussex Academy, a 500-student, K-12 school on two campuses, was the first charter school to receive a 10-year review, said Eric Anderson, a former district teacher who in 2017 took over as head of the school.“But standard schools can get low test scores without going up for public review,” he added, echoing a frequent complaint of charter school advocates.Charter school leaders largely have more praise for, than complaints about, the state education department though.“DOE has been extremely helpful in getting us approved and started,” BAASE Executive Director Julius Mullen said.“There are some differences, but funding is similar [for charters and district schools] in terms of what they’ve earned,” said DOE’s Kim Klein, assistant secretary for operations support.She believes the Charter School Accountability Committee has improved its review practices and that there will be fewer charter failures. When one does close, such as Design Thinking Academy, Klein said DOE works with students and their families to ensure a smooth transition to other schools and helps with records requests from previous graduates.Another school support system is the Delaware Charter School Network, headed by Executive Director Kendall Massett. Although much of Massett’s work is on charter school advocacy, she said many charter and district schools sometimes work cooperatively.“Odyssey Charter worked with teachers in the Christina School District to build Odyssey’s curriculum, and some of the Odyssey people are now mentoring Christina’s fourth-grade students,” she said. “Colonial worked with Freire in Wilmington during COVID to get both of their 12th grade students into colleges. Caesar Rodney helps Positive Outcomes [the state’s first charter school, founded in 1996] with student transportation.” Two charter schools, Charter School of Wilmington and the Delaware Military Academy, are even sponsored through the Red Clay Consolidated School District instead of by the state.While the controversy surrounding Freire Newark’s application and withdrawal was perhaps an atypical public feud between charter and traditional schools, it does illustrate some lasting differences. This February, the Christina school board sent DOE a letter requesting that all new charter approvals be put on hold until the Wilmington Learning Collaborative, tasked with studying and possibly reformatting public schooling in the city, completed its work.DCSN’s Massett responded with a letter supporting the collaborative’s work but advising not to delay charter approvals.“Every moment in a child’s education is precious and families don’t have time to wait,” she wrote. “Weeks can turn into months and months into semesters or school years.”“The issue is really about the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity trying to reorganize education, and adding new schools is like adding to the puzzle,” said Dan Shelton, Christina School District superintendent, explaining the Redding group, created by Gov. Carney, is supposed to report back to the governor, although Shelton said no firm timetable exists for so doing.Shelton also said that Freire Newark, “unlike other charter schools, is not a local grassroots organization trying to fulfill a need.”“We have great examples of charter schools created to meet a need. Chuck Baldwin is an excellent example who saw a need with the Delaware Military Academy,” he said.And Shelton also sees a possible dilution issue as charter schools grow in number and scope, arguing that it makes it more difficult for public school districts to offer specialized education programs because of dwindling resources needed to maintain them.One charter school in the planning wants to pick up one such program a district school eliminated. When Red Clay’s Linden Hill Elementary School halted its Mandarin immersion program, a group of parents started planning for New Castle Language School, a proposed K-8 charter program.“Linden Hill simply ran out of space,” said Christopher Jackson, the proposed school’s board chairman. “We will be applying in September through Red Clay District, which should be about a year quicker and with fewer hoops than through the state.”Jackson hopes the proposed school, with startup geared for fall 2023, will eventually be preschool through 12th grade, with additional languages offered though not in an immersive format.So as the system continues to grow, charter school leaders see progress being made and a generally supportive public and state government.“I’m proud to be part of a state and a community that is placing children first,” Edison’s Thomas-EL said. “We need to meet students where they are, and not just where we are.”