By Peter Osborne
Kendall Massett said the 2018-19 school year exemplified how charter schools in general are supposed to work.
Massett, the executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, starts with the plus side: one school is adding high school to its K-8th grade offering (Aspira Academy); a number of schools reporting that all or most of their students will be attending four-year schools; one school received a 10-year extension of its charter (Newark Charter); and two state legislators — Sen. Dave Sokola and Rep. Earl Jaques — were named Charter Champions by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in May. In addition, the Sussex Montessori School continued its movement toward opening its doors to grades K-3 in Fall 2020 with the hiring in April of Kaneisha Trott as its community engagement specialist.
On the negative side, two schools closed their doors (Design Thinking Academy and the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security) and another is under formal review by the state authorizer for what parents, teachers, and community members say are concerns about the school’s governance and financial dealings (Odyssey).
“If you’re doing great things, do more of it. If your marketing is not working and you don’t have enough students, then you need to close,” Massett said. “The charter (from the state) gives you a responsibility: If you’re approved for a mission, then it’s the board’s responsibility to follow the mission and accept the financial responsibility.”
She points to schools like EastSide Charter, located within Wilmington’s Riverside project, which will launch a new honors program in 2019-20 with 30 students and a partnership with some of the area’s independent schools. She points to schools like Odyssey, Newark Charter, and the now-closed Design Thinking Academy helping students find their voices and participating in advocacy activities such as the successful effort to ban single-use plastic bags commonly seen at supermarkets and convenience bill that was authored by Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington West.
EastSide Charter CEO Aaron Bass said his school had a great year “but we always want to do better. We saw growth on the state assessment for most of our grades — four out of five cohorts in English and math —but we can do better. We built a collaboration with REACH Riverside. We built a six-way partnership with Friends, Tatnall, Tower Hill, Sanford, FAME, and the Light Program to offer our students higher-level curriculum.”
But Bass said there are other signs of success as EastSide focuses not only on the K-8 students he serves but the entire Riverside community.
“We want to be good members of the community, an asset for the families around us,” he said. “Our staff is bringing their children to the school, including mine who is enrolled in sixth grade this fall. We’re supporting our parents with job fair and computer classes that include distribution of computers.”
Regarding Odyssey’s authorizer review, Massett said “that’s why we have it in the law. They can’t just shut you down. There’s a process in place to talk about what’s going on with our authorizer. This is what’s happening now with Odyssey.”
Charter schools have been around since 1995 in Delaware, and Massett said they’re still seen as disrupters and agitators by state officials and other school districts, leading to being “scrutinized more closely and sometimes unfairly. But the good news is that we are included this year in every funding bill.”
Ron Russo sees it slightly differently.
“The original purpose[of introducing charter schools] was to change Delaware’s school system and help improve the state’s economy,” said Russo, whose resume includes principal at St. Mark’s, president of Charter School of Wilmington, the Charter School rep on the Governor’s Advisory Council for Exceptional Citizens, and executive director of the Caesar Rodney Institute’s Center for Education Excellence. “But all the people who created that model are gone —Gov. Carper is now Sen. Carper, (former State Superintendent) Mike Ferguson passed away, and leaders from companies like DuPont, Delmarva and Hercules are all gone. The system that was supposed to change instead took over the charter schools.”
Russo worries most about the people in charge of the charter schools and making sure school leaders are suited for the position and achieving their school’s mission. But he is heartened by recent decisions to hire Dr. Franklin Newton (UD Associate Dean for Administration Operations for the College of Health Sciences) to replace Greg Meece at Newark Charter next year and Dr. James Capolupo (a former National Superintendent of the Year and State Superintendent of the Year in Pennsylvania) to replace Dr. Sam Paoli
at the highly regarded Charter School of Wilmington.
Charter School of Wilmington was recognized by U.S. News and World Report earlier this month as the top school in Delaware and No. 3 among Philadelphia-area schools, and three of the eight Delaware students who won National Merit Scholarships this year are from the school.
But Russo, who believes that “a rising tide should raise all boats,” still worries about the future.
“Nobody seems to understand what charter schools are supposed to do,” he said. “What are the traditional school districts —and the legislators — left with? They’re losing their best students to many charter schools and the end result has not been improvement in the system.”
Outgoing Newark Charter School Director Meece’s view is that everyone needs to work toward “building an environment of trust from the top down,” with the charter schools doing a better job of getting their message out to stakeholders about what they offer and being more proactive anticipating issues.
“All of the Delaware schools have far more in common than that which separates us,” said Meece, whose two-time National Blue Ribbon School has a waiting list of more than 3,000 students. “We continue to face undeserved opposition from people who prefer the status quo. I often wonder why we seem to get so much more scrutiny than the vocational schools or parochial and independent schools, all of whom also offer a choice to parents and students. We need to develop a unified approach rather than being so competitive.”
For Massett, the funding question is huge.
“The Opportunity Fund is a step in the right direction because it means funding will follow you to your school and is not based on percentages. I hope that we will eventually get to weighted student funding which is important because our schools are so small that we’re losing out.”
State representative Earl Jaques says Delaware has a lot of great charter schools, some of which are “far and away better than other Delaware public schools. They are judged unfairly at times but they are working hard to improve themselves.
Jacques said the next “session of the General Assembly should include charter schools in any education legislation but they will talk about transportation costs.
“Charter schools should be treated like all public schools,” he said. We should treat everyone fairly and realize that parents are just trying to make the best choice for their children.”