Trio of Delaware charters face enrollment woes

     Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy (center) at a meeting of the State Board of Education. (Avi Wolfman-Arent / Newsworks)

    Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy (center) at a meeting of the State Board of Education. (Avi Wolfman-Arent / Newsworks)

    The Delaware State Board of Education placed three charter schools under formal review Thursday due to low enrollment.

    The schools–Friere Charter, Delaware Design Lab High School, and Prestige Academy–each present a slightly different case, but taken together represent a puzzling trend. This is the second year in a row the state board has placed three charters under formal review because of enrollment woes, a relatively new phenomenon officials seem unable or unwilling to explain.

    The schools now have until mid-May to convince the state they should remain open. Friere, because it received its charter just last year, can ask for a one-year extension and open instead in 2016 if it chooses. The other two schools must either enroll enough students between now and mid-May to satisfy the state or convince the state they can deliver on their charter promises despite lower-than-expected enrollment.

    The board will decide the schools’ fate at its June board meeting. It can, if it chooses, move to close the charters in question.

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    The state expects a given charter to fill at least 80 percent of its fall class by April 1. That mile-marker is intended to identify schools who may, due to under-enrollment, become financially insolvent or unable to carry out their academic missions.

    Friere, for example, has enrolled 90 students so far, just 40 percent of the 224 students it has promised to serve as part of its charter. And even that figure, 224, is a downward revision. Friere originally intended to open with 336 students, but asked the state for a modification last month following what the school called its “initial admissions outreach.”

    This is the second year in a row the Delaware Design Lab High School will face formal review because of low enrollment. The fledgling charter has struggled to find a home. After initially looking it Wilmington, it has now settled on a location near the Christiana Mall. So far, Delaware Design Lab has recruited 138 students, about 46 percent of its promised enrollment figure.

    The strangest case may be that of Prestige Academy, Delaware’s only all-boys charter. The school opened in 2008, but its academic performance has lagged of late. Most notably, the school received a poor rating from the state’s Charter School Accountability Committee on its most recent academic framework report. Prestige’s executive director resigned earlier this year and the school

    David Blowman, the state’s deputy secretary of education, and Jennifer Nagourney, executive director of the state’s charter school office, said they knew of no other school that had been placed under formal review for insufficient enrollment while already open.

    Blowman and Nagourney hesitated to say why some Delaware charters face anemic enrollment, although they floated a couple of theories. One points to a delay in the choice deadline for traditional public schools, which has given charters less time to recruit before their April 1 check in.

    There’s also a possibility that charter supply exceeds parent demand in New Castle County. Prestige, Friere, and Delaware Design Lab are all chartered for locations in Delaware’s northernmost county. Statewide, 80 percent of existing charters are in New Castle County.

    A recently released report by the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee said the proliferation of charters in Delaware’s largest city has created “challenges for the governance of Wilmington education” and that charters “have developed as a separate education system.” That committee–formed by Governor Jack Markell last fall–recommended a stay on new charters in the city until a strategic plan was developed.

    Govenor Jack Markell agreed, and last month ordered a comprehensive review of public schools in order to determine a growth plan. Those findings are expected back by November

    In the meantime, Delaware will approve no new charters. The state had only received two charter applications for the 2016-17 school year anyway, and rejected both.

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