Reach Academy gets another day in Delaware court

For the second time in as many years, lawyers representing Reach Academy for Girls stood in front of federal judge Leonard Stark and asked him to save their clients’ school.

The New Castle-based charter school argued it would be discriminatory to close the state’s only all-girls charter school while a corresponding all-boys charter school remained open.

The case largely mirrors one filed a year ago. Last January, Stark stopped Delaware’s department of education from closing Reach when he issued a one-year injunction. Reach and the state then agreed to a settlement that keeps the school open through June 2015.

What happens after that, however, is up to the courts. In December, secretary of education Mark Murphy moved to close Reach at the end of the school year citing insufficient academic progress. Reach is again asking Stark to issue an injunction that would keep the school open

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Both sides are asking for a quick decision, one that would precede the choice enrollment deadline on January 14. Stark said he could not promise a ruling in such short order.

New context

Though Stark will consider a similar argument to the one he encountered last year, the context for his decision has shifted.

Last year, Delaware had a provision that made it so the state could not open any more single-sex charter schools. That provision has since been rescinded.

The state is now allowed to have two single-sex charter schools, one of each gender. That means the state could conceivably approve an all-girls charter to replace Reach, but it could not issue that approval until Reach closes.

“Their continued operation forecloses the possibility of another all-girls school,” said Kenisha Ringgold, the state’s lead attorney.

The plaintiffs also expressed concern that the school was being evaluated on its state test scores. They inferred in their testimony that state tests might discriminate against African-American girls, Reach’s primary demographic subgroup. The state disputed this claim.

Reach improved its test scores last year, but they remained well below state averages. Just 32.5 percent of Reach students, for instance, were deemed proficient in math. Statewide, that number was 66.4 percent.

There was also concern that the state did not properly consider the school’s future plans in making its decision to close Reach. The plaintiffs based this claim on the public testimony of David Blowman, chair of the state’s Charter School Accountability Committee. The state argued that secretary Murphy, the ultimate arbiter, considered both past performance and future plans in his decision, and that Blowman’s comments were taken out of context.

“It’s the girls that count”

In his closing remarks, Reach attorney Duane Werb asked the court to consider what awaits Reach’s 468 students if the school shuts down.

“If Reach Academy is shuttered and closed, where are these girls going,” Werb asked. “I’ll tell where they’re going. They’re going to these failing priority schools.” He later added, with emphasis, “It’s the girls that count here. And they must remain where they are.”

Neither side called any witnesses, although Secretary Murphy was in attendance. So too was Reverend Lloyd Casson, founder and board president at Reach.

He said morale at the school was “up and down,” but that staff remained committed to the students for however long Reach remains open. He added, “We think we’re in the right.”

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