The Moyer decision’s message to Delaware educators

What does the Moyer decision mean? Larry Nagengast offers some thoughts.

To no one’s surprise, Delaware’s State Board of Education took the road most traveled last week when it voted to revoke the charter of the Moyer Academic Institute in Wilmington, effective at the end of the current school year.

The decision paralleled choices made in February 2013, when the board voted to revoke the charter of the Pencader Charter High School of Business & Finance, and last November, when it voted not to renew the charter for the Reach Academy for Girls. In both cases, the board’s action followed shutdown recommendations of the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee and from the state secretary of education.

There was little reason, then, for one to expect the decision on Moyer to be any different, except for one: common sense.

By voting in October to close a school in June, the state board is sending a strong message to Moyer’s staff and, more importantly, to its 225 students in grades 6-12. That message is: no matter what you do the rest of the school year, it won’t matter at all. You can improve your curriculum, you can improve your plans for special needs students, and you can improve your disciplinary system. You can even improve your scores on the state’s assessment system by three grade levels. You can do all of that, but your school is still going to close.

In fact, Moyer’s staff had begun doing some of those things in late August, while the Charter School Accountability Committee was preparing its recommendations.  Committee members knew that a new management team was making changes, but they chose to focus instead on Moyer’s disastrous performance during the 2013-14 school year, a year marred by mismanagement and high staff turnover.

Last year, Moyer’s test scores were the lowest in the state. Only 23 percent of its students achieved proficiency in reading and only 10 percent in math. Not a single student rated proficient in social studies, and only six percent met the mark in science.

Visitors to the school this year have seen improvements: kids paying close attention in class, walking briskly through the hallways and minding their manners in the cafeteria. But, thanks to the state board’s decision, whatever the staff and students do, their school won’t open next fall.

The state board could have waited two months, perhaps three or more, before making a decision, giving Moyer’s management time to prove that the changes are taking hold and making an impact.

But, no, the board decided it was better to order a closure now, so students and their families would have from November through mid-January to pick whatever new school they wanted under the state’s “choice program,” rather than revert to a feeder school based on their residence.

For most Moyer students, that’s not much of an option. According to Keenan Dorsey, Moyer’s head of school, more than half of his students started out in one of the six under-performing schools that the state wants to restructure under a still-undefined “priority schools” plan. It makes little sense, Dorsey said, for these students to return to the same system that failed them once before. In addition, most of the middle and high schools in their feeder patterns are in the suburbs, much farther from home than Moyer on the city’s East Side.

A better option for Moyer students might be one of the four new charter middle and high schools scheduled to open in Wilmington next fall. Officially, they too have a mid-January application deadline, but some of the new charters scheduled to open this year fell far behind admissions goals and continued to fill seats by accepting students through the summer.

Given the lack of attraction of district schools and the likelihood of charter openings, it seems that the choice program deadlines are being used as nothing more than a pretext to accelerate the Moyer closure decision.

No matter what the state’s position, Dorsey and the rest of the Moyer leadership are not giving up. “For us, it’s business as usual. We’re going to keep educating our students and give them a great school year,” he said. “We have a Plan B, and a Plan C, a Plan D and a Plan E.”

Plan B is most likely a lawsuit challenging the state’s decision, probably filed by the state NAACP. Dorsey isn’t talking yet about the details of Plans C, D and E.

But improving student performance is part of those plans. “We might not get kids reading at a third-grade level up to 11th grade in one year, but we can get them up a couple of grades,” Dorsey said.

He’s not giving up on his students as quickly as the state gave up on his school. If test scores improve, Dorsey will be able to proclaim that Moyer does matter, no matter what the state board decided.

Larry Nagengast is a writer-editor who has been covering Delaware education issues since the 1970s.

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