Threatened Delaware charter schools prep final plea

 Gateway's Catherine Dolan with t-shirts and binder ready for Wednesday's hearing. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Gateway's Catherine Dolan with t-shirts and binder ready for Wednesday's hearing. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Two Delaware charter schools facing closure will state their cases for survival at a public hearing Wednesday.

The Gateway Lab School in Wilmington may not have a charter when the next school year begins. But it does have a binder—a very large binder.

And for that, head of school Catherine Dolan is proud.

“It has been a powerful showing of community support,” says Dolan. “As I’ve been telling the children, this is democracy at work.”

Filled with submissions from parents and politicians, the binder represents Gateway’s last, best chance to save its school. Roughly 90 parents at this school of 208 students wrote letters explaining why Gateway should remain open despite a recommendation from Delaware’s Charter School Accountability Committee’s that the state not renew Gateway’s charter.

Last month, the committee voted to shutter Gateway and Reach Academy for Girls in New Castle at the end of this school year. On December 18, the state secretary of education, Mark Murphy, and the state board of education will act on that motion. If both recommend non-renewal, the schools will close.

Gateway goes big

In the meantime, parents, staff, and supporters of the charter schools are busy galvanizing support—much of which will be on display at 6 pm this Wednesday when the public gathers inside the Carvel State Office Building in Wilmington for a hearing.

Gateway in particular has undertaken a furious self-preservation effort. Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn, State Senator Bryan Townsend, State Representative Joseph Miro, and Senate Majority Leader Patricia Blevins all wrote letters asking the state to keep Gateway open.

State Representative Kimberly Williams issued a similar statement, and got 18 of her General Assembly colleagues to co-sign.

The school hired three buses to ferry supporters to the public hearing, and encouraged parents to wear a shirt with the school’s logo on it.

Then there’s the binder—a novella filled with quivering testimony.

“My daughter entered gateway in 3rd grade, transferring from another school,” reads one. “My daughter could not read at grade level and needed more assistance than a traditional public school could provide. Also she had very few friends, felt different and anxious every day. She felt she did not fit in with other children. To use her words, ‘They don’t get me.’ Gateway Lab School has been the catalyst for her reaching her full potential. She is now reading at grade level, is excited about going to school every day, and has many friends.”

Asking for time

Gateway, opened in 2011, focuses on students with special needs in grades 3 through 8. The state classifies just under 60 percent of the school’s population as “special education.”

The Charter School Accountability Committee argued that Gateway’s test scores have not improved enough to merit a charter renewal. The school did not meet standards for test score growth in each of its three years, and fell “far below standard” on its overall test scores.

Gateway will argue that the school needs more time to prove itself considering the population it serves. Dolan, the head of school, says she will present evidence showing that students who come to Gateway in the third grade improve dramatically from the first semester to the second.

She’ll also try to convince the public and the board of education that closing Gateway would do irreparable harm to the students who have found refuge there. “They came to us having experienced failure,” says Dolan. “The question becomes: What are we returning them to?”

Deja vu

For Reach Academy, an all-girls school serving grades K through 8, Wednesday’s hearing will likely bring a sense of déjà vu. The state decided not to renew Reach’s charter last year, but the school filed a lawsuit claiming the move would have been discriminatory given the continued presence of an all-boys schools. A federal judge ordered that the school remain open for at least another year.

With the sand trickling through that legal hour glass, Reach once again faces closure.

As with Gateway, the Charter School Accountability Committee cited Reach’s poor academic performance in its decision to recommend revocation. Roughly 33 and 49 percent of Reach students were deemed proficient on state math and language tests respectively. Both figures represented significant gains from the year prior, but were more than 20 percentage points below state average.

Reach’s school leader, Tara Allen, would not comment on the school’s preparations of the public hearing on Wednesday.

“We’re a family”

The school’s Parent Teacher Organization, however, is attempting to rally backers. The group posted a letter on the school homepage announcing that it would circulate a petition to keep Reach open. The letter says the class that collects the most parent signatures will receive a pizza party.

Valeria Muhammad, the Parent Teacher Organization treasurer, hopes the state will look beyond data points when evaluating her daughter’s school. “We don’t feel as though everything should be based on test scores,” says Muhammad.

Muhammad moved to Delaware from New Jersey so her daughter, Najla, could attend Reach. She says the school’s nurturing environment offers a kind of communal feel that doesn’t show through in state accountability reports.

“We’re a family,” Muhammad says. “And we don’t want our family broken up.”

Regardless of outcome, both schools figure to get a moment in the spotlight. Reach has endured its fair share of media attention—and scrutiny—over the past year. But for Gateway, the hearing offers a rare chance to make its mark.

“It’s been a bit of an odd limelight, but it’s exposure for us,” says Dolan with a chuckle. “Gateway is on the map.”

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