Wilmington residents aren’t buying charter schools

NewsWorks contributor Larry Nagengast checks in with his thoughts on charter schools in Wilmington. 

Here are Larry’s thoughts:

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen: those private-sector educational entrepreneurs known as charter school operators would try to launch another one of their innovative programs, and not enough traditional public school parents would buy into it to make it work.

It is a little surprising, however, the manner in which it occurred in Delaware. Last month, the state Dept. of Education placed on “formal review”—a bureaucratic euphemism for probation—two Wilmington charter schools that have yet to open.

The operators of another charter school dodged the “formal review” designation by invoking the option to delay their planned opening by 12 months, a move permitted under state law.

Why the surprise?

One of the schools placed on formal review, Academia Antonia Alonso, is a dual-language (Spanish/English) elementary program whose leaders include officials of the Latin American Community Center and Christiana Care. The school was to be housed in the Community Education Building, the former Bank of America/MBNA high-rise near Rodney Square.

With backing like that, it seemed little could go wrong. However, as of April 1, the school had registered only 85 students for its initial kindergarten and first-grade classes, far short of its 300-student target.

Even worse, Academia had already delayed its opening by a year from its scheduled 2013 start, thus placing the school in a “now or never” mode: come close to hitting the enrollment targets, or somehow persuade the state that the operation is viable, or lose the chance of ever opening its doors.

The situation with two planned high schools is even more intriguing.

The Delaware MET, which subscribes to an instructional model called “big picture learning” that includes sending its students out on internships in the city for two days a week, also fell far short of its enrollment targets: The school signed up only 84 of its projected 264 students for grades 9 and 10.

Nonetheless, school leaders are forging ahead, trying to enroll more students while convincing the Dept. of Education that the program can succeed even if enrollments are nowhere near the original targets.

The Design Lab High School, with only 80 students signed up for grades 9 and 10 (its target was 300) decided to delay its opening for a year, giving it more time to sell families on the merits of its methods—teaching students to think like designers so they develop into successful innovators and prolem-solvers.

Not only do both high schools face an uphill battle to get started, but they will encounter twice as much competition in the fall of 2015, when two more charter high schools, Great Oaks and Freire, are scheduled to open in Wilmington.

These schools also promise instructional innovations. Great Oaks plans a longer school day that includes two hours of individual or small-group tutoring, while Freire will offer double doses of English and math instruction in grades 9 and 11 to reinforce concepts students might not have picked up the first time around.

If all four of these high schools were to operate at capacity somehow, there could be 2,000 teenagers attending classes in downtown Wilmington by the 2019-2020 school year.

On the other hand, if Great Oaks and Freire sign up students at the same rate as Delaware MET and Design Lab, total enrollments for four schools operating four-year programs would fall in the range of 650 to 700 students, just about enough to sustain one smallish high school.

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that Wilmington residents, tired of seeing their students bused to high schools off of Kirkwood Highway or in the Newark area since court-ordered desegregation began in 1978, would jump at the opportunity to enroll in high schools that were practically in their neighborhood.

That hasn’t happened. And, given the dissatisfaction with years of busing and with the performance of traditional public schools, the inability of charter operators to capture a market that seemed to be waiting for them has to be considered surprising.

Consider it a wake-up call for the charter entrepreneurs. “If you build it, they will come” is not the reality of education in Wilmington. It’s time for charter operators to look at the “big picture” that they’re so fond of touting: No matter how much they think their programs are better than what traditional schools are offering, if they can’t successfully make their case with Wilmington parents, their promise will be stillborn.

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

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.