Is a Charter School Right for Your Child?

If so, you’d better make your selection soon—deadline is Jan. 11. Here’s a summary.

If you went to a public high school a generation ago, the choice was easy.

Or, more accurately, there wasn’t any choice at all. Unless you opted for a vocational-technical high school, predetermined attendance zones controlled your assignment.

Then along came choice, and along came charters, and the options have seemed to increase almost every year.

So, if your child will be entering high school next year —or if you’re an eighth grader reading this article—now is the time to figure out your next step.

Delaware’s public school choice window is officially open, and you have until Jan. 11 to make your selection.

If you’re not excited about the school that serves your community, the choice program lets parents and students pick the school whose curriculum, special programs or teaching methods appear to make it the best fit for a student’s interests and learning style.

“There are great opportunities in all choices, including charter, traditional, vo-tech and independent schools,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Charter schools are independent, tuition-free public schools. They get their name from the “charter” or contract granted to them, which states the school’s mission, program and goals. Most of these schools in Delaware have charters granted by the state Department of Education. Several, including the Charter School of Wilmington and the Delaware Military Academy, have charters granted by the Red Clay Consolidated School District. Charter schools are run by their own boards of directors and they do not have to follow all the rules the state has established for traditional public schools. Authorizers can revoke charters if schools do not live up to contract terms.

Different from “Magnets”

The relative independence charters possess under their contracts makes them different from so-called “magnet schools,” which offer a special-interest curriculum but are operated by a traditional school district. The best-known magnets in New Castle County are both in Red Clay—the Cab Calloway School of the Arts and the Conrad Schools of Science.

Charters must offer all the classes required for high school students in Delaware—English/language arts, math, science, social studies, world languages—but subjects may be taught in nontraditional ways or may be wrapped with a special package of electives.

“A charter by virtue of being a charter is not necessarily a better choice,” Massett says. “But a school’s model, its method of teaching, or a smaller school size might be a reason to choose a charter for your child.”

And, she adds, in the case of eighth graders, “they have a better idea of how they learn. They can articulate that, and make choices themselves.”

And charters give students in New Castle County plenty of choices.

Interested in a career as a paramedic or police officer? There’s a school for that.

Care to experiment in science and math? You’ve got three choices.

Are you into the arts? Good to go.

Factors to Consider

Want to straighten up with some military discipline? Are you a Greek geek? Have you fallen behind and need some extra attention to catch up with your peers? Check, check, and check.

The list accompanying this story will help sort out your choices. It’s also a good idea to call the school, check out its website and make a visit, either during the school day or at an open house event before you fill out the application form at the website SchoolChoiceDE.org. Note that you can apply to more than one school, and that some schools have supplemental application forms.

In exploring charters, there are some important factors to consider—so be sure to ask as you do your investigating.

Since charters tend to be smaller than most traditional high schools, they might not offer as many elective classes or as many extracurricular activities. There might not be a football team or a marching band, and you might be assessed a participation fee for team sports or certain extracurriculars.

Transportation can be an issue too. Because charters tend to draw smaller numbers of students from larger geographic areas, the nearest bus stop might be more than a block or two from home. You might have to drive a couple of miles to a “bus hub” in the morning and afternoon.

It’s also important to understand the enrollment process. If there are enough seats available, charters are required to accept every student who applies. However, if there are 120 applicants for 100 seats in next year’s freshman class, a lottery is used to determine who gets in.

But it’s not purely random. Under guidelines spelled out in state law, schools may set their own “enrollment preferences.” These preferences, depending on the school, can give preference to children of members of the school’s board of directors, children of full-time staff and siblings of current students. Geography can be a factor too. Newark Charter uses a five-mile radius from the school as a preference; MOT Charter gives priority to residents of the Appoquinimink School District, and the schools chartered by Red Clay give preference to district residents.

Also, some schools give a preference to students who can demonstrate a “specific interest” in a school’s focus or methods, and they may use a “placement test” to measure a student’s level of interest.

Once the preferences are sorted out, the remaining applicants are placed in a lottery. While the mechanics may vary by school, each applicant is assigned a number and the numbers are drawn.

Accepted students receive notification in early February but must fill out more paperwork to complete the process. Other applicants are placed on a waiting list, usually based on their lottery number.

Finally, after a child makes his or her selection, a parent needs to keep on top of what’s going on at the school. While some of Delaware’s charters have earned national recognition and others are part of larger successful charter organizations, the state has cited poor academic performance and administrative or financial mismanagement to shut down three charter high schools in the last four years: the Delaware MET, the Maurice J. Moyer Academic Institute and the Pencader Business & Finance Charter High School.

NCCo Charter High Schools

Here is summary information on all charter high schools in New Castle County. Unless otherwise noted, all serve grades 9-12. For more details, call the school or visit its website.

Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security: Located in the former Our Lady of Fatima School on DuPont Highway in New Castle, the school’s curriculum includes training for careers as firefighters, paramedics, police officers and in the military.
322-6050 • dapsscharterschool.org

Delaware Design-Lab High School (See story, pg. 16): Located in the Faith City Church complex near Christiana Mall, the school’s instructional model focuses on problem solving through “design thinking”—in essence, seeking answers by following the same steps that designers use to solve problems in their professional lives. It currently serves grades 9-11 and will add a 12th grade class in 2017-18.
292-5450 • design-LabSchools.org

Delaware Military Academy: Located near Banning Park, southwest of Wilmington, it refers to students as “cadets” and they participate in a Navy Junior ROTC program. Nearly all of its graduates go on to higher education. The school is currently running a $7.5 million capital campaign to finance a new athletics/academic building and athletics fields.
998-0745 • demilacad.org

Freire Charter School: Located in downtown Wilmington, Freire is a replication of a successful charter model in Philadelphia. It offers double sessions of English and math classes to help students performing below grade level to catch up and prepare for college. Freire currently serves grades 8-11 and will add a 12th grade class in 2017-18.
407-4800 • freirewilmington.org

Great Oaks Charter School: Housed in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington, Great Oaks has sister charter schools in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn. Its model relies on intensive tutoring on top of classroom instruction to bring students up to grade level and prepare them for college. Great Oaks Wilmington currently serves grades 6 and 7. It will add a grade a year, becoming a full 6-12 program by the 2021-22 school year.
660-4790 • greatoakscharter.org

MOT Charter High School: Located in Middletown, the school is an outgrowth of a K-8 charter and is modeled after the pairing of the Charter School of Wilmington and the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in the same building, giving students the choice of focusing on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) or the arts. Its first class will graduate in 2018.
696-2000 • motcharter.com

Newark Charter High School: On a 21-acre campus west of Newark near the Maryland state line, Newark Charter has a junior high (grades 7-8) and senior high (grades 9-12) in a single building. Many of its students began their school careers in Newark Charter’s K-6 program. Students choose from two academies, one focusing on STEM disciplines and the other on global studies and leadership. Newark Charter is the only high school in the state to implement the College Board’s rigorous Advanced Placement Capstone Diploma Program.
369-2001 • newarkcharter.org

Odyssey Charter School: Located in a former office building in the Barley Mill Plaza complex west of Wilmington, the school currently serves kindergarten through ninth grade, and will be adding a grade a year, so its first high school class will graduate in 2020. It’s a dual-language immersion school, with students receiving instruction in core subjects in both English and Greek.
994-6490 • odysseycharterschooldel.org

The Charter School of Wilmington: Delaware’s first charter school, CSW shares space in the old Wilmington High School building with a magnet school, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts. The school has developed a national reputation for its excellence in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math.
651-2727 • charterschool.org

Super School

In a national competition, the two-year-old Delaware Design Lab is one of 10 schools that have been awarded $10 million each over the next five years

Sometimes dreams don’t work out as planned.

And sometimes real life can turn out better than anyone could have imagined.

Just ask Cristina Alvarez and Martin Rayala, cofounders of the Delaware Design Lab High School.
Alvarez, a former principal of Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture and Design, turned up in Delaware in the fall of 2012, with the dream of creating a new school in downtown Wilmington. She had teamed with Rayala, a veteran educator and consultant, to write her proposal and, on the recommendation of a friend, recruited Matt Urban, president of Mobius New Media, a graphics and design firm with offices in the Grand Opera House, to head its board of directors.

The State Board of Education approved Design Lab’s charter application in early 2013, but the school opening was delayed until the fall of 2015. Alvarez was unable to find a suitable downtown Wilmington site and wound up settling in Christiana, in a building in the Faith City Church complex that had previously been used by another charter, the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security. It started with 233 students, about half of them African-American, in grades 9 and 10. With 11th grade added this year, enrollment is now pushing 300, Rayala says.

But Alvarez and Rayala won’t be surprised to see the demand for seats soar by the Jan. 11 deadline for choice and charter applications for the 2017-18 school year.

After all, who wouldn’t want their child to attend a school that had just won a $10 million grant in a national competition to create a next-generation “super school”?

That’s right—$10 million, a cool $2 million a year for the next five years. Considering that the school’s budget is currently $4.2 million, having the ability to tap into another $2 million gives Design Lab the potential to do more—a lot more.

“It’s a huge amount of money, and we were shocked to get it,” Alvarez says.

Re-Imagining the American High School

The money is coming from XQ: The Super School Project, funded by the Emerson Collective, an education and immigration advocacy group run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers. XQ put out a call for proposals that would re-imagine the American high school for the 21st century, and Design Lab submitted one based on its academic plan.

The competition was fierce. More than 1,400 schools expressed interest in the competition, 700 applied, and that number was whittled down to 350, then 50 semifinalists and ultimately the 10 winners.

Other winners in the competition included charter schools and traditional public schools with plans to focus on high-needs students, academically successful self-directed students, homeless students and one that would operate out of a museum.

“It’s not like anything else we have in our state. The award validates that we brought an innovative model to Delaware,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Massett, however, offers a cautionary note. “It’s still a second- year school. Infusing money into a school does not make it perfect. I hope nobody thinks they’re not going to have challenges. Every school has challenges. But now they have a cushion to have a failure here or there.”

The next steps for Design Lab, Alvarez says, are to prove that the model works and to create opportunities to replicate the model in other settings—one of the key objectives of charter schools.

Cristina Alvarez (in red) and the Delaware Design Lab team receiving the XQ Super School award for educational innovation and excellence from famed rapper MC Hammer. (Photo courtesy of The Design Lab High School)
Cristina Alvarez (in red) and the Delaware Design Lab team receiving the XQ Super School award for educational innovation and excellence from famed rapper MC Hammer. (Photo courtesy of The Design Lab High School)

Core Educational Philosophy

At the core of the school’s educational philosophy is a concept called “design thinking,” which, Rayala explains, means “taking the ideas and processes that designers use to solve a problem, learning those processes and applying them to any aspect of your life.”

Design Lab students take the same subjects that other high school students do—English/language arts, math, science, social studies, foreign language—but they learn the material differently.

Teachers don’t stand in front of the class and lecture, and students don’t memorize facts.

Instead, teachers present a problem and students use the design process to find a solution. First, they discover, examining the issue to ensure they are attempting to solve the right problem. Then they visualize, considering all the possible solutions. Next comes prototype, testing the most promising solutions. Then they present, describing their idea or solution in a clear and compelling way to their teacher and the rest of the class—much like the presenters at TED talks or entrepreneurial hopefuls on the Shark Tank television series.

“In traditional education, the teacher is the holder of the information, the all-knowing person,” Alvarez says. But today, she says, “we’re living in a world where kids have access to information through their phones. Technological development has pointed us toward realizing that schools must change their learning model away from the teacher as the source of all information and power into something else … into students taking more control of their learning.”

Students entering Design Lab aren’t always ready for this new approach, Alvarez says, because “traditional schools are based on socialization and compliance and they spend a lot of time taking the curiosity of a child and tamping it down for them to fit this model.”

The Design Lab staff encourages curiosity. The freshman social studies class, for example, doesn’t include traditional civics lessons. It’s called “regional planning,” and students start out by learning about New Castle County and all of Delaware, its culture, geography, economics and politics. “Students have to reach out into the community, to discover what mayors do, what urban planners do,” Alvarez says.

Students do a lot of their work as teams, not only as partners but also in critiquing each other’s work—developing skills that Rayala says will be essential within a 21st-century workforce.

“Businesses are decentralizing, working toward smaller units, so workers have to be more nimble, more problem-solving, more able to take on new challenges,” he says. “We all have to be creative. We all have to wear many hats.”

Design Lab doesn’t plan to pour its $10 million into a new building or into expanding its staff, Alvarez and Rayala say. Doing so, they explain, would defeat the purpose of the grant because it’s easy to make a model succeed when you equip it with more personnel and lots of bells and whistles.

“Our mindset is not going to be ‘how do we spend $10 million?’ It’s how we use the $10 million as leverage to get the money we really need,” Rayala says.

Design Lab students, he says, will see some improvements in the short term—things like another counselor a semester ahead of schedule and improvements in the science labs.

Over the next few years, the money will make it possible for the school to add more teachers than it would have on its regular budget, but the school’s leaders have no intention of building a staff that would have to be cut significantly when the grant money runs out.

Alvarez and Rayala anticipate using some of the prize as matching funds should they seek corporate or foundation grants to make long-term improvements, whether it’s for buying new computers or working toward construction of a new building for when their current lease at Faith City expires after the 2019-20 school year.

And some of the money will be used for testing new ways of putting “design thinking” to work, whether it be through more use of computers, getting students outside the classroom and into the community more often, or changing the way teachers and students interact.

New Partnerships

The outcomes of those learning experiments will help Design Lab leaders package a model curriculum and instructional process that it can replicate in Delaware and elsewhere in the country.

They won’t be doing it alone, Rayala says, because the award increases the probability of developing new partnerships to drive the school forward. “With $10 million and the validation of internationally known people, we can go to the business community and to universities and say ‘pay attention to what we’re doing.’”

No matter how Design Lab evolves, its development won’t go unnoticed.

In 2014 and 2015, when the school was recruiting its first students, “we didn’t have a campus, we had nothing you could touch, feel or see,” Urban says.

In January, Alvarez and Rayala won’t be surprised if they wind up with more applicants than available seats and have to use a lottery to determine which students will be admitted.

“We’ve gone from under the radar to way above the radar,” Urban says.