Is a Charter School Right for Your Child?

Larry Nagengast

, Community

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

So, what do you think? Please comment below.