Jennifer Nagourney serves as the Executive Director of the Charter School Office at the Delaware Department of Education. To say she had a hell of a year would be an understatement! Nagourney’s role is to oversee the charter schools in Delaware and to make sure they are in compliance on academic, financial, and organizational performance frameworks. When a charter school has issues, she is one of the main DOE people who determines what type of action to take. Her office works with all of the other offices in the DOE.
2015 started off with a bang in the form of Family Foundations Academy. After former Heads of School Sean Moore and Dr. Tennell Brewington got caught with their hands in the school finances cookie jar, the Charter School Office put the school under formal review a year ago. After a whirlwind amount of speculation, the school’s board and leaders was essentially taken over by East Side Charter School. A few months later, no less than four Delaware charters went on formal review: Academy of Dover, Prestige Academy, Delaware Design-Lab High School, and Freire Charter School. All came off formal review status but they are all on probation. Two were new charters scheduled to open in August who received the designation due to low enrollment which affected their financial viability. Two were for academic reasons, and of those two one was for their former school leader embezzling from the school (Academy of Dover’s Noel Rodriguez).
As the 2014-2015 school year ended, two charters officially closed due to charter revocation decisions by the Delaware State Board of Education. Moyer and Reach Academy for Girls closed their doors forever, but five more were opening up in August: Delaware Design-Lab High School, Delaware Met, First State Military Academy, Freire Charter School, and Great Oaks Charter School.
Towards the end of September, issues started to rise with one of the new charters, Delaware Met. After the school was placed on formal review by the State Board in October, the Charter School Accountability Committee voted yesterday for a recommendation of charter revocation at the end of this marking period, in January 2016.
Earlier in the year, with all of the charter movement, as well as the designation of the sixPriority Schools in Christina and Red Clay, the Wilmington Education Advisory Commission recommended a charter moratorium in Wilmington until the state could come up with an action plan for charters in Delaware. This became legislation in the Spring, and this all morphed into the current Wilmington Education Improvement Commission which is leading a redistricting effort in Wilmington. While charters don’t make the news a lot coming out of this, they are certainly a part of any plans that come out of the commission. The State Board of Education will vote on this in January 2016. Meanwhile, the DOE and the State Board are working on the Statewide Resources for Educational Opportunities in Delaware to determine how all schools in Delaware can best serve their students.
Due to the events at Family Foundations Academy and Academy of Dover, House Bill 186 caused controversy in the Spring. Introduced by State Rep. Kim Williams , Hosue Bill 186 dealt with how charter schools are audited. The bill morphed a couple of times into the final bill which passed the House in June and will land in the Senate Education Committee come January. As well, State Rep. John Kowalko openly and publicly opposed the Charter School Transportation Fund and the Charter School Performance Fund. Rep. Williams also introduced a bill to make sure if a charter school student transfers mid-year to a traditional public school district, the money would follow the student. That bill has not even been heard by the House Education Committee, over ten months after its introduction. I’ve heard rumblings of legislation which would make sure traditional districts send timely information on students that transfer to charters, especially in regards to IEPs and discipline. Which is fine in theory, but there is a caveat in the potential legislation about the districts paying for the funding if the charters don’t receive that information in a timely fashion. That will be a bill to watch in 2016 if it garners enough support to become potential legislation. It will be a lightning rod of controversy between the pro and con charter crowd in Delaware.
All of this charter school activity has certainly kept Nagourney and her staff on their toes at the DOE in Dover. With a staff of four, this is a great deal of work for this office. Add in modifications, performance reviews, special education compliance, standardized testing, and leadership changes among the charters in 2015, Nagourney definitely had her busiest year ever at the DOE. It is no secret I have issues with many concepts behind charter schools as well as the DOE, but I believe the Delaware DOE has come a long way in terms of monitoring the charters and taking action when needed. This can all be attributed to the leadership of Jennifer Nagourney. While her name doesn’t get thrown around in the media the way Secretary Godowsky or even Penny Schwinn does, make no mistake that Nagourney is one of the busiest leaders at the DOE. I am hoping, for her sake, that 2016 does not throw as many challenges her way. In fact, the Charter School Office is taking another look at how the Organizational part of their charter performance framework is made up and a working group will be starting to make recommendations on this.
Nagourney, in my opinion, is one of the strongest leaders at the Delaware DOE. This is not an honor I usually give to anyone down there! At least there is only one charter opening up next year in the form of Delaware STEM Academy. I am pretty sure the DOE will be watching very carefully at how any new charters use their planning period between approval and opening to make sure a Delaware Met never happens again! My biggest wish for this office to carefully monitor special education at Delaware charters. I’m sure that falls under the watch of the Exceptional Children Resources Group at the DOE, but I can say with certainty they are missing a lot. It is not every charter, but it is far too many. I have tons of issues with special education as a whole in Delaware, but some charters do not even know the most basic fundamental aspects of special education laws.
Underneath all of this is a potential ticking time-bomb in the form of the ACLU and Delaware Community Legal Aid complaint to the Office of Civil Rights a year ago. This complaint alleged certain charter schools discriminated against minorities and students with disabilities in their application process. If it becomes a law suit, it would be against the State of Delaware and the Red Clay Consolidated School District who is the only district charter school authorizer in the state. Information was sent to that office in February this year, but no ruling has come down since. This could happen at any time.