Delaware Charter War Part 1: The Birth of Charter School of Wilmington, Counseling Out & Cherry-Picking of Delaware Students

CSWApplication1996

Charter schools.  Two words that bring up a great deal of conversation in Delaware.  For some they have become the savior of public education.  For others they find that they continue segregation in Delaware, are not accountable in the way traditional schools are, and they are the root cause of the corporate education reform movement that has swept across America over the past decade.  In the 1990s, charter schools were created in Minnesota and California.  By 1995, Delaware wanted to take a stab at it.

In 1995, six companies wanted to sponsor a new type of school in Delaware, a charter school: AstraZenaca (then called Zenaca Inc.), Christiana Care Health (then called Medical Center of Delaware), Delmarva Power, DuPont, Hercules Incorporated and Verizon (then called Bell Atlantic). They infused a $600,000 commitment into the school launch. Red Clay Consolidated School District President of the Board William Manning, and St. Marks Principal Ron Russo, were sold on the idea. Originally, they wanted to house the Charter School of Wilmington at The Pines in Pike Creek, a northern suburb of Wilmington, but local residents rejected this idea.  Why not turn Wilmington High School into a charter school? They wanted to offer parents different choices for education that did not involve parents shelling out tons of hard-earned money for private schools.  The school already housed two magnet schools at the time: Cab Calloway School of the Arts and the Academy of Math & Science. The plan was to have Charter School of Wilmington replace the Academy. But first the concept of charter schools in Delaware had to become part of state code.

Enter Senator David Sokola, who sponsored Senate Bill 200. At the time there was no Rodel Foundation, Delaware Charter Schools Network, Innovative Schools, or any charter organization in the state. There were no high-stakes standardized tests at this point. Governor Carper was getting a lot of pressure to change education in Delaware. Reform efforts already began which put Delaware in the spotlight for the first time in a long time.

To get to the story of how CSW began, we have to look even further back at the landmark decision made in 1978.  If folks think four school districts is too much for Wilmington, back then there were eleven! After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which demanded the dismantling of “black” school districts, Wilmington schools were desegregated based on a court ruling called Evans v. Buchanan in 1956. The schools integrated and by 1967 there were no more black school districts in Delaware.

The demographics of Wilmington changed drastically since Brown v. Board of Education. In seventeen years, Wilmington went from 73% white in 1954 to 79% black by 1971.  Dubbed the “white flight”, Wilmington changed dramatically in less than two decades.

The concept of desegregating schools in Delaware was not native to Wilmington.  According to Gene Capers, a retired principal from Towne Point Elementary School in Dover, William Henry Middle School housed the “black” students of Dover, while Central Middle School had all the “white” students.  In the late 1960s, the district changed the dynamics of the two schools and integrated all students in 5th-6th in William Henry and 7th-8th in Central Middle School, which continues to this very day.

In 1969, the General Assembly approved the Educational Advancement Act of 1968, trimming down the number of school districts in the state from 49 to 26. Wilmington wasn’t a part of this legislation, and in effect, Wilmington became re-segregated. In the 1970s, many schools began re-segregating students. The State Board of Education came up with the very controversial “busing plan”. Schools were forced to accept every type of student and the result was a dramatic shift in the makeup of many schools in the area. Schools were closed, students were resassigned, and parents became very angry. The entire public school district system changed, and parents wanted to do away with the busing requirements. The anger from this gave birth to the creation of charter schools in Delaware.

Senate Bill 200 passed in the General Assembly in 1995 creating charter schools in Delaware.  The bill was introduced on June 1st, 1995, and signed by Governor Carper on July 10th of the same year.  To read the whole Senate discussion on Senate Bill 200, please read the below in its entirety.  Senator Sharp predicted much of what came to pass.

By 1996, Charter School of Wilmington was approved by the Red Clay Consolidated School District. In their application, it stated Delaware required 19 credits for students to graduate, Red Clay required 20 credits, but CSW required 24, and said “We regard these requirements as only a minimum education program.” What was even more frightening though was the part about special education, to which the Red Clay Accountability Committee wrote:

“As the Charter School of Wilmington accepts students, it should be cognizant of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a federal law which mandates a free and appropriate education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. The charter school plans to seek a waiver from the State of Delaware related to the special education provision…The value of diversity which appears in the school’s mission statement must be made concrete through the provisions of this aspect of the Charter School’s operations. Specification of admission requirements was requested of the Charter Committee and a copy of the application was provided and is attached as Appendix B. It is clear from this application that the proposed charter has met the requirements of the law which stipulate that the charter may not restrict student admissions.”

In fact, CSW may have given birth to the phrase “counseling out” with charter schools, as written in their response to the Red Clay Accountability Committee:

“Students who cannot or will not meet success criteria will be counseled to transfer to other schools. It would be appropriate for students to enroll in the CHARTER SCHOOL at times other than the beginning of the school year. This presumes a minimum of disruption to the student’s schooling. Ideally, any transfers out would be balanced by the arrival of new students. Consideration should be given to having the balance of the student’s funding follow the student to the receiving school.”

The issue of charter school funding is an issue that still haunts traditional school districts to this very day.  State Rep. Kim Williams introduced House Bill 28 this legislative session to address this issue, but the bill wasn’t even heard in the House Education Committee.

While the “specific interest” of CSW wasn’t talked about in the response, it became very clear that the assessment given to students prior to admission was a requirement for the school, but this wasn’t listed in the response to Red Clay.

“In the case of oversubscription, the CHARTER SCHOOL will use the preferences permitted by the CHARTER LEGISLATION; i.e., siblings, Red Clay Consolidated School District students residing in a five-mile radius of the school. Diversity will be achieved by attracting a diverse pool of student applicants.”

The reality is, once the school got to a position of needing a lottery for students to enter, the opposite occurred.  Instead of achieving diversity, the school in the City of Wilmington became the mirror opposite of the population of Wilmington.  When the seventh type posted the original Senate document, some very interesting conversations took place on Delaware Liberal with both sides of the issue planting their flags in the ground over the topics of race and the predictions of Delaware Senators and eventual segregation in Wilmington schools.

For the first few years, CSW accepted applications from anyone who applied. But the first charter of the state was already on the way to becoming the school it is now in terms of demographics. Imagine the old Wilmington High School all of a sudden housing three different schools. On the first floor was Cab Calloway, Wilmington High School on the second, and CSW on the third. Ron Russo, the head of school at CSW, was adamant about keeping the CSW students separate from the Wilmington High students. In 1997, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by reporter Connie Langland talked about this new choice option open to Delaware students. Manning was quoted as saying “The nice thing about choice is that it tells you right away what people think of your schools…and what schools require change.”

Langland wrote in the article:

“Another concern is whether the plan will have an adverse impact on long-standing efforts to desegregate Wilmington-area schools. School districts in the Wilmington area have relied on busing to achieve racial balance, but with choice families can avoid an unwanted assignment.”

By 1999, Wilmington High School was no more, and the former home of the Red Devils was now the birthplace of the Delaware charter school and a magnet school.

In the book: Congressional Record Vol. 146-Part 2: Proceedings and Debates of the 106th Congress Second Session from March of 2000, Bill Manning was described in a section on school construction funding that he testified at:

“An attorney by trade, Mr. Manning has been among Delaware’s leaders in proposing and implementing a variety of educational reforms: public school choice, charter school legislation, and rigorous academic standards statewide. Red Clay is currently the only district in Delaware to have reached an agreement with its teachers association pursuant to which Red Clay teachers will be evaluated based on student performance.”

During the testimony, Manning said:

“I believe, as do many of you, that charter schools are already improving the educational landscape by offering variety, quality and single-school focus to those who previously had to pay to get those things. That’s the good news. The bad news is that charter schools are still regarded by the educational establishment in some quarters as the enemy. Thus, the organization that owns our school buildings is sometimes stingy with them when it comes to housing charter schools. Nor do the funding formulae in many state charter school bills provide adequate capital- as opposed to operating- assistance to charter schools. Please don’t overlook them.”

To date, Charter School of Wilmington is the only charter school in Delaware that started (and continues to do so) in a building that also housed a regular traditional school district school. While charters share space in the Community Education Building in Wilmington, no other charter has been able to replicate the success of what CSW did in terms of literally taking the best and brightest out of their own building and sending the others to feeder schools.

As the sun set on the previous century, more charter schools were approved by the Delaware Department of Education and opened up across Delaware: Campus Community School and Positive Outcomes in Kent County, EastSide Charter School and Thomas Edison in Wilmington, and Sussex Academy. One charter, called the Richard Milburn Academy, closed down in 2000 due to poor academic performance and the inability of board members to function as a cohesive unit.  Other charters applied for authorization, and were approved, but never opened.

The idea of charter schools was blossoming from an idea to a new landscape for education in Delaware. The forced busing issue combined with school choice was setting up the battle for the ages, but something happened in 2000 that changed everything for all Wilmington schools.

To be continued…

*Special thanks to the amazing narrative of Antonio Prado and Andrea Miller in http://www.clintdantinne.com/mphs/losthighschools.pdf which provided a great deal of the historical backdrop in this article.  As well, to Mike O from the seventh type who provided a wealth of knowledge in his publishing of the Senate discussion of Senate Bill 200.  I would also be remiss in forgetting the Delaware Department of Education who provided the link to the Charter School of Wilmington’s original application to the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

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