The operators of Delaware’s three newest charter schools have learned at least two lessons from the controversies that have swirled about two other charters in the past year: manage well and watch your money.
Leadership and financial problems earlier this year brought the Reach Academy for Girls and the Pencader Business and Finance Charter High School to the brink of closure. The state’s Charter School Accountability Committee recommended in June that charters for both schools be revoked. However, in July, after both schools took steps to strengthen their operations, the State Board of Education agreed with Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery’s recommendation to place both schools on probation.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly passed House Bill 205, which establishes more rigid standards for serving on charter school boards, requires disclosure of potential conflicts of interest for board members and makes it easier for the state to intervene if a charter school runs into financial management problems. The new law also adjusts the distribution of state funds to charter schools, giving them less at the start of the year and more later on, after the Department of Education is confident that the school’s finances are sound.
Profiles of Delaware’s New Charter Schools
Delaware’s first dual-language charter school -whose goal is for students to know English as well as they know Spanish through what’s known as an “immersion program.” Interview with Margie López Waite, head of Las Américas ASPIRA Academy.
A school serving mainly Delaware students with special learning needs – learning disabled, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or high-functioning autism. Interview with Pam Draper, head of Gateway Lab School.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the academy’s college-prep curriculum will introduce its students to careers in law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medicine and related professions. Interview with Charles Hughes, head of Delaware Academy of Public Safety.
Leaders of New Charter Schools Unfazed by Stricter Rules
Leaders of the state’s three new charter schools have been following these developments carefully. They don’t consider the new requirements a hindrance and said they’ve been taking steps all along to ensure the stability of their programs.
“You need strong financial operations. Your board has to be strong,” said Charles Hughes, head of the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security. “In 2011, we have to be more accountable with the state’s money. I’m okay with that.”
Hughes, who was head of the Thomas A. Edison Charter School in Wilmington from 2000 to 2008, thinks the Department of Education is doing a good job authorizing and monitoring charters. “It’s a rigorous program, the right questions have been asked,” he said. “The hurdles some people see are logical questions.”
Margie López Waite, head of Las Américas ASPIRA Academy, is not concerned about the slower distribution of state funds.
“We know you can only spend the money that you have in your account,” she said. “This is probably more of a problem for schools that already exist, that have established habits [of spending].”
Pam Draper, head of the Gateway Lab School and a former financial services professional, said her school has assembled a board of directors whose members have varied experience in both the public and private sectors. The board includes the head of an investment management company, a bank vice president, a clinical psychologist, a University of Delaware administrator and a Christina School District counselor, she said.
Local Groups Help New Charters Get Off the Ground
All three charter leaders said they have received valuable assistance from both the Delaware Charter Schools Network and from Innovative Schools, a Delaware nonprofit that provides consulting and back-office support to charters and traditional public schools.
López Waite and Draper both said Greg Meece, head of the Newark Charter School, provided valuable mentoring assistance. “Greg has been a go-to person for me for the last five years,” Draper said.
He has also helped ASPIRA Academy meet a need, and save some money, López Waite said, by arranging for Newark Charter’s four-day-a-week band teacher to fill out her schedule by working Mondays as the band and chorus instructor at ASPIRA Academy.
Innovative Schools helped guide Tommie Little, one of the founders of the public safety academy, through the state’s charter school authorization process, helping him write the plan and develop the curriculum as well as conducting mock interviews to prepare him for meetings with Department of Education officials, said Deborah Doordan, the group’s executive director.
“Tommie is a visionary. He had a unique idea, but he didn’t have the experience and the resources to put it together [to meet Department of Education specifications],” she said.
“Innovative Schools gave me good guidance early on,” Draper said. “They told me that a lot of charters do well in educating, but fall into problems on the financial end. They said to make sure we had a well rounded board.”
Innovative Schools is also providing business, administrative and human resources support to both the ASPIRA Academy and the public safety academy.
“Innovative Schools’ staff members assigned to my school perform these functions for less than if I hired someone to do it,” López Waite said. “Also, they provide expertise. They know the school finance system. They fill in the knowledge gaps.”
New Charters Get Resourceful Before Start of School Year
Since charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, don’t have a separate fund to pay their capital expenses, they have to pay their rent and utility bills from the same pot that’s used for salaries and classroom expenses.
Some examples of their resourcefulness include:
In their search for adequate facilities, Gateway and the public safety academy found vacant buildings ideal for their purposes that the buildings’ landlords could not easily market for other uses. Gateway negotiated a four-year lease with St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church for the recently closed parish school building. The public safety academy is leasing the portion of the Faith City Church building once used by the now-closed Faith City Christian School and the Tall Oaks Classical Academy, which moved last year to New Castle.
To outfit its classrooms, the public safety academy salvaged the desks from the Brandywine School District’s now-closed Burnett School, Hughes said.
Gateway is using the desks, office furniture, video projectors and screens no longer needed after the St. Catherine of Siena School closed. The aunt of one of its students donated a used piano for the music room, Draper said.
With the help of Innovative Schools, Gateway also scheduled a “barn raising” on Aug. 20 — pulling together more than 100 staff, parents and community volunteers to paint hallways and common areas throughout the school.
At ASPIRA Academy, López Waite’s office is furnished with a desk and other surplus items from AstraZeneca. Shelving discarded after a remodeling of the Barnes & Noble store in Christiana Mall will be used in the art and music rooms and other classrooms, she said.
All three schools are now ready to go – just as the first bells rang this week.