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Friday, March 5, 2021

The Trials And Tribulations Of Starting A Charter School

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Charlie Copeland
Charlie Copeland
Charlie Copeland is President of Associates International, Inc, an internationally-recognized direct marketing company located in Wilmington, Delaware. From 2002 through 2008, Charlie served as a Delaware State Senator and Senate Minority Leader where he was a leading voice for government accountability, education reform, and criminal justice reform. He is the primary founder of The Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security, a homeland security, college-preparatory public Charter School and is involved in numerous other non-profit & community based organizations.

Part of Town Square Delaware’s August Education Series. 

 

In the spring of 2007, House Speaker Terry Spence, Tommie Little, Don Marston, and I (then serving as State Senate Minority Leader) met for lunch to discuss violence in schools. This group recognized that you can’t legislate good behavior, but you can build a sense of community, discipline, and achievement within a school setting. From this discussion, the idea of a First Responder-focused, college preparatory, charter high school was formed.

This fall, the Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security will be opening its doors. The intervening four and a half years of trial, tribulation, success, and failure point out many of the good things happening in Delaware and many of the awful things. The following paragraphs step through the history of the school’s evolution.

First step – get a Charter. Acquiring a Charter for a school in Delaware is a difficult process. First, there is no money. Second, developing the Charter is very technical (requiring specific expertise which sometimes focuses on non-educational-related demands). And third, the forces of status quo are against you. Fortunately, we received significant help from Innovative Schools Development Center (ISDC). They helped us develop the Charter, but at an expense that the school still carries on its books – lessening the ability for ISDC to help others improve.

While the Charter development process was ongoing, the Teacher’s Union, fearing strong competition for their monopoly education position, successfully promoted a “Charter School Moratorium” in the Delaware General Assembly. So, we and other Charter applicants fought back amending the moratorium to exclude four schools then in the Charter application process. Despite saving four schools, this fight stopped other legislative opportunities designed to improve Delaware’s Charter environment, which came back to haunt Delaware this year at three different schools.

Eventually, we were able to present to the Delaware State Board of Education, and in May of 2009, two years after concept creation, the DAPSS Charter was approved.

With the approval of the Charter, Tommie Little stepped down as Board Chair at the school, and I took over. Now that we had a Charter we were eligible for $125,000 in Federal startup funds – just enough for some operating dollars and the hiring of a school leader. We hired a school leader, reconstituted the Board of Directors, and negotiated for a location in the City of Wilmington — when major the problems began.

Unbeknownst to the Board, the potential property, which had been recommended by a consultant, constituted a “Change of use” of the building requiring fire code upgrades that would cost at least $250,000. (Did I mention that Charter Schools have no money?) Despite four months of intense negotiation, the City was unwilling to consider any flexibility in implementation of the upgrades. The regulators had won. At this point, the school was mired in a “Catch-22”. Families refused to commit to a school that did not have a location, and the landlord would not make the investment without a guarantee that the school would open. By May 2010, three years after concept creation, we had spent our federal startup funds, had no location, and no students.
So, we stood back up, brushed off, and reloaded. The Union was not going to stop us. The City was not going to stop us. We began a feverish effort of private sector fundraising for operating funds, while serendipity brought us an option on a new location outside of the City.

We were just able to secure just enough money to hire a new school leader, and we approached the Charter School Accountability Committee with a request for a Charter modification so that we could open a year later and in a different location. Dozens of meetings, presentations, budget reviews then followed. Our Charter modification was accepted; our location was affordable and locked in; we began to, once again, recruit students.

Of course, if you don’t recruit enough students to fulfill your Charter, you can’t open. We had to recruit 160 students by April 1, 2011. By January, we had just shy of 100 – we had 90 days to get 60 students. Many parents were concerned because they wanted to know if the school would open, but we assured them that we were confident we would open. We were working hard and picking up 4-5 students a week. By mid-March, we were over our number, had met our Charter, and the school would be opening.

Of course, we had to maintain our recruitment efforts (some students/families change their mind and leave so you need to replace them) but now we had to add to this activity the hiring of staff, the fitting out the school with desks, computers, networks, the responding to parent/student inquiries, the finalizing of educational programs, etc. All without hiring any staff because we still had no money. At these tasks, we have been pretty successful and are on track.

So, after four and a half years, we are opening. Above has been a brief overview of our history. Nothing compares to the reality of facing a deadline with few resources and an array of hostile bureaucrats. On the other hand, our experiences with the State’s Department of Education have been good. They have followed the law and regulations, but have been responsive, encouraging, and flexible. If Delaware’s Charter Laws were improved, Delaware could have something very special and successful. Unfortunately, Delaware’s current political ground will not allow those well-recognized, simple changes.

The only people who are suffering as a result are our children.

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