Great Oaks Behavioral Specialist Shaun Cooper addresses the crowd of parents, teachers and students. (Jarek Rutz/Delaware LIVE News)

Emotional Great Oaks community pleads for school survival 

Jarek Rutz Headlines, Education

Great Oaks Behavioral Specialist Shaun Cooper, far right, addresses the crowd of parents, teachers and students. (Jarek Rutz/Delaware LIVE News)

Great Oaks Behavioral Specialist Shaun Cooper, far right, addresses the crowd of parents, teachers and students. (Jarek Rutz/Delaware LIVE News)

Great Oaks Charter parents, students and teachers laughed, cried and pleaded with an Education Department representative Thursday for the survival of their school.

“What real love means is we bear all things, because these are just kids,” said math teacher Anthony Davis, choking up with tears. “These students come to Great Oaks and we see the best in them, not only who they are but what they’re going to be.”

He pointed to several of the Great Oaks students in the crowd, saying, “She could be a doctor, he could be a lawyer, and she could change the world.”

The school was placed under review by the Department of Education Sept. 28 over violation concerns surrounding the charter’s enrollment. The Charter School Accountability Committee will conduct the investigation over the next two months. 

After two students were crying and hugging in the hearing, several teachers were clapping and saying that’s the love and camaraderie that Great Oaks is all about. 

First-year Great Oaks special education teacher Yvonne Thomas was also crying. She said that everyone who walks through the doors of the charter leaves a better, more loving human. 

Great Oaks, one of 23 charters in the First State, opened its doors in 2015 in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington.

The charter’s core values are: students first straight talk we grow, model excellence one team, and joy and humor.

Its mission is to create a safe, effective, and innovative learning environment that enables everyone to reach his or her greatest potential through a high dosage of mentorship.

“Every Student, Every Day, Engaging, Connecting and Succeeding – No Matter What,” is the school’s vision, according to its website.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without the lessons Great Oaks has taught me,” said freshman Amir Philips. 

His schoolmate, Jayla Morels, agreed.

“Great Oaks has supported me not only  academically but socially,” she said. “ I feel safe in an open environment where different cultures, sexualities and needs are accepted and loved just the same.” 

The chartering agreement called for Great Oaks to keep an enrollment of 325 students, which means the state is sending money to Great Oaks under the understanding that it is serving that many. 

Fewer students would mean less funding for the school.

Great Oaks reported having only 236 students this year, 37% fewer students than its authorized enrollment, a state press release said. 

Jim Mazarakis, chair of the Great Oaks School Board, spoke, once again, and defended the low enrollment by saying it was hard to recruit people for two years during the pandemic, since there were fewer opportunities for recruitment events.

He said the 60 students lost during last year’s graduation were not recouped, and several students had transferred out of the school to pursue schools with more vocational and technical opportunities. 

Great Oaks lost 30 students to Vo-Tech schools, Mazarakis previously said, but the charter has added vocational opportunities so it don’t lose as many students who go down that track.

He stressed that the school is serving 99.5% Black or Brown students, more than 30% special needs students, and is an integral part of creating better life outcomes for these children. 

Because Thursday’s hearing was the first public one, community members essentially had the floor the whole time. 

The only state education official listening was Leroy Travers, who is the lead education associate at the Charter School Office, part of Delaware’s Department of Education.

After listening to what everyone had to say, he told the audience of 35 that Education Secretary Mark Holodick will consider all of their comments when he and the Education Department  make a decision on whether to shut the school down.

One parent, who did not share her name, asked Travers if he recently saw the Nation’s Report Card, which was published Monday and showed that Delaware students had the largest drop in proficiency scores during the pandemic than any other state. 

Travers nodded. 

“They didn’t look too great,” she said. “If the department is looking at Great Oaks, they better be looking at all those schools that tested low.”

The crowd exploded in cheers.

A decision will be made Dec. 15 by 5 p.m. on whether Great Oaks will be shut down. 

Here’s the timeline of the review for Great Oaks:

  • Oct. 11 – Initial questions and concerns from the Accountability Committee will be sent to Great Oaks.
  • Oct. 18 – From 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Cabinet Room of the Education Department in Dover, the committee will meet  and discuss any answers Great Oaks provided.
  •  Oct. 25 – The committee will deliver an initial report to the Education Department.
  • Oct. 27 – At 5 p.m. the committee will hold an initial public hearing at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.
  • Nov. 9 – The due date for Great Oaks to submit their response to the public hearing and initial meetings
  • Nov. 16 – Any/all final questions or concerns the committee have must be submitted to Great Oaks. 
  • Nov. 22 – From 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. the committee will have one final private meeting in the Cabinet Room of the Education Department in Dover.
  • Nov. 28 – If a second public hearing is needed, it will take place at 5 p.m. in the Cabinet Room of the Education Department in Dover.
  • Nov. 29 – the final Accountability Committee report will be delivered.
  • Dec. 15 – At 5 p.m., a decision will be made and reported to the state Board of Education.

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