Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wilmington Charter to be "investigated"

The best school for gifted kids in Delaware is under attack for, in essence, being the best school for gifted kids in Delaware.

I visited the Charter School of Wilmington (or "Charter") three years ago to profile it for Genius Denied. No sign outside announced the school's presence, and indeed the black floors and chipping paint did not suggest a stellar institution. But on top of that chipped paint I saw posters advertising a luncheon lecture from a visiting scholar. Apparently, said scholar had spoken a few days before and so many students attended the lecture that the school had to schedule a second appearance. Students giving up their lunch break to learn more? I remember thinking that there were very few high schools in this country where that would happen.

Delaware State Rep. Nancy Wagner (R-Dover) has decided that Charter should become a school where that doesn't happen.

There's no other way to explain her insistence, as the Wilmington News-Journal reported Friday, that the Attorney General's office investigate Charter for violating Delaware state law by having a selective admissions process. She is of the opinion, according to the article, that "There is nothing in the law that allows a charter school to look at a student's academic record and pick and choose which students to accept . ... As far as I'm concerned, they are breaking the law." Charter's admissions process amounts to "skimming off the cream of the crop" as she told the News-Journal in a creamy blend of metaphors, and the article paraphrased her as saying that it's important to have gifted kids in all classrooms, so their peers can learn from them. In other words, they need to rot (like ungathered crops.. or like unused cream) in schools where kids don't flock to lunch time lectures. That would satisfy Wagner's idea of fairness.

As Wagner is the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, this is a threat to take seriously. Here's the back story.

Six Delaware companies (including pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca) chartered "Charter" a few years ago to help solve the problem of lousy math and science education in Wilmington. These companies wanted their employees' children to have a solid education, and they wanted the future local workforce to have the skills necessary to work for them. The founders tapped Ron Russo, a popular local principal, to lead the school and institute a demanding curriculum.

The first few years, Russo took everyone who applied. He also hired great teachers and instituted a curriculum littered with AP classes and beyond (like differential equations). Not surprisingly, the school had a very high dropout rate. Some students were unprepared for the rigors and decided to attend less challenging high schools. This was frustrating to Russo and the teachers.

Fortunately, demand grew as families learned about Charter. By year four, more students wanted to attend than Russo had space for. So he had to figure out what to do. Delaware state charter law allows schools to give preference to siblings or those who live within five miles, but it does not specifically provide for being academically selective. After filling spots with sibling and local preferences, charter schools are supposed to conduct a blind lottery for admissions. However, there's also a clause saying schools can choose students who show an interest in the school's methods, philosophy or educational focus.

Russo decided that it would be easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission. So he decided to cut the dropout rate by choosing students who showed an interest in a rigorous curriculum -- by doing well in school. Now students take tests for admission and must turn in recommendations.

The result is a school that tilts toward the high end of academic ability, and has a large proportion of gifted students. Not all students at Charter are gifted, but enough are that teachers can cater to these students through advanced classes, independent research and all those things that make school fun for gifted kids.

And now, the head of the House Education Committee wants to put a stop to this. She doesn't seem to grasp that the Charter situation is like the farmer with the goose who lays golden eggs. Rather than be thrilled that a Delaware public school is producing golden eggs, Wagner wants to cut open the goose to get all the eggs quickly. But if Charter has to fill its spots via blind lottery, it won't be Charter. And then families won't want their kids to attend like they do now.

Rep. Wagner's email address is Nancy.Wagner@state.de.us if any Delaware residents who are reading this blog wish to contact her. My experience with writing legislators is that it doesn't help to write if you're not from the region they represent, but it really does if you are. So pass the news along to anyone you know in Dover, Delaware. Charter's local Red Clay school district is highly supportive of the school, so the House shenanigans may come to naught. But better to let people know that someone thinks gifted kids deserve to have their needs met, just like other kids., than take the chance.


Quiltsrwarm said...

You know, Laura, this is just the sort of thing that gets me sooooo angry I can't get through the post without my blood pressure rising 20 points! :) In fact, it is for this reason that I can't even finish "Genius Denied" -- I get 20 minutes into it and I'm so mad at society for allowing these things to happen to our kids that I have to put the book down for sanity's sake. I actually haven't picked it up since Christmas... Great book, but hard on my health!

Although I don't live in Delaware, I sure hope enough people are also fired up about this situation that letters pile up on this person's desk. What is it that people have against gifted kids? This whole notion that other kids can "learn from" gifted kids just gets me, too. So, when do the gifted kids get to learn???

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

It is possible to have a lottery-based admission process and still do what Charter is doing. See Pacific Collegiate in Santa Cruz, CA.

Anonymous said...

My child attends Charter School of Wilmington. Nancy Wagner who called for the investigation was (still is?) a teacher at Dover High. I would have thought she would have been thrilled that gifted kids are finally being educated properly.

In my opinion, this is nothing more than sour grapes, turf wars, the crab pot analogy being played out, whatever you want to call it. I hear how it's not fair that Charter gets the best kids, how they pull them away from the other public schools, how it hurts the other schools test scores, but never anything about the well-being of the Charter students themselves.

Truth is about a third of the Charter students came from private sector- their parents were already committed to staying out of the regular public schools. Also, I personally know 2 kids who were bullied- daily assaulted both physically and emotionally- in the regular public schools. They are safe and happy and flourishing educationally and socially at Charter. Charter has saved them from deep psychological scarring at best-and I don't want to think about the worst they were saved from. I think it is statistically unlikely that I just happen to know the only two kids at Charter that have that kind of history. The regular schools do not deserve to have these gifted kids if they can't even provide for their safety, let alone their educational needs.

Charter also has a handful of kids that have mannerisms which, in my opinion, can only be classified as autistic behaviors, though obviously very high functioning. They are extremely gifted, but having been in the public schools as an educator long ago myself, I have no doubt that their well-being in every way would be in jeopardy at the regular public schools. At Charter they are free to excel scholastically without being tormented and threatened daily. Kids can be so cruel to those who seem different.

Charter School of Wilmington is a place where students can achieve as much as they wish, go as far as they want and are able. They are encouraged, not only by teachers, but by students who provide positive peer pressure.

When third world countries begin to surpass the U.S. in international tests, I think it is time to move passed the turf wars and make sure that our students are each receiving the best education possible. Why can't others, like Ms. Wagner, see this too?

By the way the original article appeared last Friday March 3 and can probably be found in the archives of delawareonline.


Anonymous said...

I found the address of the original News Journal (Delaware) article if anyone is interested, but I don't know how long it will be accessible.



Laura Vanderkam said...

Thanks for posting the link, LP. And Lisa S, glad you think Genius Denied is a good book. The last four chapters are about solutions so probably better to skip to those if your blood starts boiling when you read the first chapters!

Quiltsrwarm said...

Thanks, Linda... Hadn't even thought about skipping chapters -- noooo, can't do that! Sorry... I fell victim to my own public school assembly-line mentality, which, by the way, I'm constantly fighting to change.

It really is hard to alter a way of doing something (like reading) when I've been programmed to do it a certain way for soooo long. Your reminder to change my ways is refreshing. I'll pick up the book again... Thanks!

Quiltsrwarm said...

Oops... sorry, Laura... I can't even get your name right! :) I've picked up "Genius Denied" again and found that I'd already progressed to the last chapter -- and, yes, it still gets me upset. Probably because I feel frustrated at my lack the resources to help. My best (and only available) response to the problems our own gifted children have faced in our rural area has been to yank them from the public schools that have been a literal hell for them. Working with local school bureaucrats didn't work and the county has a tireless gifted advocate at the state level -- not much help there, either. I pretty much decided that if anything was to be done, it would have to be done in our own home, without the interference of the public schools. Thus, our adventure into homeschooling...

Thanks for your support for gifted children -- it means more than you can imagine for those of us who struggled with our own unidentified giftedness and who now struggle to meet the needs of our own gifted children. You are a Godsend... :)

Dee said...

Gifted children don't "rot" in public schools. At least not in my experience in Upper New Jersey or here, in Sussex County, Delaware. I live in a county which most "Charter" students consider to be "hicktown".

"Charter" has an acceptance rate of 40%. How depressing, eh? How many gifted students do they turn away? How many, as Ron Russo would say, "typical" students do they turn away?

All of Sussex County, at least, and many high schools across the country, offer difficulty levels of classes to help each student learn at their own speed. Typically, these levels are "applied", "college preparatory", and "honors". I think you'd have some angry parents if you told them their normal public school student with straight A's was rotting in their Honors courses because he/she couldn't attend a charter school.

Sussex county school districts prove that one can have non-charter schools that cater to gifted child's needs. Here exists a program called "Academic Challenge" which any student who takes the SAT in 7th grade (whatever the score) and has a 3.0 (or special permission) in their classes can enter. It's an accelerated math and english program starting in 8th grade. At it's last two years, those who have braved the storm of college curriculum will take University of Delaware courses Calc A, Calc B, Calc C, Differential Equations, Chaos, Critical Reading and Writing, Intro to Poetry, Intro to Drama, and Short Story. Students do not have to pay for books or tuition. Some of these classes are not offered at Charter.

The students who wind up at these last levels are the ones who choose to themselves. They are not deprived from taking these courses because only a limited number can take them. Only students who fail a course are asked to withdraw from the program.

Public school districts Cape Henlopen, Seaford, and Indian River are excellent schools for math and science and offer an increasing number of AP courses each year. There may come a year when their statistics match "Charter"'s, without the acceptance rate.

"Charter" harms the self-esteem of many students, including rejected gifted ones that will have to go back to the "horrors" of public school.

It is far to easy to educate the "elite" students only. However, it is far more valuable to educate the entire populace.

Anonymous said...

It's NOT a public school... if there are admissions processes and academics is taken into account. You have yourself a publicly funded private school. You want to have all of that, fine... PAY FOR IT - The problem isn't what they are doing, the problem is the money they are using to do it is coming from people paying taxes who then don't get to enjoy that school! Become a private charter, independent of general school funding and that won't be a problem anymore...