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.