“Seventeen years ago, a group of Sussex County parents wrote a charter to establish an accelerated middle school. Their intention was to open a public school accessible to a cross section of middle school students within a small, student-centered caring environment in Georgetown, the geographic center of the county. These “Founders” built a school, hired faculty, and guided the school through its infancy. Since the founding in 2000, Sussex Academy has renewed and modified its charter most recently to add a high school. This happened because parents and community members wanted students to continue to have access to a small, accelerated high school teaching students to be college/career ready and able to serve their communities. With the expansion of the school, Sussex Academy moved its location to 21150 Airport Road in Georgetown during June 2013. Currently Sussex Academy serves 499 students in grades 6 to 10. The school will have its first high school graduating class in 2017.
Recently, the Delaware ACLU filed a complaint with the United State’s Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against the State of Delaware and the Red Clay School District. Both the News Journal and Cape Gazette have reported about this complaint. Sussex Academy’s Executive Board provides the following information about those topics.
• School’s Purpose: In order to achieve the school’s mission, Sussex Academy follows the practices and principles of Expeditionary Learning. In addition, the school has submitted its application to become authorized as an International Baccalaureate school. Sussex Academy should learn the outcome in Spring 2015 if it is approved as an IB school. Any claim that Sussex Academy is a school exclusively for “gifted and talented” students is totally inaccurate. The school provides a hands-on and authentic learning experience in a personal, student-centered environment. Sussex Academy is designed to provide high quality curriculum and instruction so that all its students are college and career ready.
• Application: While the majority of Sussex Academy applicants reside in Sussex County, the school is open to every student in the State of Delaware. There are no restrictions on who may apply and no required criteria for admission. The students who choose to apply to Sussex Academy must complete both the standard State application as well as a Sussex Academy application addendum. The supplement requests that the student’s parent/guardian write a paragraph to answer the question: “Why is Sussex Academy a good choice for your child?” The purpose of the paragraph is to encourage parents/guardians to investigate the school and determine whether the school’s teaching methods and philosophy are consistent with what the parents want for their child. The application clearly states that any parent/guardian that has difficulty completing the application will receive assistance from the school. The parent paragraph plays no part in determining whether a student is admitted to Sussex Academy. By Delaware law, any charter school that has more applicants than available seats must hold a lottery for admission. The lottery proceeding is open to the public. Any claim that Sussex Academy has “an exclusive entrance process” is not true.
• Activity Fee: Traditional public school districts frequently charge fees for student field trips and extracurricular activities. Sussex Academy is no different, except that rather than charging separately for each activity, Sussex Academy assesses a single fee covering all activities. The fee covers such things as materials for clubs, after-school programs, student publications, intramural sports, fieldwork and a yearbook for each student. Families with financial hardships have this fee waived or reduced, and all children receive the same benefits regardless of financial status.
• Uniforms: Sussex Academy students are required to wear uniforms. There is significant research showing that school uniforms are less expensive for families, help diminish social and economic barriers between students, and encourage positive school culture. In Delaware there are approximately forty public schools (district/charter) whose students wear uniforms. The News Journal recently reported that the Boards of two of Delaware’s largest school districts, Christina and Colonial, are considering requiring all students in all grades to wear uniforms. At Sussex Academy families with financial hardships receive assistance for the uniforms. No child is denied access to the school because of the cost of the school’s uniform.
• School Success Agreement: Upon enrollment in Sussex Academy, the student, their parent/guardian and their teachers collectively sign a School Success Agreement. The school-parent compact outlines the activities that the parents, teachers, and students will undertake to build and develop a partnership to help the children achieve the school’s high academic standards. This signed agreement serves as the school-parent compact that is required for the federal Title 1 program and is part of the compliance audit for Title 1. Parental involvement is the single most important factor in determining a child’s academic success. Public schools – be they district or charter – have no control over what parents actually do or don’t do, but good public policy should encourage parents to work with the schools to support their own children.
• Revenues: The annual per pupil revenue for Sussex Academy is less than any public district or charter school in the state. This is verified in the most recently published state document, Report of Education Statistics Financial Information (2012-2013). This report shows that the Sussex County average per pupil revenue was $14,664 while it was $11,854 per pupil for all charter schools in the state. Those same data show that the highest per pupil revenue in Sussex County was $19,428 for Cape Henlopen School District while the lowest per pupil revenue was $9,634 for Sussex Academy. Despite these consistent funding differentials, Sussex Academy students have continued to excel on state assessments. Even the ACLU’s complaint recognizes Sussex Academy as a “high performing” school.
• Expenditures: The State of Delaware does not provide public charter schools with money for major capital expenditures. Consequently, Sussex Academy and other charters must raise money for their school buildings through fundraising efforts. This means seeking out donations from foundations and private donors for capital costs. While Sussex Academy is fortunate to have a very active non-profit foundation that works to raise money for our current capital campaign, families of students are not required to donate or raise money for the school and it is inaccurate to state or imply that Sussex Academy is just a school for upper income families.
• Outreach: In an effort to make all Sussex County families aware of Sussex Academy, the school created an Outreach Committee several years ago. This group of parents, community leaders and school board members work throughout the year to educate the public, specifically those from underrepresented populations about the school and the application process. The committee provides information through paid advertising, social media, and direct mailings. The committee also offers group presentations, school tours, open houses and a shadow program for incoming 9th graders. It is inaccurate to state or imply that this committee has not vigorously sought out minority applicants for the school. It is accurate to state that Sussex Academy has approximately twice as many minority enrollees than it once did.
• Demographics: In 2013-2014 Sussex Academy demographic data showed 81% Caucasian, 3% African American, 7% Hispanic, 9% other minority, 11% impoverished, and 5% special education. In that same year another countywide Sussex school’s demographic data were 68% Caucasian, 17% African American, 11.2% Hispanic, 0% other minority, 22% impoverished, and 8% special education. Sussex Academy’s minority and impoverished student populations have doubled since the school’s opening. So, too, have the numbers of students attending from a single school district. At one time 50% of the students came from one school district; now the highest percentage is 33% from a single school district with our students coming from 17 individual schools inside and outside of the county. Because Sussex Academy will not be oversubscribed next year, there will be no lottery for high school enrollments. Thus, any high school student entering grades 9, 10, or 11 will be accepted and can be enrolled. It is accurate to state that Sussex Academy is increasing its appeal to underrepresented populations and decreasing impact on any school district.
We believe that our school model, its practices and principles, coupled with superb teachers enable our students to meet high academic standards as well as to develop personal responsibility and positive citizenship. We believe that hiring and keeping the best teachers are the cornerstones for quality instruction. Further, we believe that Sussex Academy parents expect our Board, administration, faculty, and staff to promote and live the values of academic performance and social responsibility. We believe that Sussex Academy’s Executive Board and the Sussex Academy Foundation members have been committed to quality education for all students and that the school has thrived in large part because of their commitment and leadership.
We do not believe that charter schools are “taking away many higher income white students from traditional schools, leaving behind a disproportionate number of kids who are minorities, low-income families, or disabled.” Sussex Academy was the first, and remains the only, charter school in Sussex County. Given that Sussex Academy’s student population is considerably less than 1% of the total Sussex County school population, we do not believe that charter schools are negatively or disproportionately impacting any Sussex County school district because all of them are growing, building schools, or wanting to build schools. As a whole, school profile data shows that last year the seven regular Sussex County school districts enrolled 1,578 choice students from other school districts while they allowed 2,223 students choice options within their own school districts. The vocational school and Sussex Academy are not included in these figures. So, it would appear that choice options are important to parents in Sussex County. We concur with that thinking.
Recently there was an article in a statewide paper about a New Castle county charter school that is “racially identifiable” (100% African American and Hispanic). The school uses an innovative approach to teacher development and retention. It would appear that their innovative approach is a key ingredient to the improved performance of their students. We imagine that the parents of those children are happy that their children are making significant academic gains and that they have the choice to send their children to that school. Why would anyone want to take that away from those children and their parents?
Thus, we hope that our elected leaders in Delaware stand with the choice movement that is provided to all parents and children and be wary of racially charged rhetoric about what charters are doing to other schools. Sussex Academy and many charters like us will continue to prepare students for future academic success by providing a supportive academic environment within an intimate setting, something we hope is replicated and enhanced in all schools.
Think about it: the 1995 charter school law was created by forward thinking individuals in the State legislature who sought “to improve student learning; encourage the use of different and innovative or proven school environments and teaching and learning methods; provide parents and students with measures of improved school and student performance and greater opportunities in choosing public schools within and outside their school districts; and to provide for a well-educated community.” 14 Del. C. §501. If there are charter schools meeting those outcomes, why would anyone want to change what is working for those students and parents? We extend an open invitation to learn more about Sussex Academy by visiting our school or speaking with our Board, administration, faculty, and parents.
Mariah Calagione, President Executive Board Sussex Academy
Patricia S. Oliphant, Ed. D., Director Sussex Academy