Historic Laurel school building eyed as Sussex Military Academy base

LAUREL — Attention: History may repeat itself in Laurel.
Laurel’s historic 1921 school building that stood as a military academy nearly a century ago and more recently withstood selective demolition could become the future home of Sussex Military Academy in a charter partnership with the Laurel School District.

“We believe this concept is a good one,” said Dr. Kevin Carson, one of the new military academy’s seven founding board members in a presentation at the Nov. 20 Laurel School District Board of Education meeting. “We’re hoping to have a school once opened that would serve approximately 500 young men and women who have an interest or believe that they could benefit from an ROTC instructional program combined with solid academics offered through the school that would allow them to have career options as they go forward in their lives, whether its military, college …”

The intent is to model SMA after the highly successful Delaware Military Academy in New Castle County and the First State Military Academy in Kent County.
“What we are doing together is unique and groundbreaking in many ways,” said Greg Johnson, SMA’s board chairman. “It’s the first time in over 25 years a charter school will have been authorized by a public school system. It is the first time in the history of Delaware a charter school will share a campus with a public school system. It’s the first time in Delaware history a charter school and a public high school has agreed to operate under a shared-services model. This will allow the charter to begin in a more cost-effective manner and potential savings for the Laurel School District.”

Linda Hitchens, Laurel School District board president said she admired the group’s vision. “I am excited, very excited. This is a huge opportunity for Sussex County, for the children of Sussex County. This is history. This is wonderful.”
Laurel Superintendent Dr. Shawn Larrimore said, “There is a reason why this has only been done once in 25 years in Delaware. The board of education has to step outside the comfort zone and do what’s best for students, while also trying to protect their interests.”

Supporters say cadets at SMA will benefit from a comprehensive, school-wide Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program in grades nine through 12.
Academic standards, assessment and grade promotion will likely mirror those of the Laurel School District.
“I think it is reasonable to expect that the standards will be similar,” Dr. Carson said. “Then you would layer in the military science expectations, that make the program what it is and makes it unique.”

Organizers are leaning toward the U.S. Army as the service branch affiliation, Dr. Carson said.
Serving on SMA’s board are Paul Downes, Wyatt Lowe, Amy Handy, Anna Sanchez, Dr. Patricia Oliphant, Dr. Carson and Mr. Johnson. The board has career experience in business, educational instruction and administration and strong military background.

“Our board is diverse with an awareness of gender, race and geography that is required to represent a countywide school,” said Mr. Johnson.
Dr. Larrimore commended Mr. Johnson and Dr. Carson for “assembling such an impressive board. It is a brave step.”
SMA’s hope is for the academy to be operational in two years. “If everything clicked into play, fall of 2021,” Dr. Carson said. “We don’t know if that’s possible. It could be fall of 2022. We honestly don’t know. Many approvals are needed.”

Dr. Carson addresses the meeting.

The 1921 building, the only structure not razed in Laurel district’s districtwide upgrade several years ago, would be the academy’s two-story base.
Dr. Carson said this charter quest remains an ongoing work in progress. “A lot of things have to come into play in order for this to happen – funding, buildings, operations …,” he said. “We believe that it could be a natural fit.”

Arrangements have been made for a feasibility study of the 1921 building to provide answers to many questions.
“What is the status? What would it take to make it operational? What would it take to make it whole?” said Dr. Carson. “We’d like to be considered a potential tenant of the 1921 building and we would like to be partners in that program going forward. One of our first steps of action is to get the feasibility study done. How much square footage does a military branch require within a military academy program?”

Dr. Carson said the board was advised there was a potential for federal planning money to help in the development and opening of new charter schools within Delaware. The application process runs into April.
“That planning money is still within the realm of possibility of our acquiring that,” Dr. Carson said. “We intend to be an applicant for those funds, of which we have been told we could qualify for up to $1 million .. for the planning of a military academy going forward in order to make sure we have a smooth start.”

Dr. Carson said the timeline is constantly evolving. “It would be our intention to present to the Laurel School District — and this is a guess — either late January, early February a charter document for their consideration.”
Then, in the Laurel School District’s process, the district is “required to have what they call a District Accountability Review Committee. It is comprised of people that are appointed by Dr. Larrimore to review the document, vet it, raise questions, edit, make changes, that type of thing,” Dr. Carson said.

The document would come back and forth between the two bodies and “ultimately it goes back to the accountability review committee, who then is the conduit to the Laurel School District Board of Education,” Dr. Carson said.
Noting that U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper recently toured the 1921 building, Dr. Carson said federal funds might be available “to help us along and our goal of bringing this military academy to fruition.”
Laurel Historical Society archives show the two-story 1921 building was a military academy from 1921 to 1926. Dr. Carson said SMA board’s hope is that the historic structure will serve “as the core and the hub for Sussex Military Academy.”

Dr. Larrimore said the vision is that Sussex Military Academy students will be participants in athletics and other extra-curricular activities with Laurel High School. Interscholastic athletics must be approved by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, Dr. Larrimore said.
“All of that is our intention,” said Dr. Carson. “The decision about whether that is going to happen rests with a third party and we’re waiting for that decision.”

Separate governing board
Sussex Military Academy’s governing body is a standalone board with its own incorporation. It will have its own 501 (c) 3, Dr. Carson said.
“Laurel School District is considering – and we’re hoping – to be the charter authorizer. In Delaware you can be authorized through the Department of Education or through a local school district. We’re asking Laurel School District to be the charter authorizer for the Sussex Military Academy charter school. But the board is separate and distinct,” said Dr. Carson.

“Obviously, there is a relationship and a partnership. We’re proposing a shared-services model, which means we’re partners in this endeavor. But in terms of board or governance, the SMA board stands independently. There is liaison with Laurel School District through Dr. Larrimore and his team.”
Dr. Carson said SMA’s board visited Delaware Military Academy, which lies within the boundaries of the Red Clay Consolidated School District. The SMA board has not yet visited First State Military Academy located in Clayton.
DMI, with U.S. Navy affiliation, is a 2019 National Blue Ribbon School recipient.
FSMA is affiliated with the U.S. Marines.

SMA will encompass grades 9-12, most likely implementing a step-in process, Dr. Carson. One tentative enrollment projection model is for 75 freshmen and 50 sophomores the first year; 125 freshmen, 75 sophomore and 50 juniors in year two; 125 freshmen, 125 sophomores, 75 juniors and 50 seniors in year three, then reaching 125 in all four grades in year four.
“That is one particular model that we are looking at. It is certainly a strong one. It’s a two-step question at this point,” said Dr. Carson. “We are looking at either starting with nine and 10, or looking at starting with nine, 10 and 11, depending upon the numbers of students and degree of interest – the number of the students that we need in order to be able to operationally open the doors and move forward.”

The original 1921 school building was the only structure not demolished at that combined complex in Laurel’s districtwide new school upgrade following narrow passage of an October 2010 referendum that paved the way for a multi-campus comprised of new elementary, middle and high schools.
Dr. Carson explained that the school would receive state funding.
SMA board outlined
The board for the new military academy brings a varied background of experiences.

Mr. Johnson has operated businesses in the Laurel for 36 years and is active in numerous civic and community organizations, including Rotary International.
Mr. Downes retired in 2018 after 40 years with Mountaire Farms, including the last six as president/CEO.
“This is a pretty tremendous impressive group, I can tell you,” Mr. Downes said. “I’m excited about it. I think it’s great for the community, for the schools and district, but most all the young people of Laurel and Sussex County.”

Mr. Lowe served 20 years with the U.S. Navy and several tenures as instructor with Seaford High School’s Naval JROTC program. He is a counselor in the Seaford School District.
“I couldn’t say ‘no,’” said Mr. Lowe, when asked to be part of the SMA board. “I believe in JROC. That model is a fantastic model. I think it would benefit all of the students of Sussex County.”

Ms. Handy, an educator in the Laurel School District for 27 years, said she “excited to be a part of this adventure. This is another opportunity, another option for our children, not only just here in Laurel but throughout Sussex County.”
Ms. Lopez brings 23 years of military experience with the Army. She was involved as an advocate with the Department of Defense’s Wounded Warrior effort, and an appointed commissioner for the Delaware Commission for Veterans Affairs.

Dr. Oliphant has extensive experience in education, as a teacher and administrator. She taught at Millsboro High School, then in the Indian River School District following consolidation, and also was principal at Woodbridge High school.

More recently, she was the top administrator for Sussex Academy, a charter school in Georgetown.
“I believe in education and giving kids choices. I want to applaud you (Laurel School District board) for your courage to even consider this,” Dr. Oliphant said. “The board members that have taken on the task of being board members for Sussex Military Academy are very talented people. I’ve learned that in very short order. They bring an enormous amount of expertise and talents that are needed to be able to take on this enterprise. I know that a military academy can be great for kids. I am very much looking forward to being a part of this, and hope that we are able to move forward with this project.”

Dr. Carson has held numerous administrative positions in the Sussex Technical, Woodbridge, Cape Henlopen and Seaford school districts, with primary responsibilities in finance, building and grounds, personnel, strategic planning and team development.

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