School board OKs expansion for two downstate charter schools

Two downstate charter schools will expand come fall, the state school board decided Thursday.

In Kent County, Academy of Dover will add sixth grade to its programming. In Sussex County, Sussex Academy Charter School will open an elementary school in the former Jefferson School facility.

The school board voted unanimously to approve both modifications.

“I am elated that we will be able to keep our current fifth graders, and see them continue to grow,” said AOD Head of School Michele Marinucci in an email. “We have a true love for what we are doing here at our amazing Academy — our educators are as dedicated as they get, and our passion for doing all it takes to meet the needs of every student runs deep.”

In a previous interview, Dr. Marinucci said it was evident when she began her tenure at the charter that expansion was something the school community wanted.

“We see ourselves as the village working with our families to ensure that our children achieve all they can — socially, emotionally, and most of all, academically,” Dr. Marinucci said later. “We look forward to this coming year and seeing our students continue to grow as academy leaders and achievers.”

The current facility has the ability to hold another grade. Dr. Marinucci said that, depending on enrollment, the school would need to add staff.

“We’re committed to keeping small class sizes,” she said.

The school, serving grades K through five, currently has 265 students enrolled. Its charter allows for 300 students at this time, and the expansion extends that to 330.

“We’re planning to be full. We’ve got the vast majority of our families saying that they plan to stay with us,” she said previously. “We’ve had a massive turnout of choice applications; we’re still getting them.”

She added in an email that they still have space available for remaining open spots.

Eventually, the charter would like to add seventh and eighth grade, but that would require an extra facility, Dr. Marinucci said. That’s why the school only applied to add sixth grade at this time.

During the conversation at Thursday’s board meeting, board member Dr. Audrey Noble recognized that the charter was under new leadership, but asked that the charter school office “carefully monitor the enrollment under this expansion,” given the charter’s past challenges with enrollment levels, she said.

Sussex Academy’s elementary school is slated to open in August 2020. The charter will purchase the 43-acre private Jefferson School and create a K through five elementary.

The use of the Jefferson School’s building and footprint does not make this a merger; the elementary school will be public, as Sussex Academy is, and students at the Jefferson School must apply like everyone else, said Head of School Eric Anderson in a previous interview.

The elementary school will enroll approximately 160 students. Applications for enrollment are now being accepted, according to the website.

Jefferson’s current school leader will join the elementary school as dean, Mr. Anderson said.

“I have gotten to know their school leader. She holds a lot of the same beliefs as Sussex Academy, and she’s familiar with the school and the programs we’re going to institute, which are similar to Jefferson School now,” he said previously. “Their kids do well when they come to our school.”

Other staff members from Jefferson can apply to Sussex Academy, but there will be changes, Mr. Anderson said, as there are state mandates that differ for public schools.

During the hearing phase of the modification process, Cape Henlopen School District raised concerns about the expansion. In a response submitted to the state for consideration during the hearing process, the district outlined that having about 85-110 students pulled from the district would “affect staffing and preparation.”

“The rushed nature of this charter would not allow us to staff properly and may result in over-staffing, costing us money,” the letter said.

Chuck Longfellow, associate secretary for operations support in the Delaware Department of Education, acknowledged those concerns to the board during Thursday’s board meeting.

From Cape’s perspective, he said the added school could impact staffing. If Cape were to lose students, that would impact teacher numbers, he said.

“I think that’s what they’re concerned about, the uncertainty of where the students will be drawn from [in terms of grades/classes] to go to Sussex Academy from Cape,” he said.

“I don’t want to dismiss Cape’s concerns, but I don’t think it’s going to be a real devastating effect to the district if we were to approve this modification for Sussex Academy.”

The school board also approved the modification to Newark Charter School, which will allow more students to enroll; the building of a new junior high school on land currently owned by the charter school and the renovation of the primary and intermediate schools. It also allows for the renovation of the physical activity and athletic field spaces on both campuses.