Sussex Academy to buy Jefferson school, pending approval

GEORGETOWN — Next year, the Jefferson School’s doors could reopen under a different identity — as Sussex Academy’s new elementary school.

“As a school leader, I came from New Castle County and there are several charters up there that have expanded to K-12 — Newark Charter School, Odyssey, [Las Américas] ASPIRA Academy,” said Eric Anderson, head of school for Sussex Academy. “That was something always in my long term vision, that I thought, ‘What kind of a difference could you make if you intercepted students at the beginning of their schooling career?’”

On Tuesday, the charter school was up for another public hearing on its plan to purchase the 43-acre private Jefferson School and create a K through five elementary. Its doors would open in the fall.

“If we get in at kindergarten, we’re developing them from the start of their education experience. That way, when we have those transitions [to sixth and ninth grade], we have less of that acclimation process to handle,” he said.

“I didn’t expect it would take place in my second year being here,” he added.

However, things aligned just so: the Jefferson School, a private school for students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight, planned to shutter due to financial difficulties, Mr. Anderson said, and there was a finite amount of time to take over their facility. Discussions about acquiring the school’s property began over the summer.

Mr. Anderson said that the facility changing hands isn’t a merger.

“It’s a private school closing and a public school purchasing that property to expand and offer grades K through five,” he said. “There’s no partnership or affiliation.”

Some of the students have historically moved on to Sussex Academy to continue their education. With the closure of Jefferson, students will have to apply like everyone else and enter the lottery process.

“There are 85 students there; 85 students will need homes and will be returning to the public school system,” he said. “Sussex Academy is another option for them.”

Starting with students at a younger age gives the advantage of biliteracy, Mr. Anderson said. The students who are exposed to a second language earlier are better prepared to take advanced language courses, like the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program.

“Being situated in Georgetown, we have a high Hispanic population. Spanish is the first language spoken at home. That can create barriers for students that have Spanish as a first language, English as a second language,” he said.

Working with students earlier, he continued, allows for “those partnerships between home and school [to start] earlier” and allows for the capability for biliteracy and comfort.

“[Starting school earlier means] maintaining the native language, parents feeling comfortable coming into the school and knowing they have a communication pathway and showing that acceptance that we value that as a school,” he added.

The board of directors’ outreach committee has sought to “increase the diversity of our student population,” according to materials provided to the state.

According to those documents, six years ago, 81% of the students who attended Sussex Academy were white. This year, 36% of applicants were not white.

The charter’s students mostly come from Indian River, Cape Henlopen and Seaford school districts, Mr. Anderson said.

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.

The district raised concerns that the offerings from Sussex Academy are “identical” to Cape Henlopen. It also took aim at the charter’s plan to diversify its population.

“There is no evidence of this occurring,” the letter stated.

With the accelerated curriculum at Sussex Academy, Mr. Anderson said that can deter students who may have not seen strong academic success in grades K through five.

“Applying at the kindergarten level, they’re coming in at a level playing field,” he said. “It opens the door to a more diverse applicant pool because they haven’t started school yet.”

The current school leader at Jefferson would 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. “Their kids do well when they come to our school.”

And the Academy’s students are familiar with Jefferson, he noted. High school students have used the environmental space — the ponds, water well, goats, chickens, etc. — to extend outdoor learning, he said.

Other staff members can apply to Sussex Academy, he added.

There will be changes, he noted. There are state mandates that differ for public schools, he said.

The school will basically be ready for move-in, minus “branding enhancements” to alter the school’s identity to reflect Sussex Academy.

A decision on the school’s expansion is slated for March 19, at the next state board of education meeting.