Photo by Luis Javy Diaz
Delaware Military Academy Ensign Ethan Sherkey readies his fellow cadets for inspection.
Linda J. Jennings is head of school at MOT Charter in Middletown. She has two sons. One attends a top-tier private school. The other is at a charter. Which kind of school is best? She chuckles. “We’re unwilling to say that one option is better for anyone,” Jennings says. “MOT and other charters exist to give people an option.” Private schools set their own curriculums, are not bound by government-set standards for student performance and are privately supported through tuition and gifts. Charters are independently governed, publicly funded schools with specific academic missions that must comply with government regulations and meet federal standards for performance. Yet, each kind of school creates a special culture for itself through its academic focus, curriculum, athletic programs and extracurricular activities. “Charters are meant to have a unique niche,” says Anthony Pullella, commandant at Delaware Military Academy in Wilmington.
DMA is an obvious example. With its uniformed body of cadets, a chain of command and an atmosphere of discipline, it doesn’t look like any other school in the state. Fourteen percent of its graduates choose to enlist in the military after graduation, and it is the first school in Delaware to send members of a single graduating class to all four service academies in the same year. DMA clearly offers something different, but that doesn’t mean DMA is all about the military. The school has a debate team, a chess club, a champion girls cross-country team and the other types of clubs, teams and programs found at other schools; and about 84 percent of graduates opt for traditional colleges. What truly sets DMA apart is a feeling of fraternity. “Once you’re part of DMA, it’s like a brotherhood,” Pullella says. “You never leave it.” Charters fill other niches. First State Montessori Academy in Wilmington, for example, educates elementary students according to the principles of Montessori education. Charter School of Wilmington for high school students emphasizes high performance in math and science. Because academics always come first, it perennially ranks among the top three schools in the state. (It ranks in the Top 10 high schools in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report.)
Odyssey Charter School, also known for rigorous academics, requires the study of Greek even among its youngest students, a practice proven to enhance a student’s overall achievement. Campus Community School in Dover is based on a social constructivist philosophy of education, which embraces the idea that a child’s experiences influence how they learn and what they absorb from lessons taught by others. Though the state has revoked some charters over the 18 years of charter education, the movement is a strong one, with new charter applications pending every year and waiting lists for admissions to most existing schools. The Delaware Charter School Network counts 21 members—10 percent of all public schools—and those schools serve 11,000 students. “The power of choice is changing schools as we know them,” says Nick Manolakos, headmaster at Odyssey. So how do you choose? Beyond the obvious difference in cost—charters are free—evaluate factors such as school size, class size, learning environment, overall culture, location and transportation. And because most charters expect a high degree of parental involvement, you’re choosing a school for yourself, too. “We don’t have the view that charters are better,” Jennings says. “It’s all about the right fit. You just have to find it.”