When Bryan Stevenson was growing up in Milton, the idea that children with different skin colors could learn together at the same school was deeply controversial. He was among the early wave of students to integrate H.O. Brittingham Elementary School in the 1960s.
In the years since, he’s risen to national prominence as a civil rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit combating racial inequality, and his book Just Mercy was made into a movie of the same title. Now, a new charter school in Sussex County will bear his name.
The Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence (BASSE), founded by members of Stevenson’s family, is slated to open in the fall of 2024 for grades six through eight in a building on the Georgetown campus of Delaware Technical Community College. Initially scheduled to open this month but delayed due to the state’s enrollment-number requirements, the school’s vision is to offer a more tailored education than students can get in larger schools, along with a chance to design community service projects.
“I was really honored when some of my family members came to me with this idea to create a school,” Stevenson says.
The idea for the school had its genesis directly in Stevenson’s legacy. Teresa Berry, a first cousin, and Stevenson’s sister, Christy Taylor, were on their way to one of his events in 2017 when they began reminiscing about all their relative had accomplished.
Students hear from educational experts including, from left, Shorel Clark, a first-grade teacher at Cape Henlopen School District; John Carwell Jr., an education associate with the state Department of Education; and Faye Schilling, a specialist with the department. In advance of its 2024 opening, the school is offering summer and after-school programs.
“And then we looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘We grew up in that same area, side by side. …What have we done?” recalls Berry, who ultimately recruited a small group of co-founders to turn the idea of the school into a reality. She serves as co-chair on the school board, while Taylor is on the advisory board.
The school’s name is meant to be an inspiration.
“We thought it would be really nice if we could set up a school in Brian’s name so that people can see that you can come from Sussex County, a very small area, but you can still do great things,” Berry says.
Key in that idea is the example for minorities in the community. “It’s so important to have role models who look like you,” says Chantalle Ashford, another co-founder and the head of school. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
The founders point to Sussex County’s burgeoning population and crowding in classrooms at other area schools when they say their school can help by offering a different approach. Their classes will have about 25 students.
“The sitting and getting the lecture-based learning does not work for all of our kids, and it is not going to get us to where we need to be in the long run, as a community, as a nation,” Ashford asserts. “So, our goal is to innovate.”
BASSE plans to use the challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum, incorporated with service learning where children will work on community projects that match their interests and that they help develop.
“Students [will] work with their teachers to design a project that incorporates all the things they’re learning in school,” Ashford explains.
“BASSE plans to use the challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum, incorporated with service learning where children will work on community projects that match their interests and that they help develop.”
The idea, Berry adds, is “letting children kind of decide where they want to go with their education, as opposed to us always guiding them in the way that we want them to go.”
Administrators also plan to work with local businesses to help develop students who can stay in Sussex County and plug into the local economy.
The charter’s vision has already attracted numerous local families.
“Parents are really excited,” Berry says. “They want something different.”
Lisa Tudor, of Lewes, has two elementary-age children. She thinks she first heard about the school on a local Facebook group.
She and her husband had both attended public schools, but “COVID changed a lot for us,” she says. She even tried a year of home schooling, “a fascinating journey” that opened her eyes to the way education can meet children’s needs in a way that’s unique to the individual. BASSE would offer an alternative for parents like Tudor who don’t wish to home-school but want a similar model of education.
“[I want] my kids to have some autonomy and some choice in how they learn,” she says. “I have a really curious kid. …I just thought, wow, it looks like BASSE is setting not only their curriculum up but their day in a way that can meet her interests and her curiosity.”
From the other side of the county, Sheri Bailey of Seaford has two children she plans to send to BASSE when it opens next fall.
Her oldest son has faced bullying in a local middle school. Bailey isn’t knocking the school administrators, who she says have done a good job. She thought, however, that a smaller environment might be good for her son.
“I like the fact that the parents and the kids are involved in making some of the decisions,” Bailey says. Her son is eager to participate in a school project that combats bullying.
BASSE also offers a modified school day. “Our kids will start school about 9 [a.m.], because most children need at least nine hours of sleep and most of our kids don’t get that,” Berry explains. They also plan to have after-school programs until 5 p.m., “so parents that work don’t have to try and rush to get to us.”
That’s another appeal for Tudor, who won’t have to worry about whether she or her husband is available to pick up their children when the normal school day ends midafternoon. Kids have their club or service time built into their school day, she notes. “That to me was like a no-brainer.”
Bailey’s 12-year-old son was disappointed this spring when BASSE announced it would delay its opening until next fall. After a six-year journey of building a framework and support, the school announced in March that while it had around 120 families on board, it was shy of state requirements.
Part of the issue, Ashford explains, is that Delaware’s open enrollment period ends in January, before some parents are thinking about options for the next school year—the school received most applications in February and March.
“We’ve picked up momentum, and it hasn’t really stopped…so there’s a ton of interest,” Ashford says. “I just think we weren’t on people’s radar because they weren’t quite thinking about school choice yet.”
In the meantime, students will benefit before the school even opens, Ashford says. Summer and after-school programs are being offered as the board continues to build community partnerships and put finishing touches on the building.
While BASSE will start with grades six through eight, the goal is to eventually add a high school.
Students will likely get to meet the school’s namesake, as Stevenson says he regularly travels back to Delaware and plans to visit at some point.
“It’s always a little surreal and a little strange,” Stevenson says of being honored this way. “Because I still think of myself as a young person even though I know that’s not biologically true. And so it’s been an adjustment to have things named after me—and certainly a school in the community where I grew up is a singular honor.”
“Data suggest real crises for communities across this country, but particularly for communities like Sussex County, which has a high Latino population and a comparatively high Black population.”
— Bryan Allen Stevenson
Education is key to addressing longstanding problems we still have in this country, Stevenson maintains, noting high rates of incarceration for minorities.
“Those data suggest real crises for communities across this country, but particularly for communities like Sussex County, which has a high Latino population and a comparatively high Black population,” he says.
Growing up, Stevenson saw the way people in his neighborhood were limited economically by not having a complete education.
“I believe the opposite of poverty is justice,” he says. “And the pathway to justice is education, is empowering young people, informing young people of their capacity to do what needs to be done. And so I’m as committed to education as a way forward today as I was when I was a young kid growing up in Milton.”
To learn more, visit basseinc.org.