Photograph by Tessa Smucker
Howard High School of Technology Principal Stanley Spoor with students (from left) Ayooluwayimika Ajao, Korey Kent, Kharrin Gale and Sharita Jordan.
Jadah Taylor, Kharrin Gale and Sharita Jordan cried the first time they saw Howard High School of Technology. Theirs were not tears of joy. Building materials, workers, trucks and lots of dirt filled the parking lot.
It looked like a construction zone because it was. In 2014, Howard completed a $35 million renovation that transformed the school from an aging relic to a shining example of modern design. But the girls didn’t care that Howard’s future was bright or that its past was historic. “I didn’t want to go to school in Wilmington at all,” Jordan says. “And I’m from Wilmington.”
For years, Wilmington’s public schools have been examples of failure. But in different corners of the city, change is happening, with implications beyond education. While traditional schools work to remake themselves, the arrival of new charter schools and the staff that comes with them means new life across the city.
“We are at a juncture of potentially profound hope for Wilmington’s schools,” says Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a nonprofit committed to creating a first-class educational system in the state by 2020. “This potential renaissance is not only life changing for generations of children, but it is crucial to the economic well-being of our city,” he says. “Around the country, more and more people are moving back to cities. They want walking access to a great quality of life. We aren’t there yet, but with the emergence of new restaurants, the new Creative District and great new music venues in Wilmington, this new energy around our schools is all part and parcel of an exciting, under-the-radar resurgence.”
Michael Duffy is president of the Great Oaks Foundation, parent of the brand new Great Oaks Charter School downtown. With an ancillary mission of improving the community, Great Oaks worked with local developers Buccini/Pollin Group to find or create housing for its 37 AmeriCorps-funded tutors. Those now housed in various BPG apartment buildings on Market Street drive a need for restaurants and nightlife. And if the record from other cities with Great Oaks schools holds, a third of each year’s cohort will find permanent jobs and remain in the city after their year of service.
“We want them to contribute to the life of Wilmington,” Duffy says. “That residential presence makes a big difference in the safety and energy of a place.”
Since the state’s first charter school opened, in Wilmington, in 1996, they have proliferated across the state. In the city limits alone, there are now 11 charters—a third of the charters in the state—that serve students of all ages. In Wilmington, their missions range from educating students from the most challenged neighborhoods to reinforcing cultural identity to providing solid college preparation.
In the 2014-15 school year, 2,475 of the 11,575 students in Wilmington attended charter schools. That’s more than a fifth of the city’s school-aged children. And in two years, with the planned openings of new schools, charters will provide capacity for half of the city’s school-aged children. Six of the current charters call downtown home.
That’s good news for the vitality of the city. “[School staffers] are making a huge impact,” says Chris Buccini of BPG. “Being downtown, they’re going to the restaurants and bars. They’re going to the coffee shops and gyms. They’re using Zipcar.”
“It creates options,” Herdman says. Though critics of public education in Wilmington make much of the fact that there is no traditional public school in the city, Herman notes that there are three, each with a specific educational emphasis. That’s very different from the standard education provided by the city’s two high schools 40 years ago. “A lot of people have a freeze frame of what Wilmington schools looked like in the ’70s.” The picture has changed.
“No city can be great without great schools,” Buccini says. “I think everyone will admit that not all of the charters are great, but the ones that are great are amazing.” BPG worked hard to attract Great Oaks, which had established a record of success in the tough markets of New York City, Bridgeport, Conn., and Newark, N.J. The Freire model proved itself in Philadelphia before a school opened here in September. “Some of these schools are giving amazing educations,” Buccini says. “They are just world-class charters.”
Howard High School’s students are aiming to be part of that resurgence by forming a pool of skilled employees. The vast majority of students graduate with certificates that qualify them for jobs right after high school, and those jobs help pay for two- and four-year colleges and trade/technical schools. It’s a vocational-educational recipe for success. Of the class of 2015, 94 percent of graduates pursued those forms of secondary education. Ask the three girls who cried when they first saw Howard about their school now and they extol its virtues, defending it like proud big sisters. “There is no better school in Wilmington and probably in the state,” Taylor says. “Our teachers really do care about us and our success, and they are preparing us for the future.”
If Howard is an example of a turn-around high school, Thomas Edison is an example of a successful charter. Opened in Wilmington in 2000, the K-8 school is at its capacity of 750 students, some of whom travel by bus an hour each way to attend. The school is not shiny and new like Howard, but what Edison lacks in beauty it makes up for in personality.
Leading the school is charismatic principal Salome El. The author of two books on educational reform and a recipient of the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award, El has appeared on CNN, NPR and Oprah Radio. With his team, El created a challenging curriculum that includes pre-AP classes and SpringBoard language arts. That curriculum, plus precision-based diagnostic testing, allows teachers to help students where they need help and challenge them in areas in which they excel.
The system is working. Thomas Edison students consistently score above average on standardized tests. That helps them notch places in great high schools. Edison graduates attend Tatnall, Wilmington Friends, Ursuline Academy, St. Andrew’s and Padua, usually on scholarship. “They might not all go to Tower Hill, but they won’t be at the bottom of hill,” El says. “Our kids succeed at all kinds of high schools because, at Thomas Edison, they’ve learned how to learn.”
Teachers are more than educators at Thomas Edison. They are part of students’ extended families. El packed his staff with men who act as role models for kids who come from fatherless homes. The hallways are festooned with banners from their teachers’ colleges in order to inspire students. “Kids know the difference between people who care about them and people who don’t,” El says. “Kids will work their hearts out for people who believe in them. If someone tells a kid he can beat the odds and accomplish great things, he will. Every kid needs someone to be crazy about him. At Thomas Edison, kids find that in their teachers.”
Other kids find it in other charters. Three of them—Academia Antonia Alonso, Kuumba Academy and Great Oaks—are housed in the Community Education Building on French Street. Delaware Met just opened its doors nearby. All-boys Prestige Academy is older. It’s true that some of the city’s charter schools have stumbled. But others have excelled, like the Charter School of Wilmington, which was ranked No. 15 in Newsweek’s 2015 list of America’s top high schools.
Schools in Wilmington, charter and not, and throughout the state, have another mighty ally: Teach For America Delaware. The nonprofit organization recruits and deploys progressive-minded teachers to work for two years in schools in low-income neighborhoods. The Delaware chapter began in 2011 as an offshoot of Philadelphia’s. It became independent in August 2012. To date, 165 TFA teachers have taught in 25 of Delaware’s schools. One hundred TFA alumni continue to live and work in the state. Fewer than half are originally from Delaware.
TFA teachers are trained to be educational change agents. As executive director Laurisa Schutt explains, the new breed employs and enhances new strategies that many district and charter schools are adopting. TFA Delaware is also leading the fight to combat summer brain drain. Many kids from low-income neighborhoods regress academically over the summer. In summer 2013, Schutt and her staff inaugurated the Summer Learning Collaborative to recruit and train certified teachers to provide enrichment in Wilmington’s free or low-cost summer camps, including those at West End Neighborhood House, Latin American Community Center, Hilltop Lutheran Center, Walnut Street YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club. By the summer of 2015, close to 1,000 Wilmington students were enrolled. “Not only did we stop summer learning loss, we reversed it,” Schutt says. “On average, our students gained about three months of learning.”
Thomas Edison has its own summer enrichment programs—and it has a thriving chess program. The school’s team is the only one in Delaware to win a United States Chess Federation National Elementary Chess Championship. It happened in May 2014 and, while it was a team effort, the victory was clinched by one girl: Shanea Higgin. Higgin, now 13, lost her first and second rounds, then won four in a row. With the championship on the line, Higgin started her last round. “Shanea’s game took forever, somewhere between three or four hours,” El says. “She came out and said, ‘I didn’t win, but I didn’t lose. It was a draw. I got half a point.’ We won the national championship because of that half point.”
Every half point matters, and while it might take a long time, the reinvention of public education in Wilmington—and the city itself—is well underway.