Diversity & Inclusion

Awkward: Inside an open house for a charter school that may not open

Amid its woes, Delaware STEM Academy is still hopeful it will get to open its doors in September.

A Delaware STEM Academy booth at a mall. (Photo via Facebook)

Last Thursday, the Delaware Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC) moved to revoke Delaware STEM Academy’s charter before it even opened, due to concerns with low enrollment and financial viability.
But DSA is still pushing along with its plan to open in September. In the last two weeks, amid its troubles, the school has hosted a series of open houses to encourage more students to enroll.
We visited the open house yesterday evening, held in DSA’s administrative office in a New Castle office park. The open house had several booths set up for science demonstrations with lasers, microscopes and plant growing stations. Many of the materials were donated by DSA Board member Andy Ragone through his employer, DuPont Engineering. Ragone and fellow board member Marian Young were among the school representative at the open house, along with DSA executive director Brett Taylor.

DSA Executive Director Brett Taylor shows off a hypothetical classroom. (Photo by Ben Porten)

DSA Executive Director Brett Taylor shows off a hypothetical classroom. (Photo by Ben Porten)


Taylor, who sported a smile and a blue polo shirt, acknowledged that CSAC had voted to recommend the revocation of DSA’s charter but emphasized that the decision was still ultimately in the hands of Secretary of Education Steven Godowsky. Godowsky will announce his decision on June 16.
While we were there, we saw just one family: Ronda Dougherty and her grandson Luis Velez, a rising sophomore. Dougherty enrolled Velez at the open house, in part because DSA told her that Velez could make up some missing credits over the summer and start tenth grade in the fall.
DSA was placed under formal review by CSAC in April 2016 due in part to low enrollment numbers. Jennifer Nagourney, executive director of the Delaware Charter School Office, noted that the school had only 29 percent of their total approved enrollment, though Delaware state law requires charter schools to have enrolled at least 80 percent of their total approved enrollment by April 1 of each school year.
There were 130 enrolled students as of Thursday, said Taylor. That number accounts for 52 percent of the school’s total number of authorized students
“We’d like to have more, obviously,” said Taylor, who most recently served as a special assistant for legislation, budget and policy for the Delaware Department of Transportation.
Luis Velez, 14, with his grandmother, Ronda Dougherty. Velez enrolled in DSA at the open house. (Photo by Ben Porten)

Luis Velez, 14, with his grandmother, Ronda Dougherty. Velez enrolled in DSA at the open house. (Photo by Ben Porten)


Taylor added that during the June 2 CSAC meeting, CSAC had requested that the school provide information pertaining to fourteen points. The DSA board has compiled its responses and will submit them following today’s Special Meeting of the Board of Directors.
“We feel confident in our response and that the Secretary will look favorably on it,” Taylor said.


DSA is continuing to enroll students and is planning on opening in September, he said.
“Our goal was much higher,” he said, “but starting a new school is very challenging.”
As a member of the Red Clay Consolidated School District’s Charter Authorization Committee, Taylor participated in the openings of three New Castle County charter schools and one district magnet school.
“But I was part of a team,” he said, “and this is the first school where I’m the leader, where I’m heading the startup.”

DSA board member Andy Ragone gives a demonstration on photosynthesis. “Brett pretty much killed the plant,” he joked. (Photo by Ben Porten)

DSA board member Andy Ragone gives a demonstration on photosynthesis. “Brett pretty much killed the plant,” he joked about the school’s executive director. (Photo by Ben Porten)


“It’s very challenging,” he continued. “You have to convince parents to come to a new school, let alone a charter school, let alone a STEM school. We have a more challenging marketing process than other schools.”
He described enrollment at the school as “slow and steady,” but said that it could be a blessing in disguise, as a smaller school can give greater attention to its students.
“We’re looking at this positively,” Taylor said, “as opposed to…” and trailed off.

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