STEM Charter High School Planned at DSU
School would open on Dover campus in 2013
2:06 AM, Dec. 27, 2011, Written by Wade Malcolm, The News Journal
Earlier this year, two top Delaware State University officials visited two colleges in Ohio.
President Harry L. Williams and Provost Alton Thompson took the trips not to meet with fellow leaders in higher education. They wanted to see two high schools -- operated by and located on the campuses of Akron University and Lorain County Community College.
The model they saw in action on their visits is known as "Early College High School." And if the state approves its charter school application, DSU will open the first school of that type in Delaware on its Dover campus by the fall of 2013.
The publicly funded school will be open to students of all backgrounds and abilities. But DSU will market the school to students who would be among the first in their families to attend college and are interested in science, technology, engineering or math, the so-called STEM fields.
Students would take a dual enrollment curriculum, meaning they also would take college classes and graduate with up to 60 college credits.
"We want highly motivated students that are interested in STEM that might not have the opportunity to go to college otherwise," Thompson said.
DSU submitted the application with the help of Innovative Schools, a Wilmington-based nonprofit that researches models for charter schools. The proposed DSU charter would fill an important niche not currently available to students in Kent County, said Debbie Doordan, executive director at Innovative Schools.
Campus Community charter school in Dover, located partly at Wesley College, will disband at the end of this academic year, leaving only the private College School at the University of Delaware. Recent studies have shown students who attend schools on college campuses are more likely to someday graduate from college.
That is especially the case when high school students have the opportunity to complete college credits, said Kathy Hughes, an assistant director at Columbia University's National Center for Postsecondary Research.
"It really gives them the sense that college is for them," Hughes said. "They get to do college work, but with more hand-holding than a high school teacher can provide."
The key to successful early college schools is providing access and an individualized curriculum, Hughes said. This type of charter school sometimes weeds out lower-income students by not providing transportation and charging students for college textbooks or other fees, Hughes said. Expecting every student to graduate with 60 credits would also be a mistake, she said.
Organizers involved with the proposed school at DSU say they do hope to reach a broad group of students by busing them to and from school and not charging any hidden fees. Students will be taught according to their abilities, with some graduating with only a few college credits. They say that students will self-select whether to apply to the school based on their academic ambitions.
"The students that enroll here will have to make a commitment to a curriculum that is academically rigorous," said Dawn Downs, director of school models at Innovative Schools.
The school's focus on college readiness presents another possibility for DSU. Only about 39 percent of DSU students graduate.
While the university would not provide exact figures, Thompson said more than half of this year's freshmen took developmental math to prepare for college-level work. Thompson could not say to what extent DSU's remediation needs have been trending up or down because it recently changed its assessment test for placing students.
Phyllis Brooks Collins, DSU's executive director of academic enrichment, has noticed heightened demand across the country and at DSU. She estimates about 25 percent of DSU freshmen need extra help with reading comprehension.
"I think the need is greater," she said. "Most colleges are grappling with students coming out of their high schools underprepared."
The charter school could help DSU address this issue in a variety of ways. Educators and professors will have the chance to study what does or doesn't prepare high school students for college. Some students might decide to continue attending DSU after graduating from high school.
"If 20 or 30 percent came to us for college, that would be great," Thompson said. "The important thing is to get them college-ready, whether they go to Delaware State or not."
The school will admit 100 to 125 ninth-graders in its first year and continue to expand the following year. If the number of applicants exceeds the space available, the school would hold a lottery to determine which students to admit. Thompson feels optimistic the school would reach that level of popularity if approved.
"I would think that would be a big draw for a lot of families," Hughes agreed. "To be able to earn a large amount of college credits for free is a pretty attractive benefit."