Could the growing charter school give new life to an old, troubled site?
The Odyssey Charter School ‘s plans to move onward and upward could also be a solution to one of the region’s longest-standing concerns.
On Tuesday, Aug. 5, representatives for the school officially filed a proposed resubdivision plan with the county to develop a portion of Barley Mill Plaza to house their growing student body.
The school officially signed a 15-month lease agreement for Building 20 last May for its K-4 students, with the ultimate goal to purchase, renovate or redevelop a total of eight buildings within the complex.
According to a press release from the school, the proposed plan “will not only separate the new school campus from the remaining portion of the office park, but it will also establish the building blocks for the future K through 12 charter school campus.”
A WELCOME CHANGE?
The location has been the focal point for various legal actions, as community groups fought to curb what they saw as unchecked development at the former business park that would bring an influx of unwanted traffic.
In March, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously upheld an April 2013 decision by Chancery Court Judge Sam Glasscock III, rendering a rezoning of a 37-acre portion of the development invalid after a vote on the rezoning from New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner, 2nd District, was considered “arbitrary and capricious.”
Weiner said that although he still has a number of concerns – mainly, bike/pedestrian interconnectivity with the surrounding community, architectural excellence, and quality of construction materials – a school would still be a better option than a regional shopping center.
“I'm excited for the community about this possibility,” Weiner said. “However, the devil is in the details. I appreciate Odyssey School’s willingness to work with the community, even though no New Castle County Council approvals are needed.”
Weiner said that he joined New Castle General Manager Eileen Fogarty and CAO David Grimaldi during a July meeting with Odyssey’s legal representative Larry Tarabicos and other Odyssey representatives to discuss the plan.
Following that meeting, Weiner said he offered to schedule a public meeting at A.I. DuPont Middle School for the community to review the new plan sometime after mid-September.
The proposed plan, Tarabicos said, would replace 480,000 square feet of office space with a 261,000 school campus.
That change, he said, would mean fewer trips and less traffic overall, particularly during evening commute times.
“It’s significantly less traffic than what the current office space could generate,” Tarabicos said.
Tarabicos said that the planned expansion marks the continued success of the school, which since opening in 2008 has received numerous accolades – including a “Top Ten Performing Schools” in Delaware ranking by Parents Magazine.
“We’ve had a great couple of years here with the DCAS system,” said school director Nick Manolakos, adding that the students’ scores and statewide rankings have consistently risen since the 2011-12 school year.
Now in his third year with the school, Manolakos said that he attributes its successes to a variety of sources, including an engaged and challenged student body, supportive parents, and a skilled teaching staff.
Financial contributions and other resources contributed to the school are actually making it into the classrooms, where it matters most for student success, he added.
It also comes, he believes, from the Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) program at Odyssey, where every student from kindergarten on takes Greek as a second language.
Manolakos said that copious data exists that suggests that early acquisition of a second language increases cognitive skills and has even shown to delay dementia in the elderly.
He added that Odyssey was the first school in the state to take on a dual language program in an elementary setting.
“It improves the executive functions of the brain … and helps with planning, problem solving and performing mental tasks,” he said. “And that’s why you’re starting to see more and more language immersion programs.”
Enrollment at the school is exclusively by lottery system, Manolakos said, a factor he believes adds to their 30 percent diversity rate.
They’re also succeeding with students of low socio-economic status, a demographic that constitutes 26 percent of Odyssey’s student body, and one that schools across the state and the nation have struggled with, Manolakos said.
“If you look at how low socio-economic students are doing across the state, and at how they’re doing at Odyssey, you’ll see dramatic improvement. We have much higher numbers of children from low socio-economic status meeting or exceeding the mastery levels the tests are designed to measure.”
The school currently has 950 students enrolled for the 2014-15 school year; that figure is expected to increase to roughly 1,700 within five years.