Just two years after Las Américas ASPIRA Academy finished its expansion in a former warehouse on Ruthar Drive, the school is taking the next step: opening a high school.
“Really from the first time that we developed the idea about opening up our charter school that really addresses the needs for biliteracy, we had talked about starting out as a K-8 school, and then at some point expanding up to 12th grade,” School Director Margie Lopez Waite said last week. “So that was always part of the original discussion and the original plan and the vision.”
ASPIRA, a dual-language immersion charter school that has students learn English and Spanish, opened in 2011 with 300 students. It started with students in kindergarten through fifth-grade and later expanded to serve up to eighth grade. It now has approximately 900 students.
“Time wise, we were hopeful that we would be able to have a high school by the time the first graduating students of the immersion program were ready for high school, which is actually our current eighth graders that just graduated,” Waite said.
However, the high school is now slated to open in fall 2020.
While she noted it is unfortunate that the school didn’t meet the original goal, she does feel like it worked out as it should.
“We really needed to make sure that the K-8 school was on solid ground, that we had built the traction that we needed – academically, financially, all of that – really built a strong foundation before we started exploring the expansion,” she said.
The school is out of room at its Ruthar Drive location – in an industrial park east of Newark – so the high school will be located elsewhere. Under state regulations, the second campus must be within 15 miles of the original building, but Waite said she’s looking to keep it within 5 miles and retain a Newark address.
Once the school selects a site – hopefully by the end of summer – renovations will begin. Waite said the school is considering moving eighth grade to the high school, or potentially mirroring the Newark Charter School model of a junior/senior high school within one building, but that hasn’t yet been determined.
“It really is dependent upon what happens with the facility. Once we nail down the construction plan, and how long it’s going to take to renovate each portion of the building, and how much capacity that gives us, I think that’s going to really determine a lot of things,” she said.
The high school will start with ninth grade and add a grade each year. Once the expansion is complete, the high school will serve 500 students.
Waite said some teachers have expressed interest in moving to the high school level, but she will be looking to expand the staff as the high school grows each year.
“The good thing is that we’ve done it before. We’ve lived it, and pretty much the entire team that was with me building this school is still with us,” she said. “So we have still have that very fresh in our memory of what needs to be done.”
Currently, Waite said, the largest percentage of ASPIRA students matriculate to MOT Charter High School in Middletown, but some go onto Delaware Military Academy, St. Georges Technical High School or other vocational schools.
Adding a high school will allow the students to continue their bilingual education while pursuing one of four pathway options: education, health/STEM, business or global studies.
“What we really thought about was, if we’re going to build a biliteracy pathway all the way through 12th grade, and have these students enter college and careers with this great set of skills, how would the community be best served in what pathways?” she said.
Waite noted that some students may not want to continue their education with ASPIRA, which would open seats for outside students. Students will be able to join the high school at ninth grade in a non-immersion pathway.
“[That] will give them still language exposure, more in a world languages type of format, which is more typical in our local high schools, but we’re hoping to do it a little bit more related to their career paths as well,” she said. “So it won’t be immersion, but our goal is for them to also graduate with a strong foundation in the vocabulary in Spanish.”
After securing the approval from the state board of education to modify the school’s charter this spring, Waite said she hopes to see more biliteracy programs like ASPIRA in Delaware.
She spoke to her own education experience, moving from New York to Dover as a child. She said that, while her education was strong, she never felt a part of the community. Four decades later, she finds that some things have not changed.
“One of the things that I find the most rewarding is that what we built here is not just a school about language, because that’s not what I want people to be attracted to, but what we have is a diverse population of students and families coming together and learning together, growing together and building relationships,” she said. “And I think ultimately, that’s the impact that we’re having on the community.”