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CEHD faculty are featured in Delaware Today’s December issue discussing private and charter schools. Learn the important things to consider when choosing a high school for your child, according to Joan Buttram, director of the Delaware Education Research and Development Center and School of Education assistant professor, and Bob Hampel, School of Education professor.  

INDEX (links to Delaware Today website)

Grading Delaware’s Private and Charter High Schools 

(Excerpts below from Delaware Today)

The experts reveal the important things to consider when choosing the right school for your child.


High schools have a tall order to fill today, says Joan Buttram, director of the Delaware Education Research and Development Center and School of Education assistant professor at the University of Delaware. We are educating many more kids than a generation ago, she says. They’re coming from more diverse backgrounds and a lot more intend to go on to higher education. The good news in Delaware, though, is that along with higher stakes, standards and expectations, there is an astonishingly wide array of options for secondary education, thanks to the solidity of long-standing private institutions, the success of the charter school movement, and the enterprise of niche private schools.

The challenge is narrowing down the choices to the single best fit for your prospective student. There are lots of numbers out there: statistics on graduation and attrition rates, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, teacher experience and more. Most will add something to the picture, Buttram says, but some are more important than others, in part because they are widely available, directly comparable, and get to the core of what people want to know. Others are more elusive but worth the hunt. A few are widely touted but don’t mean much. Here’s what the experts say about the big four: SAT scores, student to teacher ratio, AP classes, and college enrollment after graduation.

Classmate Caliber

People always want to know about SAT scores, Buttram says, and for good reason: They indicate the caliber of student a school attracts. But, she says, don’t over-generalize their utility. They don’t describe how much learning is going on in the classroom. And although this national standardized test is about as apples-to-apples as you can get, she cautions against making straightforward comparisons between different types of schools. Charter schools tend to serve either less advantaged families, or a more mixed group, she says, while private schools largely serve families with more resources, and that makes a difference in what students bring to the classroom.

“If I were a charter being compared to private schools, I might be nonplussed,” Buttram says.

Still, Charles Baldwin, president of the Charter School of Wilmington, welcomes the comparison.

“If our whole premise is excellence without tuition, I want to know how we are doing,” he says. On that point, CSW looks great: its combined average of 1892 on SATs edges out prestigious private schools like Archmere Academy (1876), Tower Hill (1863) and Wilmington Friends School (1851) whose high school tuitions start around $22,000, and CSW approaches St. Andrew’s School’s impressive 1948, without the boarding school’s $49,500 annual price tag.

While CSW is the only charter in Delaware to reach so deeply into private school SAT territory, most of Delaware’s charter schools are within a respectable striking distance of the 1498 national average reported by the College Board, the organization that administers the test.

Individual Attention

The student to teacher ratio is one snapshot for the amount of individual attention a student is likely to get, but it’s easy to pad that number, says Michael Vonhof, principal at Delmarva Christian School in Georgetown. Average class size is a truer number, and if you really want to drill down, he says, find out about the average freshman class size to learn what a school’s newest students will experience during what is usually a year full of required classes.

Size does matter, agrees Robert Hampel, School of Education professor at the University of Delaware and former director of the School of Education. Here’s why.

“A classroom of 15 or fewer students can encourage a lot of discussion,” and that’s better for learning, Hampel says. “At that size, students are known as a unique individual by at least some adults in the school. They can’t slide through classes anonymously.” Bottom line: the difference between 26 and 21 isn’t meaningful, he says, but the difference between 20 and 15 is.

Delaware’s private schools clearly have the edge in class size: all but Salesianum School, St. Elizabeth, St. Mark’s and Wilmington Christian, have classroom averages of 17 or lower—a few as low as 11 (St. Andrew’s and Delmarva Christian). Only one charter achieves the golden number of 15: Positive Outcomes.

Academic Achievement

Numerous school administrators and experts like Hampel agree that grade point average isn’t really useful in shedding light on how much students are achieving, because grading scales can differ widely, making it difficult to compare across schools.

“A good school could have tougher standards, therefore a lower GPA,” he says. So if you want to know how far students reach academically, he recommends looking at Advanced Placement: how many AP classes are offered, how many students take them, and what scores students earned on AP exams.

How many are offered shows something about the academic ethos of a school, he says. How many students are taking them speaks to the caliber of the student body. How students score can be useful in illustrating that a very small school has a talented student body, since sometimes they can’t schedule an AP class, but a student can still take the exam.


Nearly all of Delaware’s private and charter schools describe themselves as college preparatory, which makes college acceptance better than high school graduation rates at showing whether a school is achieving its goal. But when 98, 99 or 100 percent of graduates go to college, as is the case with most of Delaware’s private and charter schools, that number isn’t meaningful anymore, says Baldwin. So he drills down further. “I want to know if our kids are getting into their first choice, or their No. 3 or 5 college.”

Even administrators at schools like Conrad and Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security that have workforce ready tracks, and schools like DMA that can fast-track young men and women into military careers, focus on college acceptance rates. There’s good reason for that: the payoff is there, Hampel says. Over the course of a lifetime, even factoring in student loans, people with a college education still fare financially better than those with a high school diploma or associate’s degree.

So is there any benefit to getting workforce-ready skills in a college prep high school? Absolutely, Hampel says, whether it helps a college-bound student land a part-time job above minimum wage to pay for classes, or to provide options for the student who wants a year or two of real-world experience before choosing a major.

“Keep in mind, in our country more so than others, it’s not that hard to resume higher education,” he says.

AP and International Baccalaureate courses are attractive because they give students a jump on college credits. But Hampel recommends looking at the whole array of class offerings, and asking if there are ample classes in the prospective student’s areas of interest, and if there are more classes in a subject area than are required by the state to graduate.

Eight Things to Help You Pick a School

The prospective student open house is over. You know a lot about the school “on paper,” but you still don’t feel you know the school. What next? 

  1. Walk the halls, and take note of student work, says Robert Hampel, School of Education professor at the University of Delaware. Unique projects show there is motivation and engagement going on in the classroom. The caliber of work says a lot about what’s going on during the school day.
  2. Note how classroom technology is employed, says Hampel. “Every school brags about their technology, but is its use optional, supplemental or central?” If you want to get to the heart of student engagement, “notice if the smart boards, iPads, and other technology actually help teachers break free from the old ‘speak and recall’ lessons.”
  3. Observe school leaders at functions and events, says Alfred DiEmedio, assistant professor at Wilmington University. School leaders set the tone for the school, and they are better at doing that when they are visible, so notice if the principal leads from behind office walls or out where things are happening.  “The more visibility, the greater the credibility among students, teachers and parents,” DiEmedio says.
  4. Meet individually with school leaders, says Joan Buttram, assistant professor at the University of Delaware. “If one-on-one time is not an option, that’s a big red flag,” she says. Face time is a good indicator of how important parents and students are to the school.
  5. Have the prospective student shadow another for the day, says Buttram. “Schools should accommodate serious exploration. If you can’t observe a few classes, I’d have second thoughts,” she says.
  6. Gain insight from your young adult, says Dr. Kae Keister, associate professor at Wilmington University in Dover. “What do they see as their needs? Did the prospective student feel at home when they visited? What do they notice about the school?” she says.
  7. Sift outside information carefully, says DiEmedio. “Anecdotal information is important, but make sure it comes from people who have direct knowledge, not hearsay,” he says.
  8. Visit profiles.doe.k12.de.us for more demographic information about teachers, students and schools.

For the complete article, visit Delaware Today.