School of the Arts a choice 'draw'

Each weekday morning, Lewes resident Denise Kates drops her daughter Summer, 13, off at 7:30 a.m. at Long Neck Elementary School. From there, Summer boards a bus bound for the Indian River School District and Southern Delaware School of the Arts, where she is one of 96 students living outside of Indian River’s district boundaries.

Kates’ trip to Long Neck from her Angola-area home has become habit after more than a decade of practice. Her now-19-year-old son Justin attended Southern Delaware School of the Arts when it first opened in the late-’90s because, in part, he was “musically inclined anyway,” Kates said.

After witnessing the unique nature of the school and the “family” atmosphere there, Kates knew she wanted Summer to also receive this kind of hybrid education, where the arts are integrated into almost every subject. Summer Kates, now an eighth grader, majors in vocal music and art at SDSA, where she has honed her singing skills and even spent time onstage.

“We were actually one of the first families that got the survey (about SDSA) in the mail,” Denise Kates said. “Back then, I was just looking for the alternative. It’s just a well-rounded school. You get to experience everything.”

Summer Kates is one of 96 students at SDSA who live outside of the district but one of 346 such students district-wide, according to district numbers compiled this year. She is one of 132 Indian River students currently living in the Cape Henlopen School District.

Delaware legislation approved in 1995 allows students — or more likely, their parents, as in the Kateses’ case — to choose to attend school outside of their residential district. The 346 current choice students account for roughly one-third of the district’s growth in the past decade and more students have taken advantage of the law to choice to Indian River than to any other district in Sussex County, according to state numbers compiled last year.

Indian River Superintendent Susan Bunting agreed with Dr. George Stone, her Cape Henlopen counterpart, in attributing the statistics partly to the proximity of Cape and Indian River Schools and also noted the Indian River district’s solid academic reputation. Kates also acknowledged the district’s academic success.

Some 11 of the district’s 15 schools were rated “superior” — a district record — last year, the state’s highest accountability rating and symbol of testing success. Other schools, including the diverse Frankford Elementary, have received state and federal awards and grants for successes.

But sometimes, as Stone and Bunting recognized, school choice can be matter of convenience. Marybeth Burke, a Laurel resident who drives her fifth- and second-grade children to Lord Baltimore daily, formerly worked at the Baltimore Trust in Selbyville. Burke said she was scouring the area for a school close to her workplace that would “challenge” her children and noted that she has been more than pleased with Lord Baltimore.

“We had taken the tour and we liked everyone there,” said Burke, who is now expecting a third child. “They were friendly, and he was hyperactive and we wanted to someone to challenge him — and they have. When we had our daughter, we were so pleased with it that we took her there.”

Her school-age children are two of only 10 out-of-district students at Lord Baltimore. Only four out-of-district residents are currently enrolled at Phillip C. Showell Elementary, according to the district numbers — the same number as those at Selbyville Middle. At Indian River High School, only five students leave their home district to attend.

According to the numbers, Stone and Bunting’s proximity argument is extremely valid. Between three Georgetown schools — Sussex Central High School, North Georgetown Elementary and Georgetown Elementary — some 154 school-choicers are enrolled. SDSA has the largest population of out-of-district residents, though, with the aforementioned 96. The arts school’s principal, Loriann White, credited the unique arts-centered atmosphere and, partly, uniforms — which are being proposed district-wide — with the popularity of the school.

“One: We do have a uniform policy. I think that a lot of parents like that for their children,” White said, and two: “We integrate arts in instruction. It’s engaging,” she said. Social studies students are asked to draw a piece of artwork or perform an interpretive dance, for instance to coincide with a lesson on Native Americans being pushed from their homeland, White said. “Different types of learners are able to learn better if the teachers are learning different modalities of instruction.”

Alexis Brower, an Ellendale resident and stay-at-home mother who sends a fifth-grade daughter and an eighth-grade son to SDSA daily via bus at North Georgetown, said she “likes the draw of the arts.” SDSA provides the students a unique education and improved self-confidence, Brower said, admitting she would have never gotten up on stage in the fifth or eighth grades. Sending her now 5-year-old daughter, Emma, to the Selbyville school will not even be a question, Brower added.

“I wouldn’t have them anywhere else,” she said. “They want the best for the kids and expect the best out of them, and they rise to that challenge. They blossom. They thrive in that kind of environment where they are free to be themselves.”