Community conversations will discuss why students apply to Tech

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter

Anyone who attended, applied to or has other ties to Sussex Technical High School is invited to share their perspective.

“The University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration is hosting a series of community conversations to discuss vocational technical education in Sussex County. Our goal is to gain a better understanding of education needs and successes in the county,” the IPA announced in a letter mailed around the county.

This is part of a larger study that was “legislatively requested” from the State of Delaware and is conducted in partnership with the school district.

“Our goal is to engage with members of the community to gain their perceptions on … ‘Why are so many students applying to Sussex Tech?’” said Chris Kelly, an IPA associate policy scientist and the project’s chief investigator. “Your voice as a member of the community is valuable, and we hope that you will be able to join us at one of the sessions to share your input.”

The final session will be Thursday, Nov. 21, at 6 p.m. at Georgetown Public Library, 123 West Pine Street, Georgetown. (Events were also held Nov. 7 in Laurel and Nov. 14 in Lewes.)

“I think it went fairly well, some great conversation with stakeholders from west Sussex County,” including private individuals and government officials. “The majority either had a student or relative that went to Sussex Tech,” said Kelly.

This program is truly just a conversation. The two-hour session starts with a quick presentation on the project goals. Then “the facilitator walks the group through multiple subjects … the goal is to have everyone participate and have a conversation,” Kelly said.

They will discuss public perceptions on Tech’s academic programs, vocational programs, school culture/climate, and overall educational opportunities at home versus at Tech.

“I think this is a fantastic opportunity to have your voice heard,” Kelly said, “help generate information in the report that may help lead to certain recommendations.”

This all started with the large number of applications Sussex Tech has been receiving. Each year, Sussex County eighth-graders prepare to migrate up to high school. Many of them consider applying to the vocational-technical school instead.

These IPA discussions will contribute to a larger report. Having already sent a survey home to the 2018-19 applicant families, “these community conversations are our way to dive deeper into the survey data we collected,” Kelly said.

This is just a fact-finding mission. The IPA was not asked to make explicit recommendations. Their final report will provide background information and context for Tech’s current situation and then summarize the overall comments that come from public conversation.

This report will ultimately help legislators and school officials in future decision making. It could be completed in January.

For over 45 years, IPA has worked with local governments to provide science and policy research, helping decision-makers on issues of water resources, education, health, transportation, civic engagement and other regional planning issues. They’ve done everything from training public officials and municipal staff to creating a database of grant money for resiliency-building projects. Details are online at ipa.udel.edu.

Please RSVP by emailing cgkelly@udel.edu by 11 a.m. on Thursday to ensure adequate seating and refreshments.

Only room for one-third of applicants

There has been massive interest from applicants across Sussex County.

“We had 802 freshman applications this year, and with the cap, we could only accept 270 of them,” Superintendent Stephen Guthrie told Coastal Point in August. “My interpretation is we’re not serving the population [adequately], so I think we can make a reasonable case to go back to that 1,600.”

Plus, their accepting more students can alleviate overcrowding in other school districts.

Sussex Tech might have cause to increase their enrollment and update their building, but among other things, they’ve been trying to remediate where the public saw them trying to expand too fast with college-bound students.

Unlike local school districts, which grow every time a family moves to town, Tech’s enrollment is controlled legislatively. In recent years, Delaware General Assembly forced Tech to reduce enrollment by several hundred students, down to 1,250 students in the 2017-2018 school year (there was no cap prescribed for last year).

That was emphasized this October when Tech mentioned a potential enrollment increase in their request to replace the current aging school with a more energy-efficient building. The Department of Education denied the request for various reasons, but noted that vo-tech districts don’t get to make the “capacity” argument because “they are capped for how many students they can accept,” said DOE spokesperson Alison May.