Why Odyssey Charter School Works
It began humbly, but now rivals some of the best schools in the state.
Allison Rykaczewski teaches her second-graders at Odyssey Charter School in Wilmington.//Luigi Ciuffetelli
It’s less than a mile from its original home to its current location, but the roundabout route it traveled for a decade seems entirely appropriate for a school with Odyssey as its name.
And while its journey might literally be complete, many steps remain for Odyssey Charter School to reach its goal, to become, as headmaster Nick Manolakos says, “one of the elite schools” in the state.
Opened in 2006 to fulfill the vision of Wilmington’s Greek American community to create a school that celebrates Greek language and culture, Odyssey has steadily transformed itself from an elementary school serving kindergarten through second grade into a comprehensive K-12 program that will graduate its first high school class in June 2020.
Starting in a small office building tucked between a Mercedes dealership and an aging supermarket on Lancaster Pike, Odyssey expanded first by purchasing the shuttered St. Thomas School building from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington to house students in third through fifth grades. Even that space grew cramped, so Odyssey had to purchase trailers to provide six more classrooms for its growing population, which numbered 500 in 2012.
Enthusiastic parent support for a solid academic program—one that featured Greek language classes and math classes taught in Greek every day—pushed Odyssey forward, first winning approval from the state to add middle school grades, then a high school.
But the search for a suitable permanent site had Dmitri Dandalos, chairman of the school’s board of directors, on the road, crisscrossing New Castle County looking at vacant commercial and retail space. Odyssey tried unsuccessfully to buy the old Wanamaker department store site on Augustine Cut-Off, where Incyte, the pharmaceutical business, recently opened its new headquarters. Then Odyssey bought the historic Mundy farm, along Lancaster Pike near Hockessin, only to encounter strong opposition from neighbors when construction plans were unveiled.
So Odyssey circled back to Barley Mill Plaza, not far from its original home, where the DuPont Co. was shutting down its office operations and Stoltz Realty, the new owner of the office park, was encountering even greater opposition to its plan to redevelop the site as a massive retail-residential-office complex.
Odyssey and Stoltz started talking. For the 2015-16 school year, Odyssey rented one building and moved its elementary grades in. In February 2016, they closed a big deal. For $25 million, Odyssey purchased eight two-story buildings, each about 60,000 square feet on 36 acres in the southeastern corner of the office park.
It took a decade, but now the school was finally ready to soar—in enrollments, in facilities and in program offerings.
Since 2012, enrollment has more than tripled. It now totals 1,662 in kindergarten through 10th grade, and should top 1,800 when expansion to K-12 is complete. The final growth step—bumping up high school enrollments from the current 75 or so per grade to about 125—would bring K-12 enrollments up to about 2,200, Dandalos says. The school is a popular option in Delaware’s public school choice program, with nearly 2,000 applications received for 2018-19, including 568 for 184 kindergarten seats.
The Barley Mill acquisition has given the lower school, middle school and high school their own buildings, and a fourth building, over the next two years, will be transformed into an athletic, art and science center, with a gym, science lab, library, media center, music room and classrooms.
Two buildings have been razed, making room for a play area and athletic fields that will be used for high school sports.
Science teacher Athena Manolakos works with 6th-graders (from left) Christina Rigas, Spring Alston and Liam MacDonald.//Luigi Ciuffetelli
One of the remaining buildings has been leased to Academia Antonia Alonso, a Spanish-English dual-language charter school. In the fall, the first floor of the remaining building is slated to become an early learning center, part of a unique partnership involving Odyssey, the University of Delaware and the University of Patras, a school in Greece. The second floor is vacant for now, but would be available if Odyssey, Academia or the early learning center need more space.
Odyssey is conducting a $6 million capital campaign to raise the funds for the renovations. To date, more than $1.4 million has been raised.
Programatically, the big change this year was the launching of a Greek language immersion program for kindergarten students. The 46 participants in the program—two of the school’s eight kindergarten sections—receive a half-day of instruction in Greek, encompassing Greek language, math and science, and a half-day in English. The school will add one grade a year and may increase the proportion of classes offering dual-language instruction, Manolakos says.
Odyssey expects to follow the curriculum model the Delaware Department of Education has developed for immersion programs in Spanish and Chinese, which are being offered at more than 30 schools this year. At the middle school level, students would take two classes in Greek: language arts and either science or social studies. Then, in ninth grade, they would take an advanced language proficiency exam (similar to an Advanced Placement exam), with the possibility of taking college-level classes in Greek on a dual enrollment basis or picking up another language in their final three years of high school.
Early acquisition of a second language has benefits that go beyond bilingualism itself. Gregory Fulkerson, director of the state Department of Education’s language acquisition workgroup, says “there’s a whole slew of new research” from other parts of the country indicating that by the end of seventh or eighth grade the academic performance of students enrolled in immersion programs is a full year ahead of those who are not. The added rigor of learning new content in a different language is a contributing factor, he says.
To pull its program together, Odyssey brought in a Greek expert in dual language instruction, Marina Mattheoudakis, the dean of theoretical and applied linguistics at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
“My major task here is to design a curriculum, not only in the Greek language,” she says, “but also to align with the Common Core standards” required by the state.
While Dandalos cites “the importance of the Greek language to western civilization, notably in the arts and sciences,” Mattheoudakis wants students to recognize that “it’s not just a historical language. It’s something they can use with their peers.”
In July, Mattheoudakis is scheduled to return to Greece. While it’s possible that she may stay a second year, it’s more likely that another expert from her university will replace her, Dandalos says.
As the immersion program expands, Odyssey has two staffing options: It may recruit teachers from Greece to teach the Greek language portion of the curriculum or it may move some of the 22 Greek-speaking teachers working in its longstanding Greek language program known as FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) into the immersion program.
One former FLES teacher, Tina Iliadis, is teaching the Greek portion of the kindergarten program. Born in Sweden to Greek parents, Iliadis came to the United States with her family as a child. She is in her sixth year at Odyssey.
“Greek was my first language, and it has always been part of my life,” she says.
Tina Iliadis teaches the Greek portion of Odyssey’s kindergarten program.//Luigi Ciuffetelli
Iliadis has been pleasantly surprised with how quickly her students are learning and how well they understand what she’s saying. “I use a lot of body language and I show a lot of objects and pictures, but they get it.”
One advantage of working with kindergartners, she says, is that “this is their first exposure to school, so they think it is kind of normal” to be listening and speaking in two languages every day.
In science, her students are receiving the same lessons as regular Odyssey students. The only difference, she says, is that she translates the worksheets into Greek.
In addition to developing the first years of the immersion curriculum, Mattheoudakis sees herself as a bridge between Odyssey and her homeland.
She hopes to develop an exchange program that would send Odyssey teachers to Greece for a year while teachers from Thessaloniki come to Odyssey. “It would be not only a language experience but also a cultural experience, an open door, an open communication between two institutions,” she says.
Dandalos is eager to launch a teacher exchange, but says it will probably take two years to make agreements with schools in Greece and to work out the administrative and financial mechanics of sending Odyssey teachers overseas.
“It’s an opportunity to bring more Greek culture into the classroom, and also to learn more about their pedagogy and approach to education,” says Denise Parks, Odyssey’s supervisor of schools and instruction. “We can create a global culture here.”
(Parks is slated to become the school’s acting headmaster this summer, following the Odyssey board’s decision not to extend Manolakos’ contract, which expires on June 30. Manolakos, 66, who had been Odyssey’s head for six years, has had a long career in education and has also served three terms in the General Assembly.)
On the student level, interactions with Greece have already begun—in a virtual environment. Communicating via the Internet and Skype, Odyssey students in most grades are currently participating in cooperative projects with students at schools in the city of Nafplio in Greece. For example, third-graders are comparing birthday celebrations in the two countries, fourth-graders are studying recycling issues, sixth-graders are discussing bullying, and high school students are sharing their preferences in entertainment and how they spend their leisure time. Most of the communications are in Greek, but some students in Greece are using the experience to develop their English language skills.
Manolakos and Parks have begun to develop a student exchange program. “It’s a well-established procedure at universities, but we have to figure out how to do it at our grade levels,” Manolakos says.
Through Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Nafplio, Odyssey will take a big step in that direction this summer. Harvard has reserved one place in a 17-day summer seminar there for a current Odyssey sophomore. An Odyssey teacher will accompany the student who is chosen to participate. Harvard will cover the educational costs, while Odyssey will pay for transportation and lodging, Dandalos says.
The relationships Odyssey has developed have impressed Fulkerson. “Without any state help, they have formulated partnerships with the Greek ministry of education and a relationship with a university,” he says. “They’re a very forward-thinking school. They’re very strategic in having a lot of partnerships. They understand what they need and how to get it.”
The partnerships in place are only the beginning, Mattheoudakis and Manolakos say. The school is in the early stages of discussions with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki on creating at center at Odyssey where public and private school teachers from throughout the nation could be trained to teach Greek language and culture. Officials of Aristotle University have also met with University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis, a native of Greece, to discuss possible collaborations involving Odyssey and the two universities, Dandalos says.
With its emphasis on Greek language and culture, Odyssey might be expected to enroll a significant percentage of students from Greek-American families, but that is hardly the case. About 6 percent of the school’s population is of Greek heritage, Manolakos says.
According to the state Department of Education, 55.3 percent of Odyssey’s students are white, 22.1 percent are African-American, 13.1 percent are Asian and 5.1 percent are Hispanic/Latino. With the school located within the Red Clay Consolidated School District, most of its students are Red Clay residents, with increasing interest shown by residents of the Christina, Colonial and Brandywine districts, Parks says.
In the past few years, she says, more applications have been coming from students who had attended Catholic elementary schools and from “higher tuition schools,” private schools that charge $20,000 a year or so for tuition. “Nick [Manolakos] calls us the best bargain in public education,” she says.
Academically, Odyssey students fare well on the state’s Smarter Balanced assessments. Last year, more than three-quarters of its third graders met or exceeded state standards in reading and math, while the state norm was just above 50 percent in both areas. In all categories except eighth grade science and math, Odyssey exceeded the state average for proficiency by 10 percentage points or more.
As Odyssey builds its high school program, Manolakos expects the school to rival the success of other charter and magnet schools in Red Clay: the Charter School of Wilmington, Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Delaware Military Academy and Conrad Schools of Science.
“These schools weren’t around, or were just starting, 20 years ago,” he says. “Charters are driving the public back into public education.”
Odyssey students reinforce Manolakos’ belief. Angelyse Batres, a 15-year-old sophomore from Wilmington, had attended private and public schools through eighth grade. “The public school system was not a place where my parents thought I should be,” she says.
She’s convinced that she and her parents made the right choice. “I really like the environment, how small the school is,” she says. “You know everybody, and you connect well with the teachers.”
Malachi Smith-Hines, a 17-year-old sophomore, echoes his classmate. He might have followed his older sister to St. Elizabeth High School, but chose Odyssey because “I can focus better here than at a larger high school.”
“My parents thought it would be a good idea to get out of the [traditional] public school system,” says Cole Shorter, a 15-year-old sophomore from Newark who started at Odyssey in eighth grade. “They thought I wasn’t being challenged enough—and they were right.”
Unlike her classmates, Morgan Smith, another 15-year-old sophomore from Newark, would have to consider Odyssey a big school—she had been homeschooled through the elementary grades.
“It was definitely a big adjustment,” she says. But as a member of the school’s first high school class, “a lot of the kids were new,” she says, so everyone was adjusting together.
Nidhi Patel, a 14-year-old freshman, went to Odyssey from Family Foundations Academy, recently renamed as the Charter School of New Castle. “The classes are challenging,” the Bear resident says, and she has already jumped into an array of clubs and sports—student council, Model United Nations, volleyball, track and Business Professionals of America. “It’s easy to connect with everyone,” she says.
As the school grows, one key concern is the retention rate as students transition from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school.
In Odyssey’s first year with a sixth-grade class, less than half of the fifth-graders stayed at the school. By last year, the retention rate from fifth to sixth grade was 80 percent, Manolakos says.
He anticipates similar growing pains at the high school level. “Some people want the full high school experience from Day One,” he says, “and others want to be part of creating or building something new.”
Odyssey is not for everyone, he admits. “If somebody really wants to be a football player in high school, he’s going to go somewhere else.”
Although he is leaving the school, and regrets that he won’t be around to see its first senior class graduate, Manolakos remains proud of the school’s development and is confident in its future.
“The demand is strong in the community, and parents are becoming more comfortable with the idea of acquiring a second language at an early age,” he says. “Now we’re just looking for organic growth to take hold.”
Serviam Girls Academy opened at the worst possible time. Ten years later, it’s going strong.
by Larry Nagengast
Imagine this: a private Catholic middle school for girls from low-income families, most of them African-American and non-Catholic, with an 11-month calendar and a schedule that runs from 7:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon surviving for 10 years on a budget that relies on foundation grants and corporate and individual donors for 98 percent of its revenue.
Some might call it a miracle.
Others would call it Serviam Girls Academy.
Serviam, which is completing its 10th year this spring, is one of 50-plus schools across the United States and Canada belonging to the NativityMiguel Network, whose members share a mission to offer a quality faith-based education to low-income students to prepare them for admission into competitive high schools and colleges. It leans heavily on the values of St. Angela Merici, founder of the Ursuline order of nuns, which established Ursuline Academy in Wilmington.
Many of Serviam’s founders have links to Ursuline—as staff members, parents or alumnae. “Teachers and parents at Ursuline said they wanted low-income children to have the same educational opportunities as their children had,” says Sister Mildred Haipt, former head of the Ursuline community and now Serviam’s volunteer librarian.
Serviam is nestled in a quiet neighborhood near New Castle, one often described as “in the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge,” but more precisely as in the shadow of sculptor Charles C. Parks’ iconic Our Lady Queen of Peace statue. Its 51 students in grades five through eight attend classes in one-half of what once was Holy Spirit Elementary School, which closed in 2004 due to the double whammy of dwindling enrollments and declining financial support from its sponsoring parish.
Peggy Prevoznik Heins, the school’s president and one of its founders, doesn’t describe Serviam as a miracle, but she acknowledges that the timing of its opening was fortuitous.
Fundraising to launch the school had begun in 2006 but, by the middle of 2008, the nation was in the throes of the Great Recession triggered by the bursting of an $8 trillion housing bubble. The school opened in the closing months of a presidential election year that saw a massive federal bailout of some of the nation’s largest banks and financial institutions.
Not only that, but the seemingly most likely donor base—the Catholic community—was not in a giving mood, says another founder, Michael Arnold, now chairman of the school’s board of directors and chairman of the economics department at the University of Delaware.
“The priest sexual abuse scandal was winding down. People were disgruntled,” he says, and other local entities that garner strong support from Catholic donors, including the Ministry of Caring, Sojourners Place and St. Edmond’s Academy, were conducting or had recently completed major campaigns.
With the recession stretching into 2009, “if we had not opened in 2008,” Heins says, “we never would have opened at all.”
The school’s founders did manage to raise the $1.5 million they needed to open, with grants from, among others, the Longwood Foundation, the Welfare Foundation, the Eckerd Family Foundation, and the family and friends of Todd Marvin, president of Marvin & Palmer Associates, a global equity management business.
The financial piece was the toughest part, Arnold says. “We never had doubts about our ability to find a president, a principal or teachers.”
The board hired Anne Weber, a onetime banker who became a teacher and counselor at Archmere Academy, as president. And they secured a temporary site for their first year, sharing space with the Girls Inc. center in Wilmington’s Browntown neighborhood. “They let us put two trailers on their site, and we used their gym and some of their office space,” Heins says.
Not that it was easy. Less than a week before opening, Heins recalls, truckers still had to navigate the classroom trailers down narrow city streets and into position.
In 2009, Serviam moved to its permanent site and, in fortuitous fashion, hired the woman who would become its current principal.
Kate Lucyk had been teaching second grade in Camden, New Jersey, and was looking to make a move. She was writing letters everywhere, even sending one to Holy Spirit School in New Castle, not knowing that it had closed several years before. Her letter landed on the desk of a parish administrator the same day parish and Serviam officials were meeting to discuss a lease of the school building. Weber got the letter, called Lucyk, and offered her a job as the fifth-grade teacher.
“For years,” Lucyk says, “Anne Weber called me a gift from the Holy Spirit.”
Serviam has gone through several leadership changes and Heins, the president since 2014, and Lucyk, principal since 2013, are now in charge of what is very much a no-frills operation. The girls take their lunches to school each day. There is no bus service; parents or guardians drop off the students in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Volunteers pitch in to run some extracurricular activities, and parents are expected to help out for at least 10 hours a year, serving as lunch monitors, reading to small groups or setting up for special events. Families pay $450 per year for books and uniforms.
Like other NativityMiguel middle schools, which include Nativity Prep for boys in Wilmington, Serviam delivers an intensive educational program through an extended-day, extended-year model.
The month-long summer session in July weaves academic instruction with project-based learning activities, giving the girls a taste of the challenges they will face during the rest of the year. The curriculum features intensive instruction in math and language arts, as well as science, social studies and religion, plus a daily physical education period. When classes end in the afternoon, students receive a snack before heading into a one-hour homework period, followed by another hour for an activity of their choice—clubs, sports, music, art or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.
The results are encouraging. Students who entered fifth grade in 2014 tested two to five months below grade level in reading, language arts and math. As eighth graders in 2017, they tested two years above grade level in reading and language arts and a year above grade level in math.
Serviam is also achieving its goal of guiding graduates into strong high school programs. The school has a 98 percent on-time high school graduation rate, Heins says. (The state public school average is 85 percent.) And the 12 graduates of the class of 2017 received scholarships to eight private schools, including Ursuline, Tower Hill, Wilmington Christian, St. Mark’s, St. Elizabeth and Padua.
The longer day and small class size enables all members of the Serviam staff to know each student well.
“I feel that we’re all a family,” says Altina Herbert, the fifth-grade teacher. “You can’t hide at Serviam. It’s a teacher’s dream. It’s a parent’s dream.”
Her students might not realize it during their first year at the school, she says, “but they will eventually realize how great it is to be one of 51.”
Their navy polo shirts and blue plaid skirts identify them as Serviam students, but the bonds the girls develop are embedded in their personalities and their thought processes.
“It’s a sisterhood,” says eighth-grader Jami Chavez, who lives in Wilmington. “It’s like leaving home and coming home again. My class, we’ve been through a lot, but we can depend on each other, no matter what.”
“I like how we all find a way to communicate with each other, how we have this special bond with each other,” says Nia Coverdale, a seventh-grader from Wilmington. “Sometimes we get mad, and we forgive each other and be friends again.”
Chavez went to Serviam because of the success her older sister had there. “My mom was pleased with how well she did, and she got into a really good high school [Wilmington Christian], so my mom thought this would be really good for me,” Chavez says. Her sister is now majoring in psychology at Penn State’s Brandywine campus.
Maekiera Costanzo, a seventh-grader from New Castle, took a different route. Her aunt told her mother about Serviam, who then gave her the choice of going there or staying at Castle Hills Elementary for another year. “It was a good choice. It challenges me more,” Costanzo says. “At Castle Hills, we didn’t work as much as we do here.”
Eighth-grader Treasure Wright, who now lives in Newark, had been a student at Elbert-Palmer Elementary in Wilmington, where a teacher told her mother about Serviam. “She said I stood out in my class, that this was a place where I could shine, where I could flourish,” Wright says.
And she is doing just that.
For the recent opening activities at New Castle County’s Route 9 Library & Innovation Center, Serviam students served as ambassadors, greeting guests and guiding them around the building.
“[County Executive] Matt Meyer asked me to come again for the grand opening, and I got to do a little interview thing with him on camera,” Wright says proudly.
Another key component of the Serviam program is its follow-up, keeping track of its graduates through high school, and helping them over obstacles they might encounter.
Thanks in part to that follow-up, 90 percent of Serviam’s college-age graduates are now enrolled in college, Heins says.
And those girls provide another example of Serviam’s sisterhood.
“The kids in college, they come back and let us know what they’re doing,” Lucyk says. “How many of us think twice when in college about what we did in middle school?”
Serviam is holding steady, building its foundation, aiming to establish a cash reserve equal to a year’s budget, Arnold says. It’s also trying to build an endowment, which hasn’t quite reached the six-figure level, he says.
Growth is a topic for discussion, but that’s not in the planning stage yet.
“Some would like to see us with two classes per grade, but that’s maybe 10 years out,” Arnold says. Before expanding the school, Serviam leaders want to be sure the school wouldn’t lose any of its intimacy, the strength of its community, he says.
For now, the team is pleased with the progress it has made.
“We’ve done it,” Heins says. “We’re still here.”