Last June, Dover High School celebrated its 111th commencement exercise and more than a century of history in a state where some high schools were less than a decade old.
Yet, somewhere along the way, the Senators had developed a less than stellar reputation as the undesired, city high school of Kent County.
Class of 2012 Dover High salutatorian Katharyn L. Frabizzio Patterson was blunt as she took on what she and her peers knew was an unfair perception.
"Dover High doesn't have a great reputation in the community. People hear about one fight and they base their opinion on that," she said. "But those of us here know better."
That was one the perceptions that Dover High School sophomores Gabrielle Bennetti and Taylor Tucker faced when they were researching schools as eighth graders. Bennetti, of Dover, was coming out of Holy Cross Catholic School, and Tucker, of Hartly, was coming out of Central Middle School. Bennetti visited St. Thomas More Academy, Polytech, Dover and two schools upstate while Tucker visited Polytech and Dover.
They felt the same pressure that many kids in Kent County felt as they heard so many great things about Polytech, known as an elite magnet-type school. Or, down the road, they could see how Caesar Rodney High had grown into the largest school in the state thanks in large part to real estate growth. In contrast, Dover was the inner city school to be avoided.
It was similar for 1978 Dover alumna Sandra Spangler, now the Capital School District supervisor of instruction.
"Everybody looked at us at the city school and we had a rivalry with [suburban] Caesar Rodney, just like today," Spangler said.
It was no different a decade later when recently retired Dover High football coach Carlton Brown's family moved to Dover because his father was an airman at the Dover Air Force Base. Some of the guys on base scared Brown's father off from Dover High.
"I went to Caesar Rodney and I had fun," Brown said. "But both my daughters were choiced here [at Dover]."
Both Bennetti and Tucker also had a choice. And both came to the same conclusion. Dover High was not what they had heard and they knew it was the right place for them. They felt that the emphasis was on academics and not judgmental cliques.
Since then, Bennetti has gotten used to her friends singling her out as "the one Dover High girl" and they have looked at her in amazement, asking her how she did it.
"I'm like, my school is better than your school," Bennetti said.
For Tucker, she took a look at Polytech but it didn't work for her.
Page 2 of 3 - "I really didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up," she said. "So, I really didn't see the point of picking one career track and sticking with that for four years."
The main thing that drew both Bennetti, the sophomore class president, and Tucker, the sophomore class vice president, to Dover High was the extensive Advanced Placement offerings.
"A lot of schools don't offer AP classes," Tucker said.
"You can take an AP class in anything at Dover," Bennetti said. "There are more options."
Still, Bennetti's little sister would ask her regularly if the stories about daily fights were true, she said. Bennetti would patiently answer, no. And now her younger sister – seeing how happy Bennetti is –wants to be a Senator too, Bennetti said.
Yet, Bennetti and Tucker acknowledged that there was room for improvement in their education setting. Namely, the current high school building had become old and rather drab, and there hardly any windows in the classrooms, they said.
But they said they look forward to when the new, now under-construction Dover High, opens up in 2014, just in time for the start of their senior year.
"I'm just happy that the school is going to reflect the students," Tucker said. "It doesn't do that now."
The current high school's enrollment grew from 1,507 to 1,619 for the 2012-2013 school year, a growth fueled in part to the closure of Campus Community High School, Spangler said.
The new high school was designed to hold 1,800 students, according to Capital School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Thomas. But he saw a lot of potential for growth at the new building. And it was designed to allow abundant natural light in, with windows in every classroom of the three-story academic wing, he said.
"We would anticipate the high school would gain enrollment and quite frankly reach the capacity for which it was built," Thomas said. "People get excited about a new building.
"We're also going to do program expansion with that building with career and technical programs…because there's a demand," he added. "The nursing program, HVAC– all those programs have really been received quite well. And our AP program is the best in the state based on the data going back decades."
The new school will also provide an augmented setting for Dover High's Race to the Top plan, which employs two principals, Kenneth Garvey and Dr. Evelyn Edney, respectively, for academics and administration, said Lawanda Burgoyne, partnership zone and district assessment specialist for Capital. Dover High was one of 10 schools placed in Delaware's Partnership Zone, created as part of the state's $119 million Race to the Top federal award, funded by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act.
Page 3 of 3 - "The support the state and the district are providing to the school are going to lead perfectly into that new building," Burgoyne said. "It's all about college and career readiness."
Edney said excitement was already building about what the new Dover High would have to offer.
"The building itself and the technology to be placed in the school will not only put Dover High School into the 21st Century, but will have it leading the way with a complement to the academic and career programs the school has to offer," she said.
Spangler also said Dover High and the rest of Capital's secondary schools, namely Central and William Henry middle schools, should continue to make adequate yearly progress on the state's standardized tests. Traditionally, the secondary schools were the schools that had struggled the most with state tests because they had more student groups to contend with – a significant challenge given that every subgroup had to make AYP in order for the whole school to make it under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, she said.
In 2012, all of Capital's schools made AYP except for one school, South Dover Elementary School because of its special education cell, Spangler said. But Thomas pointed out that South Dover still earned $50,000 from the state for showing the most achievement gains from the fall to the spring.
All in all, Capital was pleased with the progress of its schools last year, Spangler said.
"We had a 15 percent average growth across grade levels," she said.
That is no small feat given Capital's diversity, Thomas said. And he sees the district doing better when new high school is complete.
"What we're trying to do, along with continuing to elevate that academic group, is build up, augment and bridge that gap for kids who come from difficult backgrounds."