By Al Mattei


WILMINGTON, Del. -- Carolann Space is used to life as a startup artist.

She inaugurated a club field hockey team at her alma mater, the University of Delaware. She also started a recreational league, which presently has some 20 teams.

But coaching at the rarest of field hockey environments is something altogether different. The Charter School of Wilmington (Del.) is believed to be the only institution of its kind with a varsity field hockey team in the United States.

Loosely defined, a charter school is a private alternative school funded with public dollars from the district in which it is located. Depending on the laws of a particular state, charter schools can be started or run by groups of interested parents or by a number of for-profit corporations.

There has been lengthy debate over the degree of success of charter school education. Critics in urban areas point out that many of the for-profit corporations holding the charters are beholden to corporate boards and/or shareholders more than parents or the citizenry. Many parent groups who obtain charters show more passion than educational aptitude. The failure rate in places like New Jersey and the District of Columbia is not insubstantial.

Some states have more charter schools than others; more than 1,000 dot the landscape in Arizona, for example. Very few have sports programs of any consequence.

However, the story of Wilmington Charter is as unique as that of its field hockey team. Up until 1999, students of Wilmington Charter occupied the building along with students of the Cab Calloway School of the Performing Arts and students from Wilmington High School.

Since then, however, with Wilmington High students split amongst10 neighboring school districts, Space now gets a much different kind of student on her field hockey roster.

"We now get a lot of students that are very interested in academics who play sports as an aside," she says. "They are determined, out there to win, and to play hard. But they are very smart kids, too."

Carlyn Casalbera, a 2002 graduate of Wilmington Charter, shifted seamlessly amongst these three identities. She attended Calloway, wore the colors of the Wilmington High Red Devils until the dissolution of the district in 1999, then wore the blue and white of the Wilmington Charter Force until graduation.

"It wasn't a very big change," Casalbera said. "Wilmington High's sports program had hit their downfall and we weren't very good anymore, so we pretty much started all over again. We were very young."

Clearly, there were some adjustments that had to be made, dissolving an arts and a public high school to make way for a charter school. There were changes in administration, teaching, and in the student body.

"It was happening previous to my eighth-grade year when I came in," Casalbera said. "It was a challenge we were ready to accept, and it was about time to show what we could do, coming together to play for Charter. To be honest, being from different backgrounds we were all willing to learn, and I think our coach was able to teach us the importance of hard work and dedication."

Space is seeing the fruits of her labor in the team's fourth season. The team earned an invitation to the Turf Bowl, the in-season showcase for Delaware teams. During the tournament, the Force beat neighboring Hockessin McKean (Del.) on the Rullo Stadium turf in front of a substantial crowd.

"We've come a very long way; my six seniors were my first freshmen four years ago," Space says. "We've come a long way from knowing what our jobs are supposed to be, what their positions are. It's nice to see them competitive with other teams now."

Charter is just one more addition to a diverse Delaware scholastic field hockey culture that allows public, prep, parochial, and Christian schools to compete on an equal basis for a state championship.

"It's tough right now because we don't have a feeder program," Space says. "But we have had a girls' soccer team that has made the state finals, and our cross country teams have won conference banners. I think we're going in the direction of getting a well-rounded student who is a good athlete as well as good in the classroom."