Photos by Becca Mathias.

Alonna Berry

Empowering Sussex’s Future

Delaware’s newest charter school, The Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence (BASSE), is slated to open this September in Georgetown. The school aims to provide personalized experiences and leadership opportunities, with the goal of strengthening the future for children within the Sussex County community. The school’s founder, Alonna Berry, shares her personal connection to BASSE, what inspired the idea, and how it all came to life. 

Educational Roots 

Growing up in Kent County, Alonna Berry comes from a long line of educators, as several of her relatives served as educational leaders in Delaware over many generations. For example, one of her great-aunts was the first black female superintendent in the state of Delaware in the 80s. Another great-aunt taught at the only high school for students of color in Kent County. This rich lineage helped Berry recognize early on the power of education. Still, Berry didn’t immediately pursue the education route.  At Syracuse University her initial focus was law. However, she was indirectly led back to it as an undergraduate when offered the opportunity to help run a GED program for inmates. “Many of the individuals I worked with were old enough to be my grandfather and couldn’t read or do basic math,” she says. “There became a clear connection for me that one failed system had led them to another failed system.” 

Connections between Education and Criminal Justice

Berry explains that while there is a lot of research on the intersection between education and the criminal justice system, this was the first time she saw it first-hand in her everyday work. The experience inspired her to continue down the education path. After graduating college, she taught ninth grade English for two years in Jacksonville, Florida. Berry soon faced another pivotal moment: teaching through major race relations incidents. “The shooting of Jordan Davis happened in the town I was living in, and Trayvon Martin was only an hour away,” she shared. Once again, she was confronted with the realities of the criminal justice system and how it operated in certain situations. This time, she had to navigate how to address those difficult conversations with students. Motivated to bring those important lessons back to her home state, she returned to Delaware and taught in the Capital School District for a year. 

“What happens when you take the brilliance of the kids in our classrooms and partner them with what’s already happening in the community? Can’t that literally change the world?”

Policy versus Practice

Berry eventually transitioned to the policy side, working for the Delaware Department of Education. “I was interested in learning more about how policy decisions were impacting what I experienced in my classroom,” she explained. That led her to education non-profit work, where she spent four years traveling across the state coaching first and second-year teachers on how to advance in their fields and improve their practice. The initiative provided an in-depth view into what was happening across the state in classrooms and within the education system as a whole. Berry also joined the Rural School Leadership Academy, a national fellowship program that brings educators from across the nation into rural communities to discuss and share innovative education practices. Those two experiences, both at a state and national level, pointed to one major revelation: each school’s approach was rooted in the context and needs of that particular community. While every school looked different, the key starting point was identifying the needs of the community and then innovating in a way that makes sense for students and families. This sparked a conversation among her and other educators about their own responsibility to give back locally within Sussex County. Knowing they would need plenty of support from stakeholders, Berry thought about her first cousin Bryan Stevenson, a Milton-born civil rights lawyer, social justice advocate, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.  Stevenson is a noted speaker on the concept of proximity and its potential to change the world for the better. Berry and her cousin, Dr. Teresa Berry, eventually sat down with Stevenson’s sister Christy Taylor to discuss starting a charter school in Sussex County. 

The “A-ha” Moment 

For Berry, the “a-ha” moment was recognizing an opportunity to bridge the gap between students’ potential and the needs of the community. “I was walking into classrooms full of kids with bright ideas,” she says. “On the opposite side of that, community leaders were saying they needed more support and folks with innovative ideas.” The main inspiration for BASSE emerged from exploring the idea of connecting these two pieces. As she puts it, “What happens when you take the brilliance of the kids in our classrooms and partner them with what’s already happening in the community? Can’t that literally change the world?”  And that’s how the concept of a service-learning school was born, tied to Bryan Stevenson’s lessons around the power of proximity. BASSE was built on the belief that if you connect kids with the community and show them their value and importance, they can make it better. Berry explains that this approach not only creates immediate impact, but also fights “brain drain” in the long run. “Brain drain” is the notion that people often leave rural communities and don’t want to come back. Instead, the goal is for kids to recognize that they are needed exactly where they are. “Communities need the innovation of that next generation to flourish,” says Berry. “We want to encourage kids to go off to school and experience new things, but also bring that new way of thinking back home.” 

A Long yet Meaningful Journey  

Berry shares that the path to opening the school has been “a seven-year journey of love.” After all, there’s a lot of time and energy involved in starting a school from scratch. However, most of that was intentional. “We wanted to go slow because it was important to hear and understand the voices and needs of the community,” she says. “Not from our perspective as educators, but from the perspective of community members.” Berry is incredibly proud to be officially opening this fall. She is especially grateful for the group of committed individuals on the board, as well as several of BASSE’s initial funders who had faith in their mission from the start. BASSE received a $1M grant from the Longwood Foundation three and half years ago and will be securing an additional $450,000 as they prepare to launch. Berry shared that Bryan Stevenson has also been supportive every step of the way, lending not only his name but the important values that come along with it. Stevenson recently donated a $100,000 gift to the school, further demonstrating his investment in this work and his home community. This will be put toward operating costs and finalizing building renovations. 

Most of all, Berry is proud of the families who have signed their kids up for BASSE because they believe that this approach is best for their child. “We’re excited for the parents who have been our supporters for a long time and for those students who will be there day one in September, ready to learn and engage,” she says. With over 200 students enrolled so far, BASSE is serving grades six to eight for its first year. The plan is to eventually expand into a high school, adding a grade level each year. The school will be located inside the old Howard T. Ennis School building in Georgetown, owned by Delaware Technical Community College. Free transportation will be provided to all students in Sussex County. To be eligible to attend BASSE, the student and their family must be Delaware residents, and the student needs to be pre-registered in a Delaware public school district.

BASSE’s curriculum will focus on providing a more customized education than larger schools. It will also incorporate service learning, where children have the chance to take on community projects that align with their interests. The overall goal is to empower students to become change-makers in their communities and society as a whole. Looking ahead, Berry wants to lay the groundwork for an entire community of trailblazers. “A lot of people point to Bryan Stevenson and say he’s a generation leader, but my hope is to say that we’re creating the next generations of Bryan Stevensons,” she says. “We’re not just waiting for one leader who wants to do something different.” 

Personal Ties 

Family has played a crucial role in BASSE’s creation, from both a professional and personal standpoint. Becoming a parent herself in recent years gave Berry a new perspective on the choices parents have to make around their children’s safety, well-being, and finding the best fit for their needs.  And that’s what BASSE is all about — shifting away from the one-size-fits-all approach and focusing on personalizing education for each individual student. “As a parent now, those are the kinds of choices I want to make for my child,” Berry says. “The ones that work best for their growth and learning style as they enter school and the workforce.” 

Delaware Love 

Berry grew up in Milton and chose to raise her family here because she believes it’s one of the best towns in the state. “I love Milton both because of its rich history in Delaware and because of the people,” she says. “There are activities, events, and things to do and experience every weekend.” The Sussex County area has undergone significant growth, and Berry couldn’t be happier to be a part of it. Beyond her work with BASSE, her professional career has been largely centered in her love for the state and the importance of committing and investing in its future. Berry has been heavily involved in designing programs and systems that support local families and enrich the lives of all Delawareans. She connects Delaware’s size and accessibility with the ability to make a meaningful impact. “We’re a whole state that feels like a small town and that’s something I value a lot,” says Berry. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”   


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