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New plan to help Wilmington schools runs into familiar roadblocks

Delaware Public Media

Finding the path forward to improving education opportunities for children in Wilmington’s public schools is proving just as elusive for Gov. John Carney’s administration as it was for former Gov. Jack Markell’s team.

Carney’s initiative – drafting a memorandum of understanding that would create a partnership involving Christina School District officials and teachers, the state Department of Education and his office – foundered Tuesday when the Christina Board of Education decided to postpone a vote on whether to approve the latest draft of the memorandum until January 9 so board members could have more time to review its details.

Carney has been working with Christina officials since the start of the school year to develop a plan. He has visited schools, led town hall-type meetings and even gone door to door, campaign-style, to talk with Wilmington parents about education issues.

But the plan, whose first version called for, among other things, consolidating five Christina schools in the city into two by the start of the 2018-19 school year, still hasn’t gained the approval of the Christina school board, even after the memorandum was revised, at the district’s request, to delay the consolidation until the 2019-20 school year.

In the school board’s view, the latest version – the one discussed Tuesday night – represented a step backward from the progress the parties appeared to have made the week before. With the most recent changes, the document “seems very paternalistic,” board member Harrie Ellen Minnehan said.

The changes inserted by the state included a paragraph stating that the state would not provide additional funds to pay for additional salaries for teachers working the longer school days and longer school years contemplated in the proposal.

Board member Elizabeth Paige described such changes as “a power play gut punch.”

“It’s disrespectful and it’s frustrating,” she said.

As contentious as the debate within Christina has been, that approval might prove to be the easiest among the many required to move the plan forward. Farther down the road, for example, the General Assembly would have to agree to provide 80 percent of the funding needed to renovate and modify Bancroft Middle School, on the city’s East Side, and Bayard Middle School, on the West Side, so they could serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In addition, the school board and the Christina Education Association would have to develop new contract language governing working conditions and pay for union members working in schools where the longer school day and school year are implemented.

While Christina board members openly questioned Tuesday whether the district and the state were in alignment over what they hoped to achieve with the memorandum, Christina and state officials resumed meeting Wednesday morning in hopes of ironing out their differences.

“It went well. A lot of thoughts were put on the table by all the parties involved. We got a lot of things aired,” Christina Superintendent Rick Gregg said.

Dorrell Green, director of the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the State Department of Education, said the board’s concerns “highlight the complicated nature” of what the state and he district are trying to achieve.

Carney’s struggle this year to strengthen Wilmington public schools, whose heavy concentrations of low-income students, English language learners and others with special needs are factors in their academic performance ranking significantly below state norms, is reminiscent of the difficulties Markell faced. In the fall of 2014, Markell labeled low-performing Wilmington schools in the Christina and Red Clay districts as “priority schools” and proposed transforming them by implementing a variety of changes, including replacement of principals and many teachers at each of the buildings.

Red Clay agreed to make some changes, but not as dramatic as the governor proposed, but Christina refused to go along. In the aftermath, Markell created the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, followed by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, whose recommendations included moving the Christina district’s Wilmington schools into the Red Clay district and providing additional funding for schools with high numbers of low-income students, English-language learners and special education students in kindergarten through third grade.

In the spring of 2016, the State Board of Education endorsed the WEIC plan and the General Assembly gave its conditional approval, pending the availability of state funding. The WEIC plan stalled this year, never coming to a vote because of state budget shortfalls. The plan is now dormant, and will lapse if it isn’t implemented by 2021. WEIC members are watching how the Christina situation develops and don’t anticipate any push for their own plan this year, according to Dan Rich, the commission’s staff director.

Rich sees a key difference in the approaches taken by Markell and Carney.

Markell, he says, created WEIC because of the blowback he received to his top-down approach to transforming the designated priority schools. Carney, is says, “is more collaborative, more about partnership.”

However, he adds, “the proof is in the delivery, and we haven’t seen it yet.”

The memorandum of understanding, designed to be an agreement among the Christina Board of Education, Christina Superintendent Richard Gregg, the Christina Education, the state Department of Education and Carney’s office, sets out five broad goals: creating systems that endure; providing high-quality wraparound and out-of-school services for students, families and staff; expanding learning time; enabling flexibility for school leaders; and empowering and supporting educators.

Key components of the proposal outlined in the memorandum include:

  • Consolidating the five Christina schools in Wilmington – Bancroft and Bayard Middle and Stubbs, Elbert-Palmer and Pulaski Elementary – into two, Bancroft and Bayard, serving kindergarten through eighth grade by the 2019-2020 school year. The rationale is that more comprehensive programs can be offered more efficiently and at less expense in fewer school buildings. The reconfigured schools would have a longer daily schedule and a longer calendar than school in the suburban portion of the Christina district. Also to be developed: after-school programs designed to boost student engagement, achievement and safety, and learning activities that would be conducted during school vacation periods.

At public hearings, however, some parents have complained that their children would no longer be able to walk to school and questioned the wisdom of placing nine grade levels in a single building. At Tuesday’s board meeting, Sharon Gibson, a first-grade teacher at Stubbs, wondered whether the reconfiguration would allow for scheduling to give all students one gym class each week and to have lunch in the cafeteria close to mid-day. She also asked about planning for art, music and technology teachers at all grade levels. “How are all these things going to be accommodated?” she asked.

  • Supplemental state funding of $1.5 million, to be increased by 2 percent a year, to help finance “trauma-informed training” and professional development, a pair of school-based health centers, special incentives to teachers working in the Wilmington schools, innovative programs and “opportunity grants” to improve student outcomes.

Budgets for these initiatives have not been developed, so it is unclear how far $1.5 million would go, and, as Paige noted, the memorandum specifically excludes using these funds to cover salaries of those working the longer day and longer school year.
Determining budgets will require more detailed information from Christina on what it hopes to accomplish, Green said.

  • Additional funding at an 80-20 state-local ratio for capital improvements to the reconfigured schools. The state and Christina officials would work together to determine the scope, costs and timeframe for the desired improvements.

An earlier version of the memorandum included an offer of 100 percent state funding. With an 80-20 split, the district would have to hold a referendum to seek approval of its residents – both those in Wilmington and those in the Newark-Bear-Glasgow area of the district – for the local share of the bond issue. Other buildings in the district also need improvements, Gregg said, indicating that suburban schools would have to be included in the proposal to make the referendum palatable to suburban residents. And, he added, the time involved in developing a successful referendum campaign could delay improvements to the city schools.

  • Creation of a Dual-Generation Center that would provide wraparound services for Christina students and families. Two key components of the center would be a partnership with an early childhood provider to deliver early literacy, numeracy and health services to children before they enter kindergarten, and adult services, including literacy instruction, family counseling and job training and placement, to be delivered by the state Department of Labor, other state agencies and nonprofit organizations. The center would open in the fall of 2018.

The memorandum proposes transforming Stubbs Elementary School into the Dual Generation Center (moving Stubbs students into Bancroft next year) and offers Christina two other site options if it decides to keep students in Stubbs for another year.
“They gave us three choices. It reads like an ultimatum,” board member John Young said.

“It felt like a real estate transaction,” Paige added.

Other portions of the draft memorandum give broad outlines of initiatives to give school leaders more decision-making flexibility, to propose curricular and school management decisions that differ from standard district policies, and more coaching and leadership development. Also, teachers would receive training in subjects relevant to teaching in urban schools and teacher-leader teams would work with the school administration on matters like scheduling, resource use and staffing.

None of those details have been fleshed out.

Deleted during the revision process was a paragraph that pledged increased funding as had been recommended by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission for schools with high concentrations of English-language learners, low-income students and special-needs students in kindergarten through third grade. This type of supplemental funding for high-needs students is common in most other states, but not in Delaware.

Green said this paragraph was deleted because the General Assembly didn’t support the WEIC recommendations last year or this year, so including it could lead to a breakdown of the needed approval process if the General Assembly again declined to provide this supplemental funding.

Never mentioned in the memo are students from Wilmington who attend the Christina district’s three high schools in the Newark area. “They’re part of the conversation” but they’re not in the memorandum for now,” Gregg says. “That doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future, but kindergarten through eighth grade is our primary focus.”

Despite these issues, Gregg and Green say the groups will continue to move toward reaching an agreement. Another meeting is scheduled for January 4, and Gregg hopes the memorandum can be signed by the end of February.

The approved version of the memorandum would serve as the framework for putting the plan into operation, Gregg says.

There are several ways that the agreement could be terminated, including the failure of the state to provide the promised funding, a decision by the state to terminate funding, the failure of the Christina board and teachers’ union to negotiate its own memorandum on working conditions, and “substantial failure of another party to fulfill its obligations.”

Green and Gregg are hopeful that the necessary hurdles can be overcome in the next two months, but they realize they must make adjustments to gain the support of the board of education.

Lamenting that the latest version of the memorandum seemed to be more about buildings and money than programs for children, Minnehan said, “it’s beginning to seem like priority schools revisited. We don’t want to go down that road again.”

“We have a lot of things in common,” said board member Meredith Griffin Jr., who is also a WEIC member. “We all want to see the right outcome.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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