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The road ahead for Christina’s Wilmington schools

Delaware Public Media

Six months into a partnership that could determine the educational destiny of at least 1,400 children in Wilmington, state and Christina School District officials have finally cleared their first hurdle, signing off on a Memorandum of Understanding that provides at least the bare bones of a plan to strengthen programming for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

However, “there are a lot of booby traps” within the memorandum itself, and many important details remain unresolved, says Christina Board of Education member John Young, who voted against signing the document when the board approved it by a 4-2 vote last week.

“The MOU gets us to a plan,” Young says. “The meat is not on the bones yet.”

Now that the framework has been defined, the process can go forward, says Dan Rich, staff director of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, which has been monitoring developments in Christina. “Now you have to engage with others, and you actually have to deliver.”

In other words, as difficult as it was to get the memorandum approved, the most significant work still lies ahead.

The MOU – an agreement among the Christina school board, Christina Superintendent Rick Gregg, Gov. John Carney, the state Department of Education and the Christina Education Association --  sets five broad goals: creating systems that endure; providing high-quality wraparound and out-of-school services; expanding learning time; enabling flexibility for school leaders; and empowering and supporting educators.

Thus far, the piece of the MOU that has drawn the greatest attention is a reconfiguration plan that would merge five Christina schools in Wilmington into two existing buildings, Bancroft and Bayard, which would each serve kindergarten or first grade through eighth grade. The Pulaski and Elbert-Palmer elementary schools would close. Stubbs Elementary would either become a kindergarten center or a “dual generation center,” providing a mix of services for preschoolers and adults.  The new configuration would take effect for the 2018-19 school year, but Stubbs students could be moved into Bancroft this fall if the dual generation center is located there.

Grouping such a broad age range within a building drew criticism at recent public meetings. ”Many parents don’t want 6-year-olds getting on the bus with eighth-graders, and warehousing our children in these giant buildings,” says Elizabeth Campbell Paige, another Christina board member who opposed approving the MOU.

“Neighborhood schools are supposed to be places where come together around the education of kids. [This change] disrupts the entire concept,” says Cassandra Marshall, a Wilmington civic leader who follows education issues.

Advocates of the K-8 or 1-8 configuration contend that having larger enrollments in a single building will make it easier to provide the wraparound services, including health centers and after-school tutoring, for Wilmington students. They also say there are benefits to having siblings of different ages going to school in the same building.

Staying in the same building for multiple years will “provide an anchor in their lives,” Rich says. “Once students get comfortable with it, it gives them some stability.”

While Paige has her doubts about the grade configurations included in the MOU, she and Young point to an infrequently mentioned paragraph that they feel could have a significant positive impact: language stating that the starting time for the school day should be no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Not only would his change allow children to sleep longer and reduce chronic absenteeism, they say, but also, with the plan contemplating a longer school day and structured after-school programs, it would provide supervision for children for much of the period between 2 to 6 p.m., when many of them might otherwise be unattended at home or in their neighborhoods.

While Paige considers this provision a concrete achievement, the reality is that virtually all the details of the plan still need to be worked out. And, as that work proceeds, there are plenty of “booby traps” to which Young refers, primarily in the form of deadlines that could easily be missed that could trigger one or more parties withdrawing from the agreement.

Indeed, the first of those is February 28, the stated deadline for the Christina Board of Education to ratify the configuration plan. That would take a public vote, and the board’s next meeting is scheduled for March 6. Dorrell Green, director of the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the State Department of Education, speaking for the department and the governor’s office, said that deadline is likely to slide because Christina is in the midst of wrapping up work on its overall strategic plan, and a short delay would not have a significant impact on planning.

More significant, Young notes, are the March 31 and June 1 milestones for the Christina Education Association, the teachers’ union, to begin and conclude negotiations with the school board on a separate MOU governing changes in pay and working conditions for union members working in the affected city schools. Potentially thorny issues concern incentives to encourage teachers to work in city schools and procedures related to possible layoffs if enrollments in the district decline.

Then comes June 30, the last day the General Assembly is in regular session this year. Not only must funding that Carney has requested be included in the state budget -- $1.5 million in special “opportunity grants” and $2 million for the dual generation center – but it must also authorize $15 million in capital funding to renovate the Bancroft and Bayard buildings, with an 80-20 state-local ratio, meaning that Christina would also have to move forward with a $3.75 million bond issue of its own.

Green is confident that the funding will be approved. “We have done our due diligence to show the General Assembly that the funding is much needed,” he says. “And the governor has signaled to the General Assembly, ‘as goes Wilmington, so goes the state.’”

Should any of these milestones not be met, the MOU could be terminated, but Green believes the parties would persist in moving forward even if roadblocks develop. “If things happen beyond our control – with the General Assembly or the teachers’ union, for example, we’ll have to think about a Plan B at that point,” he says.

Even so, there’s broad agreement that the funding Carney has proposed will have limited impact.

Christina would like to add more personnel to city schools than it could afford with the $1.5 million opportunity grant, Young says. And Carney’s funding proposal does not follow the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission recommendations of the past two years for enhanced funding for schools with high percentages of low-income students, English language learners and students in K-3 with special education needs.

“The kind of equitable funding that would get the kids the right resources is not there,” Marshall says.

The funding outlined in the MOU “can begin to make a significant difference,” Rich believes, but he isn’t sure it is enough to sustain the improvements.

“We will do the best we can with what’s available,” Green says.

Rich concedes, however, that Carney’s commitment to press the legislature for additional funding is a positive. “It was not there before,” he says, referring to Carney last year and the final year of Gov. Jack Markell’s term.

Once the school configuration and funding issues are resolved, Paige hopes all parties can focus on the planning details that deal directly with students. “Once people have dealt with the real estate, maybe they’ll pay attention to the academics,” she says.

As planning moves into the next phase, the parties associated with the MOU say they want to do a better job of engaging with Christina parents.

“Parents are the people who should have some sway over what happens in the buildings,” Paige says.

“We did have three town halls and a Facebook Live session,” Green says. But Marshall says that, after Carney went door-to-door urging parents to attend meetings early in the process, the efforts by both the state and the school board to keep parents involved seemed to tail off. And, she adds that she thinks elected officials in Wilmington could have done more to promote parent engagement.

Rich notes that there were practical limits to how much parental involvement was possible, if only because the parties involved had a limited time to listen before they started writing their plans. To some extent, Young disagrees, claiming that the rush was the result of “artificial deadlines” sought by Carney’s office.

The problem of parent disengagement is historic in nature, according to both Marshall and the Delaware Liberal blogger known as Pandora. Both point out that the division of the city into four school districts in the desegregation era, followed by the growth of charter schools and choice programs, has created a disconnect with parents often uncertain of where the centers of power in the education system are located.

Politicians, Marshall says, need to use their “bully pulpit” to show parents how to get involved and “to enable parents to get invited into the conversation.”

As planning moves forward, parents and community leaders will be involved through a series of focus groups. “We want to engage parents in a more intimate way,” Green says.

The plan, as it is developed, “has the possibility of some good,” Paige says, “but it has to be done with parents.”

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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