Delaware Public Media

State, Christina School District roll out planned changes to Wilmington schools

Sep 27, 2019

When Gov. John Carney, the state Department of Education and the Christina School District signed a Memorandum of Understanding in March 2018 on a plan to transform Christina’s schools in the city of Wilmington, they made a lot of promises, with many of them coming due in August and September.

The central promise – reorganizing the Bancroft and Bayard schools to serve first through eighth grades and to run on an extended school calendar – was met. Those schools reopened as planned on Aug. 12, though it took a couple more weeks to wrap up some of the renovations in the buildings.

A second promise was also kept – moving all Christiana kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students who live in Wilmington into the rebranded Stubbs Early Education Center, a former elementary school.

Next month, a third promise will be kept, albeit a month late – the opening of a Dual Generation Center at Stubbs, primarily to serve adults living in the Christina district’s portion of the city.

But any status report on the wraparound services promised in the MOU would show many of the items marked as “incomplete.”

“We’re not where we want to be, but we’re moving to where we want to get to,” says James Simmons, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and the state’s point person in charge of seeing through the MOU’s implementation.

"The best-laid plans don't always go the way you anticipate. We had to move five buildings into three, and we had a couple of burps." - Rick Gregg, Christina School District superintendent.

“We had six weeks [from the start of summer break to Aug. 12] to turn this around. The best-laid plans don’t always go the way you anticipate. We had to move five buildings into three, and we had a couple of burps,” says Rick Gregg, Christina’s superintendent.

“Right now, we have children in all the buildings and they’re receiving instruction,” Gregg says. “All the other items are ‘above and beyond.’”

While Carney’s team would have liked to have seen everything completed on time, his aides acknowledge that it is difficult to enact dramatic changes on a tight time schedule. “This process can be frustrating and is not without its setbacks. But we’ll remain committed to making progress on behalf of children in these schools,” Carney says.

Even with the delays, there has been scant criticism of the failure to put all the pieces into place on schedule.

“We haven’t had any pushback,” Simmons says.

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker (D-Wilmington) whose district includes much of Christina’s portion of the city, did call out the district when some of the classrooms at Bayard and Bancroft weren’t in ideal shape on the first day of school. But she is pleased with the status of efforts to complete the remaining commitments included in the MOU.

“There is a willingness to work together. People are moving to get things done,” she says. “They are doing a good job.”

“Supporting students and the staff and getting them into the buildings was the highest priority,” Simmons says, and that focus delayed progress on some of the other work – while not pushing it to the back burner, dropping it at least to second priority status.

Simmons, Gregg and Deirdra Aikens, Christina’s senior director of teaching and learning, say many of the remaining pieces – but not all – are almost ready to fall into place.

Professional development programs have been set up for staff members at Bancroft and Bayard, Aikens says. The schedule includes 10 days of training during the school year, 45-minute weekly meetings of “professional learning communities” at the schools, plus one 90-minute meeting per month and a monthly 2-hour staff meeting.

Student health centers have also been established at Bancroft and Bayard, with services that include behavioral health counselors and family crisis therapists, Aikens says. However, the spaces used by the health centers still need reconfiguration to provide separate areas for each service offered. The reconfiguration is not likely to occur this school year.

Here’s a look at some of the MOU items that are close to implementation:

After-school programming is a work in progress, but close to completion. Some programs that previously operated at Bancroft and Bayard have continued this year. Some new programs are expected to be launched by the end of October, Aikens says. Some of the $1.5 million in “opportunity grants” that the state is providing under terms of the MOU can be used to pay for these programs. Like other schools statewide that have significant populations of low-income students and English learners, Bayard, Bancroft and Stubbs will share in the state’s “Opportunity Funding Initiative,” special funds that can be used for classroom, counseling and after-school programs.

At Bayard, the Delaware Futures nonprofit continues to offer an after-school college readiness program for grades six through eight. The program includes group and individual counseling and extracurricular activities that emphasize problem-solving skills.

Anticipated new programs at Bayard include supplemental lessons in English/language arts and math, and possibly for English learners, with instruction provided by Christina staff.

Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League and Bethel AME Church are discussing how they can bring homework help, academic assistance and enrichment programs to Bancroft School
Credit Delaware Public Media

At Bancroft, the district plans to offer after-school homework help, and school leaders are meeting with the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League and Bethel AME Church to discuss introducing homework help, academic assistance and enrichment programs. Also under consideration is a “respect through the arts” middle school program offered by the Connecting Generations nonprofit.

FAME Delaware, formerly known as the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering, is proposing offering STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming at both Bancroft and Bayard for grades 5-8, and possibly third and fourth grades as well.

Athletic programs are also under consideration, Aikens says, with the Delaware Lacrosse Association expressing interest in building a lacrosse program in Wilmington and the YMCA of Delaware suggesting a swimming and water safety program for second graders at Bancroft.

At Stubbs, the United Way-sponsored Get Delaware Reading program for pre-kindergarten students is continuing, and an after-school arts program is under consideration.

The number of programs launched in October will depend on how soon contracts with nonprofits can be signed and how much each of the programs would cost.

Vacation programming is still being discussed with several nonprofit providers that could offer “extra lessons” during the winter and spring breaks, Aikens says.

Here are some of the items whose launch is farther off:

The MOU calls for the state to create a philanthropic fund that would pool donations and earmark funds to support schools in Wilmington, not just those in the Christina portion of the city. Meetings have been held to discuss the topic. According to Gregg and aides to Carney, the current thinking is that agencies desiring to provide after-school and other supplemental programs submit proposals so funding requests can be tallied before the state and school district solicit grants from foundations and corporate donors. Money channeled into the new fund could be used to support some of the new after-school and vacation programming after the $1.5 million in opportunity grants is used up. The philanthropic fund would make these programs sustainable for the long term, they say.

The Office of Innovation and Improvement was given primary responsibility for developing “pipelines into Wilmington Schools” to reduce teacher turnover and strengthen the credentials of prospective teachers. Much of this work is actually being done by Christina’s human resources office. Christina is building on existing relationships, primarily with the University of Delaware and Wilmington University. While no new programs specific to the MOU have been created, Christina has asking Wilmington University to increase the coaching support provide to teachers in its Alternative Routes to Certification program.

The ultimate fate of the now closed Pulsaki Elementary School, as well as the old Elbert-Palmer Elementary School, remain up in the air.
Credit Delaware Public Media

The future uses of Pulaski and Elbert-Palmer elementary schools, both closed as their students were reassigned to Bancroft, Bayard and Stubbs, remain undetermined. Gregg says the district is negotiating with a third party to set up a program at Elbert-Palmer that would provide “meaningful benefits” to residents of the Southbridge neighborhood. Officials said that several nonprofit organizations are interested in launching programs at Pulaski, in the Browntown-Hedgeville neighborhood. However, Gregg says, any third party would have to pick up the costs of maintenance and needed repairs. “It’s complicated,” he says. “We don’t have the money for capital improvements.”

Simmons, who rose through the ranks from teacher and coach to principal to central office administration in the Brandywine School District, took over the Office of Innovation and Improvement in June, succeeding Dorrell Green, another former Brandywine administrator, who became superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

He says his experience at every level of school operations has helped him adjust quickly to his new assignment. “Having worked at every level gives me insight into the people working at each of these positions. No one can tell me I don’t know what it’s like to do a particular job,” he says.

More importantly, over the years he has built working relationships with key stakeholders – collaborating with Green in Brandywine, working together with Gregg more than two decades ago at Delcastle Technical High School, and getting to know Christina’s assistant superintendent, Noreen LaSorsa, when both were principals, and Tucker, the district’s human resources director, through the Delaware Principals Academy.

Jim Simmons heads the state Dept of Ed.'s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which leads the state's work on the Wilmington schools MOU
Credit Delaware Dept.of Education

“Building trust takes a shorter amount of time because of these relationships,” he says.

While Simmons emphasizes that his primary objective is to see that all of the components of the MOU are put into place as soon as possible, he makes a point of saying that “the most important paragraph” in the MOU is one that states that all the parties review the 17-page document before November 1 of each year “to determine whether amendments are needed and identify any other issues that should be addressed.”

The MOU is written to remain in effect until June 30, 2023, with three-year renewals possible thereafter, but it can be terminated by mutual agreement, if any of the parties fail to live up to their obligations or if the General Assembly fails to appropriate funding at the levels specified in the document.

“No one is getting this done by themselves,” Simmons says. “It’s a collaborative agreement.”

Dorsey-Walker, the Wilmington lawmaker, says she will be watching developments closely.

“I’m glad to see everyone working together to attack a lot of issues. We have a lot of work to do,” she says. “That’s fair assessment.”