How Delaware Schools Are Preparing Students for Post-Graduation

Whether headed to college or the workforce after graduating, local students are emerging better prepared to contribute to the state’s economy.

Shawn Lightly, center, a student at William Penn High School, interns with Dassault Falcon Aviation employees Arnaud Bram and Glen Taylor./Photos by Luigi Ciuffetelli

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Cherish Pritchett leaves her home in New Castle before 6:30 each morning to ride a school bus for more than an hour to the Early College High School at Delaware State University in Dover. The long ride is worth it, she reasons, because she’ll finish high school not only with a diploma but also with about two years’ worth of college credits.

Another New Castle resident, Brendon Garcia, is staying closer to home, studying engineering and construction at his hometown William Penn High School. Trade school, not college, is his next stop, but he’s pleased that William Penn has helped him master the tools of the construction trade and learn about engineering.

These experiences show how Delaware high schools are changing. A decade ago, students had to decide whether they would be “college ready” or “career ready,” and, educators admit, schools were much more proficient on the “college ready” side.

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Today, thanks to changes in curriculum and programming, “the terms are somewhat synonymous,” says Delaware Secretary of Education Susan L. Bunting. As a result, she adds, graduates are now better prepared, no matter whether their path leads them to college or directly into the workforce.

A high school education is no longer enough to earn a livable wage, says Luke Rhine, chief of career and technical education in the state Department of Education. Graduates need more—an apprenticeship, a professional certification, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree—and the more layers you possess, the greater your earnings potential.

The hope among state education officials is that this expanded focus on readiness will benefit students and the state by building a sturdier base of educated and trained graduates ready to bolster the modern workforce and step into the jobs vacated by retiring baby boomers.

By 2025, the state’s commitment is to see 65 percent of Delaware’s workforce earning either a two- or four-year degree or a professional certificate, matching the percentage of jobs requiring them within the state.

In the last five to 10 years, many of Delaware’s high schools, both public and private, have transformed. They have become places where students can jump-start their futures, either by earning college credits or by securing certifications that qualify them for Delaware jobs in restaurants, banking, health sciences, information technology and other fields.

That transformation is working its way down into middle schools, and even to the elementary level, where awareness of future opportunities can start with something as simple as teachers displaying the name of their alma mater on their classroom doors.

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By middle school, students are “old enough to start understanding that different careers exist, old enough to start connecting careers to their interests,” says Brian Erskine, the principal at William Penn. “We want to give them motivation so when they get interested in something, they start connecting that interest with their academic experiences.”

The most significant of the initiatives is Career Pathways, a rapidly expanding program that offers a combination of occupational certifications and college credits. This is the state’s broadest initiative to link readiness for both college and careers. The program launched in the 2014-15 school year under former Governor Jack Markell, who recognized that giving students better preparation for entering the workforce would ultimately make Delaware a more attractive destination for businesses seeking new homes or a better place to grow.

By 2025, the state’s commitment is to see 65 percent of Delaware’s workforce earning either a two- or four-year degree or a professional certificate, matching the percentage of jobs requiring them within the state.

Statewide, Pathways is a collaboration among public schools, the state departments of education and labor, businesses and nonprofits. Under its umbrella, 24 curriculum paths have been developed. Each offers three years of classes focused on a specific theme, related internships or work-study experiences with business partners and the opportunity to take two or more college classes, primarily through Delaware Technical Community College. For the 2020–21 school year, the goal is to have 20,000 students—roughly half the public high school population in Delaware—enrolled in a Pathways program.

The state plan is part of the national Jobs for the Future initiative, and Robert Schwartz, the Harvard Graduate School of Education professor who heads the project, calls Delaware “the poster child for Pathways nationally.”

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In addition to Career Pathways, schools have developed, or enhanced, numerous programs in recent years. They include:

  • Dual enrollment classes, giving students high school and college credits for a single course
  • Early college high school, where students can earn two years of college credits before receiving their high school diplomas
  • Dual language immersion programs that kick-start Spanish or Mandarin in kindergarten or first grade
  • International Baccalaureate, a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum that puts a premium on college-level writing

The “senior seminar,” a tool to help students unaccustomed to thinking about college or career bring their future into clearer focus

Each of the programs is different and no one is unique to a school or school system. But they’re not what students of a decade ago might have experienced. In Bunting’s words, then it was “four years of math, four years of language arts, four years of history and four years of science. You knew what was coming next and you could get through almost by endurance.”

Delaware Today took a look at some of these transformative programs across the state to see how students are being prepared for their next step.

Colonial School District: Pathways to prosperity

As it retooled the curriculum in its middle schools and at William Penn High School, Colonial School District began developing its own program similar to Career Pathways a couple of years before the state initiative’s launch.

As part of the district’s transformation, William Penn established three “colleges”—themed instructional sectors focusing on business, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the humanities.

Tracks associated with each theme were built into the colleges, and coursework for each was expanded to cover four years by linking career-oriented and academic classes to create a unified “program of study,” says Erskine, who engineered the changeover before becoming principal.

Then, three years ago, veteran counselor Clayton Washington was reassigned as the district’s coordinator of work-based learning, with responsibility for building partnerships with local businesses. He’s found work-study opportunities for business students at Discover Card, graphics students at Sir Speedy printing, and culinary students at the Hotel DuPont, among others.

But the relationship that pleases Erskine and Washington most is one with Dassault Falcon Aviation at the New Castle County Airport, where high school engineering students are getting on-the-job training in the installation, repair and maintenance of complex aircraft electronics systems. Until now, they say, the only interns Dassault Falcon took on for similar work were college graduates working on master’s degrees.

Compiled by Cameron Johnson

A visit to William Penn convinced Cliff Perry, Dassault Falcon’s regulatory and technical training supervisor, to give the school a chance. “It’s amazing what they do, both the students and the program,” he says.

William Penn students are enthusiastic about the school’s transformation.

Bianca Rodriguez, a business major senior, would be the first in her family to go to college, calling her experience at William Penn “life-changing.” She says she’s found her classes more challenging each year and she has already earned four college credits. Business teacher Nancy Talmo helped her secure a job last summer in the school district office.

“[Teachers and counselors] find us good opportunities and they’re there to help us every day,” she says.

Garcia, an engineering and construction senior, spent his summer work-study building sheds and chicken coops for the school’s agriculture program, learning how to use various power tools. For his senior engineering project, he’s designing and developing a gardening system based on aeroponics—a method of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil—that may eventually be used in the school’s greenhouses.

“I’m learning how to identify problems and work around them,” he says. “It’s good preparation for my career.”

Paralleling the changes at William Penn, the school system established themes for each of its middle schools: STEM at McCullough; business, culinary and agriculture at George Read; and visual and performing arts, digital media and communications at Gunning Bedford.

New this year is a Work-Based Learning Center at McCullough, a combination of classroom, computer lab and meeting space for use by middle and high school students. Washington describes the space as a “professional multiuse area.” Students can learn the soft skills of professionalism, including how to write a resume and how to prepare for interviews.  Representatives of businesses, colleges and community organizations can visit the space and share details on their programs with student groups.

What’s going on in Colonial isn’t all new, but it’s better than before.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” Erskine says. “We enhanced the wheel.”

Woodbridge: The small steps come first

In the rural northwestern corner of Sussex County, families have long lived off the land. It’s no wonder, then, that among the Career Pathways offered in the Woodbridge School District, agriculture is its strongest, Superintendent Heath Chasanov says.

But the community’s reliance on farming is a double-edged sword, resulting in a low yield in educational achievement. Chasanov estimates between 5 and 10 percent of the students at Woodbridge High are members of the first generation of their families to earn a high school diploma. And that translates into relatively low numbers moving on to college. Typically, about 30 percent of the school’s 120 or so graduates enroll in a two- or four-year college program, counselor Ian Dawes says. Many of the others head off to work in farming, in small local businesses or perhaps at the RAPA Scrapple plant in Bridgeville.

In school districts like this one, “college and career ready” tilts strongly toward the career side, but Chasanov and Dawes want their students to be thinking about college more than they have historically.

That’s the point of the “Senior Seminar,” a gathering of the entire senior class held once or twice a month in the school auditorium.

During these sessions, counselors and guest speakers go over the college application process and how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

Compiled by Cameron Johnson

“Students may not understand all the terminology, but we want them to know what they have to learn so they understand the next steps that they will have to take,” says Shana Payne, director of higher education in the state Department of Education.

Delaware Tech representatives visit Woodbridge to explain the state’s SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree) program, which offers two years of free tuition toward an associate’s degree at either Delaware Tech or the University of Delaware.

Another meeting covers scholarships offered by community organizations and local businesses. “We want to make sure the kids know what’s available,” Dawes says. “Somebody is going to get that money.” In addition, Dawes coordinates with the school’s Marine Corps Junior ROTC program to arrange a day when all branches of the U.S. military make presentations to seniors.

“The value of continuing their education has been impressed upon the students by the school staff, but we can’t be sure what messages are being impressed upon them at home,” Dawes says.

Whether Woodbridge grads choose college or career, “we want them to know all their opportunities,” Chasanov says.

St. Mark’s High School: Getting their feet wet

Like many high schools with strong college prep programs, St. Mark’s offers a broad selection of Advanced Placement courses, which give students the opportunity to earn college credits based on their scores on a final exam. But it took a call from the University of Delaware for the suburban Wilmington parochial school to jump on the dual enrollment bandwagon.

Three years ago, Kathleen Matt, dean of UD’s College of Health Sciences, wanted to build a pipeline to draw Delaware high school students into the university’s health sciences programs and needed a place to launch a pilot program.

“They approached us. They asked if we would be interested, and we said we would be very interested,” recalls Francis Corrigan, St. Mark’s assistant principal for academics and mission. “We want to open our students to the health sciences area. These occupations will be in great demand.”

In the fall semester, a UD faculty member teaches an Introduction to Health Sciences class to juniors and seniors at St. Mark’s. In the spring, Introduction to Exercise Science is offered. As the “dual enrollment” term suggests, students earn credit toward their high school requirements and three college credits for each class they complete.

The two classes are the only dual enrollment options St. Mark’s offers, Corrigan says. The school would consider offering more, but only if they don’t conflict with the existing curriculum.

According to the Delaware Department of Education, every public school district except Brandywine and most charter high schools offer one or more dual enrollment classes, with Wilmington University and Delaware Tech being the largest providers.

Rita Landgraf, former state secretary of health and social services, now works with St. Marks High school students like Carter Marks, left, and Grace Dohl as part of the school’s dual enrollment program./Luigi Ciuffetelli

While some dual enrollment classes are offered online, others are taught by high school teachers who have mastered the college curriculum. UD sends its own faculty members to St. Mark’s, as well as to Newark High School, where it has set up a similar program.

Rita Landgraf, the former state secretary of health and social services, is now on the UD health sciences faculty, and she taught the fall semester class at St. Mark’s. “Some are taking the course primarily to get the college credits. Some are interested in health careers, and others aren’t quite sure what they want to do,” Landgraf says.

Once they’re in the class, students realize the diversity of opportunities in the health professions. “Last year, a couple of males in the class said they wanted to go into accounting and finance,” Landgraf says, “and then they found out there’s a lot of accounting and finance involved in health care.”

Landgraf often brings in other UD faculty members to discuss their specialties. One afternoon in October, she made the presentation herself, focusing on how violence and poverty affect public health. After each class, students demonstrate what they learned by writing a two-page essay.

“It’s definitely different from my regular classes,” says Grace Dohl, a junior from Wilmington who hopes to become a speech pathologist. “With the different presenters, each week we learn something new.”

Carter Marks, a junior from Hockessin, says the class is “more in-depth” than the others he was taking in the fall semester, and that it has helped him gain insights into why health care needs vary in different parts of the state. He’s looking forward to taking the exercise science class in the spring to learn more about anatomy and physical therapy, in part because his father is a chiropractor.

Early College High School: Going all in

If taking a few dual enrollment classes is a way for students to dip their toes in the college waters, enrolling in the Early College High School at Delaware State University means taking a deep dive.

Students at the on-campus charter school, which will graduate its third class this June, can earn about 60 college credits by the time they graduate, setting themselves up to finish college in three years or fewer and saving plenty on tuition bills in the process.

“When I was in eighth grade, I overheard a conversation between a teacher and another student,” recalls Takara Jackson, a junior from Middletown. “I heard the word ‘college’ and I thought that would be cool. … It’s an amazing opportunity.”

The prospect of a money-saving jump-start to college is so appealing that teenagers from Claymont to Dagsboro are willing to start their school year in mid-August and hop on a bus to Dover as early as 5:45 a.m.

“It can be difficult at times because of the college classes and the homework,” says senior Cherish Pritchett, speaking of the hours spent on the bus between Dover and her home in New Castle, “but if you commit to something, you just do it.”

Takara Jackson, left, and Cherish Pritchett earn early college credits at Early College High School in Dover./Luigi Ciuffetelli

The ECHS program begins with a “freshman academy,” located in the former Dover Sheraton building about a mile south of the main campus. Students take typical high school classes, plus a yearlong advisory class that emphasizes college readiness and skill building. In their sophomore year, they move to the DSU campus, where they continue high school work and incorporate as many as three college classes into their schedules.

As juniors and seniors, they’re sitting alongside regular DSU students, taking lower-level college courses, with many of them selected with an eye toward their intended college major. (The college courses also count toward high school graduation requirements.) Students must complete a two-year capstone project that involves extensive research, working under a faculty mentor and delivering a final presentation.

When the College Board talks about college readiness, it speaks in terms of SAT scores, school leader Evelyn Edney says, “but our students have accrued [a total of] more than 11,000 college credit hours” before most of their peers have set foot on a college campus.

Gaining college exposure while still in high school is ideal career preparation, too, Edney says. “It’s better at age 15 to find out that teaching isn’t what you really want to do, or maybe you don’t want to stab people with needles all day.”

Going to class with older, full-time college students doesn’t faze Pritchett at all. “We pretty much blend in on campus. The college students don’t recognize us as any different,” she says. The professors, meanwhile, don’t know their students’ status until students ask them to fill out special reports.

Edney speaks proudly of success stories in the school’s first two classes, most notably the 2018 valedictorian and salutatorian, who received full scholarships to Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. About 60 percent of the graduates go on to college full time at Delaware State, she says. Most of the other grads enroll in four-year colleges, but some head to community college, military service or into a trade.

“You definitely feel more mature, especially when compared to kids who are going to the vo-techs or traditional public schools,” Pritchett says.

Las Americas Aspira: Two tongues are better than one

“When you talk of 21st-century skills, there can’t be a more valuable skill than communicating in a second language,” says Margie Lopez-Waite, founder and head of Las Americas Aspira Academy, a Newark-area dual language charter school that will be adding a high school to its K-8 program next year.

Since the school opened in August 2011, she hasn’t done too much talking about college and career readiness, Lopez-Waite admits. In large part, that’s because the school’s core curriculum speaks for itself. Students learn in English one day and in Spanish the next, so they can think, write and converse fluently in both languages by the time they complete eighth grade. The model for the high school curriculum is still being developed and will consider that not all students will have had the K-8 immersion experience, Lopez-Waite says. But it will have one new feature—classes in Chinese, giving students the potential to become trilingual before entering college.

“In our country there’s no industry that’s not interacting with other countries. If you live in this hemisphere, you will encounter Spanish as much as you do English, and China will be the next powerhouse,” Lopez-Waite says.

Compiled by Cameron Johnson

The opening of Las Americas Aspira coincided with the launch of a statewide dual-language immersion initiative touted by Markell, who stressed the importance of preparing Delaware students to live and work in a global economy. The immersion program now includes 31 traditional elementary and middle schools, with seven offering instruction in Chinese and the others in Spanish. (These schools use a slightly different instructional model, with elementary students taking a half-day in each language; the blend switches slightly in middle school.) There are three dual-language charters—Las Americas Aspira and Academia Antonia Alonso in Spanish, and Odyssey in Greek.

From her school’s first four graduating classes, about half the students have moved into charter high schools—primarily Newark and MOT—while most of the others have headed to vocational-technical schools, Lopez-Waite says.

When Las Americas Aspira opens its high school, it will incorporate several Pathways programs, including health sciences, K-12 education and, most likely, business and finance. With the state’s growing Spanish-speaking population, especially among school-age children and in low-income communities, dual-language capability is increasingly important in the education and health care arenas, Lopez-Waite says.

Finding capable teachers could pose a challenge, she notes, because they should be bilingual as well as familiar with their areas of specialization. “The language students will learn must be specific to their field,” she says—medical and wellness terminology for health sciences students, for example.

Wilmington Friends: A tradition of inquiry

The best concepts aren’t necessarily the newest. Consider Wilmington Friends School, founded in 1748, which encourages its upper school students to participate in the International Baccalaureate, a 52-year-old program with European roots that aims to “focus on teaching students to think critically and independently, and how to inquire with care and logic.”

About 90 percent of Friends’ juniors and seniors take one or more IB classes, and 20 to 25 percent aim for the full IB diploma, taking six classes for two years, says Michael Benner, the school’s IB coordinator and assistant head of academics. The requirements include independent research to write an extended essay, a creativity activity, a service project and an interdisciplinary class called the Theory of Knowledge.

The class covers “how do you know what you know, how do you know what is truth, how is knowledge created, and what are our ethical obligations when we have knowledge?” says Rebecca Zug, the head of the upper school, who also teaches the class. “It brings in concepts for other courses and really sets them up for careers and for college rigor.”

That sounds like a mouthful, but the provocative discussions make a strong impression. “Every time I leave the class, I feel I have a deeper meaning of what I already know,” says senior Sean Brady.

Compiled by Cameron Johnson

The IB program is a natural fit for Wilmington Friends, Zug says, because “Quaker pedagogy is focused very much on student inquiry and reflection.”

And, Benner adds, the terminology many states use in their definitions of “college and career ready,” particularly their emphasis on collaboration and communications skills, is “100 percent aligned with the IB learner profile.”

International Baccalaureate classes are unlike Advanced Placement or dual enrollment in that they don’t bring the benefit of college credit. Nonetheless, the program is also offered at John Dickinson, Sussex Central, Sussex Academy and Mount Pleasant high schools. Dickinson also offers the middle school version of the program, as does Talley Middle School, whose students feed into Mount Pleasant.

As an international program, IB encourages students to address issues from perspectives other than their own, with an emphasis on problem-solving and global citizenship.

“You think more deeply about the problems you’re given,” senior Sydney Taormina says. “The global learning component drives you to learn different perspectives, different cultures and to solve problems in different ways.”

Awaiting the results

While programs at different schools may vary, the desired outcome is the same: “We want them to be ready to go in whatever direction they wish to go,” Bunting says.

While it’s too soon to measure the impact of the Pathways programs (the first group of participants received their diplomas in 2019), steady enrollment growth and expanded academic options demonstrate its appeal. Similarly, the first students participating in dual-language immersion programs are now in middle school and some trial and error can be expected as the high school models are implemented. Dual enrollment programs, at the very least, are giving students a jump-start into higher education and helping them save on tuition.

While assessments of Pathways and other programs may be incomplete, Bunting says with confidence that they are giving students a clearer view of their futures.

“When I’m visiting high schools, I’m seeing hope and excitement in the students’ eyes,” she says. “They see a focus on what’s coming next.”

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