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Solving the Puzzle of Delaware's Education System

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DORRELL GREEN DESCRIBES THE YEAR-OLD OFFICE OF INNOVATION AS A “500 PIECE PUZZLE.”// PHOTO BY JOE DEL TUFO

 

The name of the year-old entity in Delaware’s Department of Education—the Office of Innovation and Improvement—makes its mission clear.

It must find new ways to make Delaware’s struggling schools better.

“It’s almost like a 500-piece puzzle,” says Dorrell Green, who took on the challenge of leading the office in August 2017 after serving five years as assistant superintendent in the Brandywine School District. “Each piece represents something. I’ve got to be the conduit to put the whole thing together.”

It’s a task that’s easier said than done.

While Green’s mission is statewide, the work during his first year on the job focused primarily on the Christina School District, helping develop a complex memorandum of understanding that establishes a framework designed to strengthen educational opportunities for elementary and middle school students who live in the Wilmington portion of the Christina district. In that role, he was thrust into the middle of groups that have been historically at odds—the governor’s office and the Department of Education on one side, and the Christina district and board of education—not to mention its teachers union—on the other.

 

“It’s almost like a 500-piece puzzle. Each piece represents something. I’ve got to be the conduit to put the whole thing together” —Dorrell Green

 

It took nearly six months for the memorandum to come together, and the heavy lifting remains to be done: working out the details associated with consolidating Christina’s five Wilmington schools into two, extending both the school day and school year, placing wellness centers in the schools, and transforming another school building into a “dual generation center” that would house kindergarten, childcare and other services for preschoolers on the lower floor and counseling, job training and education for adults upstairs.

Those jigsaw pieces should fall into place during the current school year. The shuffling of students and staff would begin next September.

“We’re changing the nature of the conversation, we’re changing some relationships that historically haven’t been so good,” Green says, acknowledging that his work thus far has been less about implementing change and more about laying the groundwork for it.

While he emphasizes the “sense of urgency” of his assignment, he does not underestimate its difficulty. “The seeds we are planting now we may not reap in my professional lifetime,” he says.

But those who know Green say he has the skills and mindset to get things done. As a former principal of Bayard Middle School, “he’s lived it and has been there. He understands what every principal is going through,” says Jeffers Brown, principal of Christina’s Stubbs Elementary in Wilmington.

“He’s an extremely compassionate and creative person. He’s able to identify the resources you need,” says Matt Auerbach, principal of Brandywine’s Mount Pleasant Elementary School.

While the proposed consolidation of Christina’s Wilmington schools into two buildings serving first through eighth grades drew much attention earlier this year, that is only part of the solution, Green says.

Or it might not be the solution at all.

“Consolidating schools in and of itself will not lead to change,” warns Atnre Alleyne, executive director of DelawareCAN, an advocacy group that prioritizes student needs over adult convenience and promotes increased community engagement on education issues. “We still need dramatic action before we can conclude whether [the memorandum of understanding] is a win for students or merely an adult way to plan and strategize.”

 

Apples to oranges

Up and down the state, there are schools that provide examples of what Green would like to see—schools with high percentages of children living in poverty, with high percentages of students classed as English-language learners that have nevertheless managed to beat the odds and demonstrate high levels of proficiency on the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment. Outsiders—and some education insiders too—look at schools like Booker T. Washington Elementary in Dover, Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington and Laurel Middle School and ask, channeling their inner Frank Sinatra, “if they can do it there, why can’t we do it everywhere?”

Indeed, two decades ago, when state law authorized creation of charter schools, one of the oft-repeated promises was that reforms and innovations that proved successful at the charters could be imported into traditional public schools and replicated there. By and large, that has not happened, in part because charters and traditional schools have tended to operate within separate silos, but also because schools that appear on paper to have similar demographics aren’t necessarily alike.

“There is poverty throughout the state, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison,” says Mike Matthews, president of the Delaware State Education Association. He speaks of the different types and levels of trauma—commonly referred to as “adverse childhood experiences”—that affect students’ lives.

“All poverty is bad,” Matthews says. “But in Felton, for example, the issue may be unemployment, but if a child has to walk to school, it might just be a long walk. In Wilmington, the issue may be unemployment, but the child walking to school might also fear dodging bullets.”

 

“There is poverty throughout the state, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.” —Mike Matthews, president, Delaware State Education Association.

 

Also, as much as educators like to talk about curriculum, there’s no disputing that “education is a people business,” says Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, an education advocacy organization. “We have to invest more in training and support for our teachers and principals.”

“It’s not programs, it’s people,” adds Rick Gregg, the Christina superintendent, offering his explanation for why “you can’t pick up a program that works in one place and just plop it into another.”

Experience and training are key components in building successful schools, but teachers whose resumes are loaded with such credentials are more likely found in the suburbs.

In one recent school year, Alleyne says, there were 12 teachers with national certifications at Red Clay’s suburban North Star Elementary School, but only two teachers with those certifications in all of the high-need elementary schools in Wilmington the state had labeled “priority schools.”

“A lot of our conversations about education are ‘talent agnostic,'” focusing on programs and infrastructure rather than the individuals responsible for implementation, Alleyne says. “These are the conversations people don’t want to have. It’s uncomfortable to say some people are not doing their jobs well, or that they’re just average.”

“We have turnover, and we often find that our novice teachers wind up in city schools,” Gregg says.

The question of incentivizing and training teachers in order to provide more stability was among the issues the Christina administration and its teachers’ union completed negotiating as the school year began. The agreement calls for extending the school year by up to 20 days, with incentives for teachers that include additional training, smaller class sizes for kindergarten through grade three, additional support staffing in the schools, plus tuition reimbursement and a $4,000 one-time bonus for making a two-year commitment to teach in the city.

 

“These are the conversations people don’t want to have. It’s uncomfortable to say some people are not doing their jobs well, or that they’re just average.”— Atnre Alleyne, executive director of DelawareCAN

 

“Teachers don’t go into the profession for the money,” Matthews says, noting that it will take more than higher pay to bring them into—and keep them at—high-need schools. Good working conditions, training and strong, stable leadership are more important, he says.

The difficulties associated with replication are magnified in larger school districts, says Merv Daugherty, outgoing superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District, which serves low-income students in Wilmington, blue-collar neighborhoods in Elsmere and Newport, upper-middle-class communities like Hockessin and Pike Creek, and affluent enclaves like Centreville and Greenville.

Smaller districts, like Laurel, might have a couple of elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. “We have seven high schools, a wide gamut of students and programs,” Daugherty says. “Our size requires us to take actions systematically.”

“It’s easier to get a handle when dealing with one school as opposed to four schools,” Gregg says. “Each one of our schools has a different population, and different challenges.”

Dale Kevin Brown, who led the turnaround at Booker T. Washington before retiring in 2016, doesn’t entirely agree. “You can’t transplant but you can replicate the process”—researching the needs of the school community and providing the appropriate training for the staff, he says. But the specifics of the school improvement plan will vary from school to school, depending on what the research into the building’s needs turns up.

One of the problems Brown faced at Booker T. Washington was a sharp cutback in funding when grants under the old Race to the Top program ran out. That limited the additional services the school could provide—like extra meals and after-school instruction and enrichment—but the funds previously spent on professional development enabled teachers to continue doing a better job of meeting their students’ needs, he said.

 

Collective impact

If differences in children’s experiences outside school, variations in the quality and credentials of the staff, and the size of the school districts themselves present hurdles to replicating success from building to building, how then do schools move forward?

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting listed some possible directions for Green’s office when she announced his hiring. They included: convening principals from district, vo-tech and charter schools to share best practices; leveraging nonprofits and community centers to support schools and students; supporting school improvement efforts and targeting resources to struggling schools in Kent and Sussex counties; spreading best practices across the state for improving outcomes for students in need; and ensuring that schools are trauma-informed and offer wellness services.

Green speaks often of “collective impact,” meaning “how we can provide the most support we can” by connecting schools with organizations that care about children and their families and are willing to help educators achieve their goals.

Daugherty agrees. “Partnerships are vital for a school system,” he says, rattling off the names of groups like the Police Athletic League, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA and multiple community centers in Wilmington. “We’ve got to get out of our silos in education.”

In Christina, the district already has partnerships with an array of organizations, including Children & Families First, the Delaware Center for Justice, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Delaware Futures, Green says. In addition, Gov. John Carney’s Family Services Cabinet Council is developing fresh linkages to support students and their families in Wilmington. For example, through the Department of Services to Children, Youth and their Families, behavioral health therapists have been positioned in Christina and Red Clay middle schools.

And there’s no lack of willingness among community organizations to help struggling schools.

To make his point, Green mentions a meeting in July at Bayard, which is destined to house first through eighth grades when Christina’s city schools are realigned, that drew representatives of 16 agencies.

That’s a lot of potential help, but getting it to the table is only the first step. Not only do stakeholders have to be aligned with a shared vision, Green says, but “we also have to determine who does what well.”

 

Dorrell Green took the challenge of leading the Office of Innovation in August 2017 after a stint as the assistant superintendent for the Brandywine School District.// Photo by Joe Del Tufo

 

Making those assessments isn’t easy, Alleyne says. School leaders may be more comfortable working with agencies that have familiar names than they are with startups. He recalls approaching school leaders four years ago looking for support for TeenSHARP, the Saturday mentoring program that prepares low-income minority high school students for college that he and his wife, Tatiana Poladko, had started in New Jersey in 2009. One school district jumped in, he says, “but the others said, ‘Let’s see how it works with Colonial.'” After working with about 25 students from Colonial’s William Penn High School in 2015, TeenSHARP has grown to draw more than 125 participants this year from multiple school districts.

Establishing and organizing new partnerships will be essential in Christina, Green says, in part because the memorandum of understanding calls for a longer school day and a longer school year for the schools in the Wilmington portion of the district. The General Assembly this year approved $1.5 million in “opportunity grants” that can be used to help fund these programs, but all the additional costs have not been determined. It is likely then, that business or foundation grants and services developed by nonprofit organizations will be among the puzzle pieces Green will help put together.

As one example, Green points to the Summer Learning Collaborative, a nonprofit that reached more than 2,000 low-income children statewide from kindergarten through middle school in each of the past two years by developing partnerships with community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs and school districts, most notably Red Clay and Colonial. The program’s data shows that 86.5 percent of its participants in 2017 reversed their “summer learning loss,” the prime reason for the widening achievement gap between low-income and middle-income students, and that 66 percent of those participants actually improved literacy skills during the summer.

This past summer, the collaborative’s middle school program, called Tyler’s Camp, served students in the Red Clay and Colonial districts and in Sussex County by providing a curriculum of project-based learning exercises within a summer camp environment. Green, Gregg and Catherine Lindroth, the collaborative’s founder and executive director, have begun to explore the possibility of bringing Tyler’s Camp to a Christina school next summer, or possibly developing an after-school program based on the camp model.

“The collaborative puts summer programs together well, and they connect resources. The same can be said for TeenSHARP,” Green says. “But they serve niche groups, and we want to broaden their impact.”

One likely use of some of the $1.5 million in supplemental funding to Christina would be to pay for professional development for teachers assigned to Wilmington schools. Teachers in Red Clay and Christina got a jump-start on trauma-informed training over the summer when the Delaware State Education Association used a portion of a $253,000 grant from the National Education Association to provide a pair of role-playing workshops on what it’s like to live in poverty.

One goal of the workshops, Matthews says, is to “give teachers tools to address their concerns, to help them work with students and the issues they bring to school.” And, he says, if teachers say they had success applying what they learned to their classroom management, “we can go to the governor and the General Assembly and say the state should be doing more” to offer such training statewide.

 

Many questions remain

As the Christina district moves through this year of planning the transformation of its Wilmington schools, and as Green’s office expands its efforts into other areas of the state, several key issues remain unresolved.

Some have questioned whether the $1.5 million in opportunity grants will be enough to make a difference. For more than a decade, reformers have urged a rewrite of the state’s 70-year-old school funding system. Patchwork revisions over the years have made the system more complex. Reform advocates say the state needs a system that allocates more money to schools whose students have the greatest educational needs.

“The kids who need the most help are getting the least,” Herdman says. “National experts say our system is one of the most outdated in the country.”

Delaware is one of the few states in the nation that does not specifically allocate extra funds to schools that have high proportions of low-income students and high proportions of English-language learners.

 

“The kids who need the most help are getting the least,” —Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware

 

The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, created by former Gov. Jack Markell to recommend improvements to public education in the city, made the case for statewide funding improvements from 2015 through 2017 but never gained sufficient traction in the General Assembly. One funding enhancement the commission sought, increasing allocations for children with special education needs from kindergarten through third grade, was approved this year.

The funding system has forced districts to rely more heavily on outside organizations. “We’re locked in by funding,” Daugherty says. “It’s the grants that we have to get to keep going.”

“A one-year grant is nice, but you can’t build around it,” Herdman says. “You’re just putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.”

Then there’s the question of measurement: How will one determine whether reforms, in Christina or anywhere else in the state, are effective?

Improvements in test scores are just one marker, and so are measurements like graduation rates and college acceptances, Green says. But it’s not just academics, it’s also reducing absentee rates, reducing discipline referrals and increasing family and community engagement.

“Change will be more qualitative than quantitative,” he says.

Relying strictly on numbers won’t work, because that’s essentially the “No Child Left Behind myth” that every child would eventually be performing at grade level.

“I might not be successful in changing the lives of 100 percent of the children I come into contact with,” Green says, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t care for 100 percent of them.”

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