This article, written by Jessica Bies, originally appeared in the Delaware News Journal.
Repetition may be a core element of education, but in the case of Wilmington, where state test scores are once again among some of the lowest in the state, the lesson is clear: Low-income students are still being left behind.
“We’ve kind of gotten into this cycle of high poverty, high-needs schools in Wilmington, and that trajectory has been pretty consistent,” said Elizabeth Lockman, a Wilmington parent and vice chair of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, a state advisory committee formed to explore ways of improving education in the city.
“While I don’t think tests by any means are the end all be all, I don’t think we’re setting these kids up to be successful members of society.”
The truth of the matter is, advocates said Thursday, Wilmington is not the only issue. If anything, it epitomizes a statewide trend. Low-income students suffering from stress and trauma and other societal issues can be found all over Delaware. They are more concentrated in the city, making the issue seem more salient there.
“It’s a small state,” said Atnre Alleyne, executive director of the Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now. “You’re talking about a system composed of 19 school districts, and a large share of those are in Christina and Red Clay.”
Students all over Delaware aren’t getting the proper support or education, many say, as the result of inadequate funding mechanisms.
Others say it’s a lack of accountability and the failure of local school boards and staff to take responsibility for downward trends.
What’s clear after speaking to local advocates and school board members is that a solution is still a long way off. In the meantime, close to half of all kids in the state can’t read, write or do math well enough to go to college or get a well-paying job.
“We have far too many students that aren’t receiving the quality they deserve,” Alleyne said. “We have really large districts where you’re not seeing changes that will change the status quo for those students.”
Erica Dorsett, a Wilmington parent, said low test scores released Thursday are frightening.
She lives in the Christina district, next door to Bayard and in the feeder pattern for Newark High School. She’s opted to send her kids to Thomas Edison Charter School and Tatnall because of Christina’s poor academic record.
“It’s not only scary,” she said of the district’s test scores. “As a parent, I think it’s unacceptable. They need to make success more quickly.”
The priority schools
The Department of Education says assessment results released Thursday are proof that even Delaware’s neediest schools can be turned around. Laurel Middle School, for instance, has made significant gains since 2014, when it was designated a “priority school” for having some of the state’s lowest test scores.
But priority schools in Wilmington have made little to no progress. In some areas, they’ve regressed, state test scores show, dropping further below the statewide average than they were three years ago, when the new Smarter Balance test was introduced.
Most notably, Bayard Middle School has seen no gains in math, remaining at a 3 percent proficiency level. There was a 1-point loss in English, bringing the proficiency level down to 8 percent.
“I think anybody who says they’re shocked would be being disingenuous,” Lockman said.
She certainly isn’t surprised. Her daughter spent kindergarten through sixth grade at what would later become another priority school, Highlands Elementary.
Part of the Red Clay district, it saw a 2-point gain in math this year, but a 3-point loss in English.
“The period of time (my daughter) attended, the poverty was climbing every year,” Lockman said. “And the challenge that presented and the way it exponentially increased was palpable.”
“The fact we’re seeing decline [in Wilmington’s priority schools] is just depressing.”
Pati Nash, spokeswoman for Red Clay, says the Smarter Balance scores don’t tell the whole story.
Red Clay performs its own assessments, including tests called the Scholastic Reading Inventory and the Scholastic Math Inventory.
At Warner Elementary, another priority school, kids moved 20 percent from “below basic” in reading and increased 16 percent to proficient and 6 percent to advanced.
“Students at our priority schools are meeting growth goals and our next step would be to grow proficiency levels,” Nash said.
Red Clay has its own School Turnaround Office and a School Turnaround Council, which consists of district leaders that meet monthly.
“A school turnaround is not something that happens overnight,” Nash said.
She said high poverty rates have made things more difficult — research shows that low-income students don’t perform as well in school.
At Highlands, the poverty rate is 73.5 percent; at Warner, it’s 83.2 percent. Shortlidge Academy, which houses kindergarten through second grade and is part of the same “campus” as Warner, has a poverty level of 86.9 percent.
Poverty statistics at Christina School District’s priority schools are similar.
Elizabeth Paige, a member of Christina’s Board of Education, said, “The students at our schools struggle with so much more than test scores.”
Beyond poverty, there’s also trauma in Wilmington, which is wracked by drug- and gang-related violence and shootings. But “all the right people are too busy focusing on test scores to help,” Paige said.
Though Christina’s new superintendent, Richard Gregg, has said he’s putting together a plan to address the priority schools, without more funding from the state and other kinds of intervention, Paige said she’s not sure how much progress the district can make.
‘Too few bright spots’
Wilmington is just a part of the overall picture.
“You can see a good deal of struggle outside of Wilmington … which I think reinforces the point that while it is easy to pigeonhole Wilmington as an epicenter of concentrated failure, there are systemic barriers to success everywhere and the averages aren’t telling a full story of where/how the odds are being beaten and where they’re not,” Lockman said.
Statewide, math proficiency for students in grades 3 to 8 is only 45 percent, though the state is quick to point out that’s a 4-point gain since 2015.
In English, 54 percent were proficient, compared with 55 percent in 2016. Though that percentage went down, the actual number of proficient students went up by 285, according to Department of Education data.
So where are the odds being beaten?
Even at Cape Henlopen, the public school district that performed best in math this year, only 61 percent of students were proficient in the subject. Caesar Rodney performed the best in English among public districts, with 67 percent of students meeting proficiency.
A majority of districts were below 50 percent proficiency in at least one subject: Laurel, Seaford, Woodbridge, Delmar, Milford, Capital, Christina, Smyrna, Brandywine, Red Clay and Colonial.
That leaves Cape Henlopen, Lake Forest, Caesar Rodney, Indian River, Appoquinimink and Lake Forest on the other side.
If it weren’t for certain high-performing charter schools — Academy of Dover, Sussex Academy, Newark Charter, MOT and Odyssey Charter, to name a few — the state figures might be even lower.
That’s a pessimistic view, and Alleyne, who used to work for the Department of Education and studied assessment data, said the state should really be most concerned with districts that aren’t moving the bar at all.
Schools that are improving, even if their proficiency rates are still fairly low, should be celebrated.
For instance, Delmar reached 49 percent proficiency in math this year, exceeding the state average for the first time.
In Seaford, the math proficiency went up 13 percent in 2017 while the English went up 12 percent.
There are also schools — Sussex Academy and Newark Charter — that have proficiency rates in the 80 and 90 percent range.
“The danger is sometimes we don’t always have so many bright spots in Delaware,” Alleyne said.
Moving the bar
Dorsett, the Wilmington parent, said after seeing this year’s test scores, she wants to know what action will be taken to improve them.
“As a parent, I really want to know what the districts are going to do to make it better,” she said. “There has to be some level of accountability.”
John Young, another Christina school board member, said things would be even worse if the school had gone along with a state takeover of priority schools proposed by the Department of Education in 2014. He believes it would have been more disruptive than anything else.
In the years since, Christina has worked with Education Department to implement new instructional plans, he said, but it hasn’t had a large impact.
What could work is needs-based funding, Young said. It has been proposed in Delaware but never made it through the General Assembly. That model would give extra funding to schools based on how many low-income students, special education students or English Language Learners they have.
“Not all children learn the same, are the same and, therefore, the level of support needed to get them to the same place may be variable and differential,” Young said.
Instead of approving a new funding model this year, the General Assembly approved a new Opportunity Grant program, which Young is not a fan of.
The program would award $1 million in funding to offer additional support to low-income students, students chronically exposed to stress and trauma, and English Language Learners to 10 schools.
“I was disappointed to see (Gov. John Carney) continue the tradition of hunger games by creating competitive grants,” he said.
Carney also established a new Wilmington-based Department of Education office, called the Office of Improvement & Innovation. It will be led by Dorrell Green, currently assistant superintendent of the Brandywine School District, and will support educators on the ground, particularly in struggling schools in Wilmington.
Alleyne said none of that will work without increased accountability.
Currently, state test scores only factor a very small part into teacher evaluations, and public school districts are not at risk of losing funding if they perform badly (though charter schools may be shut down).
“The theory right now is, let’s support our way to progress,” Alleyne said. “And I think we need a mix.”
“What happens if we don’t see any change?”