Christina cost-cutting plan targets award-winning Sarah Pyle alternative school, other programs

 Closing Sarah Pyle Academy, an award-winning alternative high school, is among the possible cuts Christina School District is asking its board to consider Thursday night. (File/WHYY)

Closing Sarah Pyle Academy, an award-winning alternative high school, is among the possible cuts Christina School District is asking its board to consider Thursday night. (File/WHYY)

A contingency plan by Christina School District to shutter an award-winning alternative high school for students who have failed in traditional ones is facing fierce opposition.

Kristina Macbury, principal of the targeted Sarah Pyle Academy on Wilmington’s East Side, said the plan to transfer the program she has overseen for four years to Glasgow, Newark and Christiana high schools is ill-fated because that’s where students now at Pyle couldn’t succeed.

“That hasn’t worked,” she said, adding that a school’s “culture is in the building.”

Sarah Pyle, which opened in 2006 and currently has 172 students, has won national awards for digital curriculum and dropout prevention.

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The district’s proposal to close Pyle and “integrate” the program within its three other high schools is among the possible cuts to be voted on during Christina’s board meeting Thursday night.

Hanifa Shabazz, president of Wilmington City Council, says the school is a vital resource that shouldn’t be shuttered. Shabazz has taken to social media to rally parents and other residents, urging them to attend the board meeting and speak their mind.

“Your attendance is needed to show your opposition to these budget cuts to the programs that provide academic support that results in an 85% graduation rate,” Hanifa Shabazz wrote in a Facebook post titled “Closing SARAH PYLE ACADEMY.”

Shabazz tagged dozens of friends and followers, generating a spirited debate but mostly support for the Pyle school.

When Christina Board member John M. Young commented on the post that the school’s services would move to Glasgow, Newark and Christiana, Shabazz countered that students were in Pyle because they “did not function well in the conventional school setting.”

Young later wrote that he was voting “a solid no.”

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Cuts contingent on state budget outcome

Christina’s suggested cuts are not set in stone, but are contingent on the district losing up to $6 million in state funding under Gov. John Carney’s budget for fiscal 2018.

Carney has proposed cutting $37 million statewide to districts as part of his “shared sacrifice” budget of cuts and tax increases to erase a projected budget deficit of about $400 million. Lawmakers have until June 30 to pass a budget.

While other districts have expressed grave concerns that teachers, support specialists, sports and other initiatives could be cut, Christina appears to be the first in Delaware to put their proposals in writing for the board to consider. 

The board held two workshops in April to discuss cost-cutting proposals, as well as levying a so-called “match tax” without the approval of voters to salvage about $3.9 million of what the governor’s budget would eliminate.

Closing Pyle would save just $265,000 annually, district documents said. Beyond reducing school budgets overall, other proposed cuts and potential savings include:

Discontinuing elementary instrumental music and strings musical programs in elementary and secondary schools, $534,000.
Cutting hours and services for elementary specialists in physical education, music, art and libraries, $534,000.
Cutting the Montessori Program that benefits 60 students, $401,000.
Eliminating academic deans, $534,000

Christina Superintendent Richard Gregg, who took his post just two weeks ago, did not respond to an interview request. Wendy Lapham, the district spokeswoman, emphasized that despite the uncertainty of exactly how much Christina might have to cut, administrators are working to devise plans to “maximize cost savings while impacting the minimum number of kids.”

As for Pyle and other cuts, Lapham said, “We might be looking at a different way of delivering services. Instead of a stand-alone program, in a separate building, we’re looking at ways it might be integrated into other buildings.”

Elizabeth Paige, school board president, said she is weighing how to save money and also whether to levy the match tax. She has been getting emails and calls from parents about Pyle, Montessori, music and other programs, and expects a crowded meeting Thursday.

While she is hesitant to shutter Pyle and other successful programs, Paige is also praying for a miracle that will negate the need to slash initiatives.

“I’m hoping that somehow a money tree sprouts in Dover between now and June 30,” Paige said.

Macbury said she plans to make an impassioned plea Thursday to the board about keeping Pyle’s doors open. She stressed that she’s not concerned that she might lose her principal’s post. Her only worry is what might happen to students her school has helped.

Camped out in her office long after classes ended Tuesday, she pulled out a cellphone and clicked on a video made by one of those success stories — a young man who is graduating next month.

“Without Sarah Pyle Academy,” the senior said, “I would probably still be homeless and on heroin.”

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