First there were multimillion-dollar budget cuts and teacher layoffs.
Then there was the struggle to improve student performance in Wilmington schools, and to help low-income kids and English-language learners get up to speed.
And for the last 20 months, from the moment the coronavirus pandemic struck, there has been the nightmare of suddenly closing and then gradually reopening schools across Delaware.
Those are only a few of the issues, both minute and monumental, that Susan Bunting has faced since becoming Delaware’s education secretary in January 2017 when Gov. John Carney first took office.
Through it all Bunting has been a steady yet unassuming force, working to forge partnerships with teachers, parents, administrators ,and lawmakers while guided by Carney’s directive to be a support agency for the state’s 19 school districts and charter schools.
That stint will end in December after five years for Bunting, who announced her pending resignation earlier this month. Carney has nominated Mark Holodick, former Brandywine School District superintendent, to succeed Bunting. Holodick must be confirmed by the state Senate, but lawmakers are not currently in session and have not scheduled a vote.
With her tenure coming to an end after about a half-century in the education field, Bunting spoke with WHYY News about her accomplishments and challenges as head of the Department of Education.
“I don’t want to use the term ‘we roll with the punches,’ but we do. I guess we’re the masters of adjustment,’’ she said. “We’re used to unusual things and we have to rise to the occasion.”
Bunting’s remark referred to figuring out how to proceed when Carney shut school doors in March 2019 because of COVID-19, but the sentiment could also sum up how she tried to respond to an array of matters affecting education.
She also was a constant presence at schools up and down Delaware.
“I’m looking at what’s happening in their classrooms, and seeing their campuses, and understanding what they’re trying to achieve as a district school and listening,’’ she said.
“I gained a lot of information. I get the insights and I can feel what’s happening. I can see the light in the eyes of those students.”
Carney said Bunting “has spent a lifetime dedicated to public education in Delaware, and the people of our state have been lucky to have her at the helm. No one has made a bigger impact than Susan on preparing the next generation of Delaware educators and helping them grow into effective teacher-leaders.”
Carney noted Bunting’s “tireless dedication to Delaware’s students, especially those most in need.”
Focusing on ‘the Wilmington part of the equation’
One major priority for Bunting and Carney has been improving schools in Wilmington, where many with high percentages Black, Latino, and low-income students have fewer than 1 in 5 who receive scores of proficient in math and English on the standardized tests required for some grades.
Focusing on education in Delaware’s biggest city was a major shift for Bunting, who had worked since 1977 more than 100 miles to the south in the Indian River district of more rural Sussex County, serving as superintendent for a decade before ascending to the state post.
Bunting and the governor responded by working with the Christina district to close and repurpose three of its city elementary schools and expand two junior highs into buildings for grades K-8. The state allocated $50 million to replace the nearly century-old Bancroft School on the city’s East Side, and renovate two others.
In addition, many of the city schools qualified for so-called Opportunity Grants to benefit low-income students and those learning English. And last year the state also settled a lawsuit from the ACLU and NAACP that accused the state and its antiquated funding system of disproportionately impacting low-income, Black and Latino students.
“The Wilmington part of the equation is one that we have always been concerned about,’’ Bunting said, emphasizing that state and district leaders are focused on putting more resources in city schools that “qualify for that extra support and improvement” and that her successor will now lead the discussion about the best way to rebuild Bancroft.
She called the Opportunity Grants “near and dear to my heart’’ and pointed out that the fund, which started at $1 million in 2017, will grow to $60 million a year by 2025.
“This money must be invested in furthering academic success,’’ she said. “There’s a part of the opportunity funding that has to do with mental health and would provide money for social workers, psychologists, the types of people that could be working on the social and emotional parts.”
Atnre Alleyne, who heads the TeenSHARP extracurricular nonprofit that prepares students of color — many from Wilmington — for top colleges, was the Department of Education’s director of talent management before Bunting took over the agency.
Alleyne credited Bunting being accessible and “supporting districts around equity, racial justice, and inclusion. A lot of us are grateful for her leadership on that front.”
Whether the Bunting/Carney administration’s efforts in Wilmington will pay off with students who are better prepared for college or the workforce remains to be seen, Alleyne says.
“They put a lot of resources there and many are grateful for additional resources, additional focus. And so I think there’s a lot of positives when she looks back at her legacy.”
But “for us on the ground, there’s still a lot of urgency around’’ whether the dollars are going where the need is greatest and are districts and schools being held accountable for how they are spent. “Are they going to lead to the kind of changes” that are vital to the success of Wilmington students?
While Bunting stressed that the department’s role under Carney was to be a support agency for Delaware districts and roughly two dozen charter schools, Alleyne said he and other advocates often wished for a more forceful centralized message from the state agency.
“Especially as we think about now, as the pandemic is going into multiple years and we need to look at learning loss and other challenges that have happened, there have been times when just a stronger voice on accountability was warranted,’’ Alleyne said.
Bunting said she’s proud of the pandemic responses by the department and districts since Carney shuttered school doors in March 2020.
She rattled off a series of steps taken in tandem with district leaders and other school partners in the last 20 months: continuing to provide meals to low-income children when classes abruptly ended; encouraging virtual learning at the end of 2019-20 school year; developing mitigation strategies in the 2020-21 year when kids were either learning remotely or through a mix of in-class and virtual classes; expanding summer in-person and online learning programs; and vaccinating 16,000 educators and schools staff for this school year with buildings again fully reopened.
“So we just did it,” Bunting said. “It’s what educators do. And fortunately, we have people who are involved with our educator world that understand that. So it was a group effort.”
Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association, the union for teachers and other school staff, echoed Alleyne in praising Bunting’s willingness to engage and see schools and programs in person.
Ingram said she was delighted by Bunting’s approach when she took her own post in October 2018.
“She gave me her cell phone number, gave me her email and was like, ‘Whenever you need to talk to me, you know, pick up the phone or send me an email.’ And I really appreciate the idea that she gave me the opening to craft a relationship so that we could talk.”
“I’m going to say that we never had the chance to agree 100% on everything, but the thing I do appreciate about Secretary Bunting was that she listened with an educator’s heart and she heard what I had to say and she knew where I was coming from.”
One point of contention was the union’s effort to scale back teacher evaluations during the pandemic. Bunting wouldn’t concede to what the union wanted, but modified the process somewhat.
“We did come to a final solution, one that everyone could agree upon. And I do appreciate that,’’ Ingram said.
‘We are touching students’ lives and that’s our purpose’
One significant point of pride for Bunting was the exponential growth of career pathways in schools during her tenure.
When she started in the post in 2017, fewer than 100 students were enrolled in programs. But now there are 20,000 kids — 1 of 7 public school students statewide — taking the courses and getting hands-on experience that can lead to careers in an array of fields, such as health care, information technology, architecture and of course, teaching.
She singled out the phlebotomy pathway.
“They’re fully, fully ready to go into a lab because they are certified to work in phlebotomy labs by the time they finish work in our high schools,” she said. “And they in many cases have also accrued some college credit or some extra trainings of one sort or another.”
So what about Bunting’s own pathway after nearly five decades in the education field?
She’s keeping that to herself, while hinting she would likely keep her foot in the learning business, while spending more time with her five grandchildren.
“We often, as educators, become helpers here and there,” she said. “Consultants for this, help on a project.”
“So we’ll see what might be the next step. We put in at least a 12 hour day every day and part of the weekend. And, you know, after a while, you have to think about the years you might have left and what you might want to do with family that you haven’t been able to do.”
Bunting’s parting words for educators across the state and Holodick, should he be confirmed to succeed her:
“We have a golden opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives, and we have to keep that at the core of our thinking as we balance what we’re advocating for,’’ she said. “I don’t think of it as a responsibility, as much as an opportunity … and we have to be passionate about realizing that we are touching students’ lives, and that’s our purpose in this world.”
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