Expanded Wilmington school in ‘disarray’ for opening bell, lawmaker says

Listen 1:48
Chairs, desks and other equipment cluttered the gymnasium at Bayard on Aug. 16, four days after school opened. (Courtesy of Sherry Dorsey Walker)

Chairs, desks and other equipment cluttered the gymnasium at Bayard on Aug. 16, four days after school opened. (Courtesy of Sherry Dorsey Walker)

A linchpin of Delaware Gov. John Carney’s plan to improve public education in Wilmington is the consolidation of five schools into three, starting this school year.

One of the biggest challenges is at the Bayard School.

Located at the edge of a poor neighborhood on the west side of town, Bayard has long been one of the lowest-performing middle schools in the state, with fewer than 10% of students proficient in math and English.

Now, Bayard has been converted to serve kids in grades 1 through 8. But when classes started Aug. 12 to accommodate a longer school year, Bayard wasn’t quite ready.

The library was filled with big boxes in addition to books four days after school opened. (Courtesy of Sherry Dorsey Walker)

Dozens of chairs, desks and other equipment cluttered the gym. A slew of boxes sat in the middle of the library. Students and staff had to fetch water out of a bucket. Counselors who often deal with kids whose family are victims of gun violence had to share a room.

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker visited Bayard on Aug. 16 and was aghast at what she saw.

“Why did whoever made the decision to open school early think it would be OK for my babies to go into a school that was in disarray?’’ Dorsey Walker said. “That’s unconscionable. And there was no way I was going to stand by idly and allow this to happen to our children.

“There’s a whole lot of people who let the ball drop, and it was an unfair dynamic, because adults don’t do what they are supposed to, it falls on our children,” she added.

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker said the conditions when she visited were “unconscionable.” (File/WHYY)

She wrote a letter to the Christina School District’s superintendent, Richard Gregg, and copied Carney and others. Parents and fellow lawmakers signed it, too.

The letter sought to have the school shut down until all issues were corrected.

“Those in a position of responsibility should begin devising a plan to address lost instruction time,’’ the letter said. “Although this would present a challenge, we believe that it is worse to have students attempt to learn in the current environment they are facing at Bayard.”

The heads of the Delaware State Education Association and the Christina Education Association also wrote to Gregg. Their letter said they had also received complaints about the conditions at Bancroft, another former middle school now serving students in grades 1 through 8, and Stubbs, previously for kindergarten through fifth grade but now serving preschoolers and kindergarteners.

“The conditions at these schools require immediate attention and urgent action,’’ their letter said.

Darren Tyson, president of the Christina Education Association representing teachers and other staffers, said the district never warned staff or families.

Darren Tyson, president of the Christina School District’s teachers’ union, said staffers walked into “a mess’’ at Bayard when school started. (Courtesy of Darren Tyson)

“Teachers just showed up, and they are like, `Wow, this is a mess,’ and my phone is blowing up, my emails are blowing up, my text messages,’’ Tyson said. “I’ve been contacting district office about teachers not receiving their boxes or the things they packed up the year before. Teachers not having the proper furniture for their classrooms.”

District cites progress, but governor is ‘frustrated’

Gregg would not agree to an interview with WHYY, but he responded to Walker on Wednesday with a letter saying that many of the problems had been fixed, and that administrators and maintenance staff did all they could considering a tight timetable for the transformation.

The superintendent also provided photos, which he took during his own “unannounced” visit, showing the gym and library cleared, with others showing a new playground, sparkling floors, and fresh paint.

Addressing issues such as the Bayard gym, Gregg’s letter said it had been “used as a staging area for materials, furniture, and teacher belongings prior to being moved to teacher classrooms. In the process, items that were deemed not needed in classroom areas were moved into the gymnasium for relocation and/or disposal … The gymnasium was cleared today.”

Christina Superintendent Richard Gregg says many of the issues have been fixed, and sent Rep. Walker about two dozen photos, including the cleaned up library, gym and a classroom. (Christina School District)

Gregg’s letter detailed other fixes but noted that, “as with any move of this magnitude in a limited time span, there will be punch list items that need to be addressed. All of the items are being addressed and resolved in a timely manner.”

He spoke with many staff members who “were very positive about the start of the school year and their experience to date.”

The superintendent’s letter also said the bigger school — 663 students this year, compared with 360 last year — also appears to be a safer one, at least initially. During the first eight school days last year,  Gregg wrote, there were 18 referrals by teachers to the school administration for fights and other behavioral issues. This year, there were just three, he wrote.

“This change speaks volumes to the changes that have been implemented to begin this school year to create a safe learning environment for our students,” the superintendent wrote.

There were no working water fountains for students and staff in some parts of Bayard. (Courtesy of Sherry Dorsey Walker)

Lawmakers who represent Wilmington’s East Side also are concerned about Bancroft and Stubbs. State Rep. Stephanie Bolden and State Sen. Tizzy Lockman wrote Gregg on Thursday, seeking a visit to “to examine these schools in operation with our own eyes and discuss the conditions directly with district staff.”

The state has provided $31.6 million in capital funding to the Christina district for the school conversions and $3 million for wellness centers, teacher bonuses, and other operational enhancements.

Carney, who took office in January 2017, would not agree to an interview. But his spokesman issued a statement saying, “The governor has been fighting for the past three years to make positive changes in these schools. It continues to be a challenge. We share the frustrations expressed in both letters, and we are working the give the district the support it needs.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.