School districts move forward with Delaware’s ‘Priority Schools’

(File/NewsWorks)

(File/NewsWorks)

A nearly $6 million infusion of federal and state money to help turn around six of Delaware’s lowest performing schools was initially met with support. 

It was announced last month that the money would be divvied up among  Bancroft Elementary, Bayard Middle, Stubbs Elementary, Warner Elementary, Shortlidge Academy and Highlands Elementary. Evenly split, these “Priority Schools” are in the Christina School District and the Red Clay Consolidated School District respectively. 

All of the Priority Schools are in Wilmington and have large populations of low-income students. Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said they were selected based on state assessment test results.

Evolution from Partnership Zone

Under Race to the Top, Delaware’s Dept. of Education identified 10 poorly-performing schools, based largely on test scores, as Partnership Zone schools. Working collaboratively, the state targeted resources to those schools in an effort to turn around student performance.

While some of the PZ schools , like Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, did see some improvement, the overall results were mixed. Two former PZ schools, Bancroft and Stubbs Elementary Schools are now included in the Priority initiative. 

“They’re still among the lowest achieving schools in our entire state,” said Murphy during an interview this week with WHYY-TV’s “First.” Murphy said Priority Schools is an evolution of PZ. “We can do this better. We can allocate the resources, but we can really have a deep focus on what matters most – the programs, the supports for kids and the people in the school.”

Under the initiative, teachers at each of the schools would be required to reapply for their jobs. The state also bumped up the principal’s salary to $160,000 a year in hopes of attracting top notch talent. 

“We know that if our children are going to be successful, then their teachers and their principals are excellent,” said Murphy, who added it’s not meant to be an indictment of the teachers’ abilities. “This is not about blaming teachers. This is about looking at the opportunity that a school has.”

Citing teachers and prinicipals as the two most important factors in the success of a school, Murphy said the state wants to take a look at all of the educators in the building to gauge not only their skills, but also their commitment and enthusiam to turning the school around.

Memorandum of Understanding impasse

School district leaders were also required to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, with the state Dept. of Education by Sept. 30, before moving forward with the development phase. 

The Dept. of Education-drafted MOU, however, read more like a state takeover according to district leaders.

Murphy defended, “I actually think it’s the opposite of a state takeover … it is all about empowering the school community to make choices about their future of the school.”

He continued, “We have provided the opportunity for the community to have direct engagement in the planning process. And we’ve gone as far as to say that if we do not see adequate community engagement, then we will not proceed with the plan to turn the school around. We’re asking our parents, we’re asking our community members, we’re asking our educators to come together to make a plan for the school.”

In spite of that, Murphy said the DOE is currently working with Red Clay’s school board to develop a new MOU. The DOE reached out to Christina’s board as well, who only recently welcomed the state’s invitation to do the same. 

“Only when we work together, unconstrained by arbitrary deadlines, will we be able to craft a consensus document that satisfies all parties and that places children squarely at its center,” said Christina board member John Young in a statement published on the district’s website on Thursday.

“We were excited to learn that Secretary Murphy has decided to engage us in the process of creating a new MOU with input from teachers, students, staff, the Department of Education, and our community members,” said Superintendent Freeman Williams in that same statement.

The funding would be spread out among the schools over four years. Plans are due by Dec. 31 and the initiatives will be implemented during the 2015-2016 school year.

WHYY-TV will air the interview with Delaware Education Secretary Mark Murphy tonight on First, at 5:30 p.m. and again at 11 p.m.

 

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