Board approves plan that will consolidate Wilmington schools

The News Journal | by Jessica Bies

Plans to close two elementary schools in Wilmington will move forward now that the Christina Board of Education has approved a partnership agreement with Gov. John Carney and the state Education Department.

Preliminary timelines call for Pulaski and Elbert-Palmer elementary schools to close after the 2018-19 school year. Bancroft Elementary and Bayard Middle schools will likely house grades 1 through 8, while kindergartners will move to what is currently Stubbs Elementary School.

Stubbs is also the likely site of a dual-generation center, which will serve children from birth through preschool, as well as adults in the areas of job training, parenting skills, GED and diploma prep and financial literacy.

Carney, who has been pushing for changes in Wilmington, sat through a three-hour school board meeting Tuesday night to see the partnership agreement approved. He has said before that there just aren’t enough students in Wilmington to justify keeping all five Christina schools there open.

Bancroft and Bayard are at only about one-third of their total capacity, according to some reports.

District enrollment is approximately 16,000. There are 365 students at Bancroft Elementary, 298 at Elbert-Palmer Elementary, 311 at Pulaski Elementary, 312 at Stubbs and 365 at Bayard Middle, according to recent numbers.

Consolidating the schools will maximize resources, Carney said. The governor also wants to invest new dollars in Wilmington in an attempt to improve proficiency rates, which at some schools are in the single digits.

He said the partnership agreement was just a start and that there was hard work ahead of all the partners as far as implementing the reconfiguration plan.

“Is it the end all and be all?” he asked. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

When asked what he would tell families who attend the schools slated to close, he said: “We are going to invest in your children’s schools, and we’re going to do a better job in providing services for their children.”

Responding to concerns Pulaski and Elbert-Palmer would be turned into charter schools, Carney said that was not his intention and that he would support legislation to prevent that from happening.

He said he has talked to the University of Delaware about offering childhood development services at one of the schools and has talked to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Delaware about offering community-based programming at the other.

“Our goal is to bring more investment, not less, into these buildings,” he said.

Also under the plan, building principals will get more say in personnel and curricular decisions, and the schools will get additional state funding to create school-based wellness centers and better train teachers to serve students suffering from trauma. A total of $1.5 million, to increase by 2 percent every year, will fund new efforts at the two K-8 schools and be provided in the form of so-called Opportunity Grants.

An additional $2 million will be used to create the dual-generation education center, to be at least partially operational by 2018-19.

The plan also provides for renovations at Bancroft and Bayard, which could be extensive. The agreement says Carney and his team will ask the General Assembly to fund 80 percent of the costs, up to $15 million. Christina would have to pay for the other 20 percent, which could require a referendum, board member Fred Polaski has said.

Twenty percent of $15 million would be $3 million. A full needs analysis will need to be done to determine total costs, but Superintendent Richard Gregg said last week it would cost about $200,000 a piece to build science labs at Bancroft as part of the reconfiguration plan.

As far as the $1.5 million is concerned, Gregg said one goal will be to have a teacher-to-student ratio of one teacher to 15-18 students in grades K-2. That will cost about $800,000, he said.

Not everyone is a fan of closing schools, as was evidenced at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Board members Elizabeth Paige and John Young voted against the memorandum of understanding. Angela Mitchell abstained from voting, while Harrie Ellen Minnehan, Fred Polaski, Meredith Griffin and George Evans voted in favor of moving forward with the reconfiguration plan.

“I say that we cannot afford to wait,” said Evans, who in the past has used the metaphor of a burning building to describe low achievement rates at the district’s Wilmington schools. “Our children need our effort now.”

“We owe them something,” Minnehan said of the city’s students. “What we’ve done so far hasn’t worked.”

Paige, Young and Mitchell, on the other hand, expressed concerns about the lack of community and parent engagement around the plan.

“This is another example of an extremely well-intentioned effort that does not, for the most part, take into account what is best for our children,” Young said.

And Paige, once again, said she just couldn’t shake the feeling that the agreement itself was too focused on buildings and adults and not on children.

She had more to say about the MOU, but was later cut off by board President Evans.

A statement questioning whom the plan truly benefitted was penned by Pulaski Elementary teacher Tracey Lewis and read out loud by a co-worker at the meeting.

“I am extremely concerned about the ‘warehousing’ of the children of color and lower socio-economic backgrounds into two buildings,” Lewis wrote. “I know, in the long run, it will make your lives, the district and the state, much easier. But our children are not factory models. They are individuals and need to be placed in situations and facilities that are nurturing and positive.

“How can moving children from small educational settings into a larger warehouse for education be more positive and more productive? You would never suggest that our suburban counterparts to do the same.”

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, has spoken out against the plan several times and did so again Tuesday night. He questioned again what research or evidence backed up the plan and showed it would benefit the students.

“If this (memorandum of understanding) is not hocus-pocus or a hoax about to be perpetrated on the children of Wilmington, then I would expect that some proof, any proof, that removing these kids from their local and easily accessible schools and warehousing them in these two unattractive and formidable appearing buildings has a record of improving education opportunities or student proficiencies for any students anywhere,” he said.

Though Carney has said he is confident the General Assembly will vote to give Christina money for the school reconfiguration plan, Kowalko said he planned on voting against doing so.

Mary Pickering, with the Parent Advocacy Council for Education, said she was troubled by the process used to come up with the plan and said parents should have been included in conversations about closing schools.

PACE aims to improve public education in Wilmington by building a strong parent leadership movement through education policy and advocacy workshops for parents, she said.

“These changes will significantly impact the lives of community members,” Pickering said, pointing out that low-income families in Wilmington may be some of the least able to cope with such drastic change.

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