I’ve watched the Wilmington City Council meeting from October 9th a couple of times. But I got that insane idea in my head (again) to transcribe the question and answer part of it. This was when the councilmen asked Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy and Dr. Penny Schwinn questions about the Priority Schools designation for six “failing” schools in Wilmington. This q & a lasted about 45 minutes, so I’m breaking it up into two parts.
Doing this allowed me to see how many times Murphy or Schwinn never really answered certain questions or danced around them with their very wordy answers. If you are a stakeholder in the priority schools, I would highly recommend reading this. Watching Mark Murphy try to sell this insane idea is actually kind of fun. Even more fun is watching Murphy stumble through certain answers, or he would just start mumbling incoherent parts of sentences until he could collect his thoughts. Without further ado, here is the cast, followed by Part 1.
Wilmington City Council Members: Theopalis Gregory (President), Nnamdi Chukwuocha (1st District), Ernest Congo II (2nd District), Darius Brown (3rd District), Hanifa Shabazz (4th District), Samuel Prado (5th District), Sherry Dorsey Walker (6th District), Robert Williams (7th District), Charles Freel (8th District), Michael Brown Sr. (Council Member At-Large), Maria Cabrera (Council Member At-Large), Loretta Walsh (Council Member At-Large), Justen Wright (Council Member At-Large)
Questions Presented to Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy and Proficiency Officer Dr. Penny Schwinn by the Wilmington City Council.
Chukwuocha: I did have just one question, for clarity, as far as the technical assistance you mentioned, is that technical assistance for the districts in creation of the plan? The $50,000?
Schwinn: The $50,000 is literally $50,000 that we are giving to each specific school to allocate for developing the school plan.
Chukwuocha: So is there, in the way that it was presented, in the way that it was assumed, that was a person, that people are hiring is a planner, who is the planner, is it to come out of the $50,000?
Schwinn: It is 100% the district and school decision on how the $50,000 is allocated, but it just needs to be allocated for school planning purposes. So it could be one school planner, it could be several planners and community engagement volunteers and teachers stipends. But we will have no say in how that $50,000 is allocated.
Chukwuocha: Another question, regarding the salary of the school leader, it’s mentioned here there is $75,000 that is paid from January through June but there was a note that $160,000, how is this related to that $160,000?
Schwinn: The $160,000 that you are referencing, in the MOU, is proposed school leader salary through the MOU. The $75,000 would be this January to June. If the school leader was able to and interested in coming on early. So they would actually be able to be funded, not out of district dollars for specifically setting up the school and the new school modeling plan for the year ahead.
Chukwuocha: Now, with that $160,000, for the school leader, the current principal salary, is that included in this $160,000?
Schwinn: So if you’re asking about what the difference would be, so whatever the current principal unit baseline salary is the $160,000 would be the difference that which would be funded.
Chukwuocha: So the difference would come out of that pot of money that’s set aside for that school?
Schwinn: Potentially, yeah, I think it would come out of the general school fund, and there are additional dollars that would be put into the school fund. But there is the school improvement grant, there is certainly these priority dollars, but it would be additional on top of that, so it’s a marginal difference.
Chukwuocha: Thank you. Are there additional questions from council members?
Gregory: Would there be new public measures of school progress and achievement in addition to the test scores alone?
Schwinn: So within the school plan again, you’ll hear the theme a lot about local school control and decision making, and part of the school guide, part of the requirement for the school plan is a recording template developed by the school not just on academic measures but certainly on any additional measures that school and that school community feels is important to measure. That’s more than what were actually asking for now, in terms of being able to get a picture of the whole child and the whole school performance. So a school might say “We think that attendance is really important. We think social emotional learning is really important.” Whatever those indicators are, the school will actually submit that in their school plan and that’s what they’ll report on.
Gregory: But it’s fair to say at the end of the day if the test scores don’t meet what the state wants then the school fails. Would that be an appropriate statement?
Schwinn: I think so, I think we’re looking for high achievement academically in all our students.
Gregory: Let me ask you this, we’ve had DSPT, DCAS, we’ve moved to Smarter Balanced. Given the fact that we’re now moving to Smarter Balanced which is being wrote out as a hard test, how do you gage progress in that climate? That’s difficult for me to fathom.
Schwinn: It’s a great question, so one of the things that we’re doing, and I’ll answer that in two parts. So I think the first piece from a technical standpoint is the exit criteria, so how would you exit priority school status and right now the targets are pre-set, and we know that Smarter Balanced is a more comprehensive and more challenging assessment. So we’ve offered schools two options for exit criteria. The first is what is currently approved in our ESEA (Early Secondary Eduction Act) flexibility but then we’ve also offered through the MOU a second exit criteria, and that exit criteria is saying after we get the results of Smarter Balanced we want to be able to set ambitious, realistic and feasible goals for exit criteria. So we’re taking into account the change in the assessment and certainly the challenge of that assessment. I think secondly, during this planning year, and one of the benefits is that over the summer we’ll get the Smarter Balanced Assessment back and we’ll be able to set appropriate goals before the start of implementation year one. So we can say this is what will be very rigorous for our children, these are really excellent goals, and here’s how we can backwards map to meet them. So I do think this planning year is actually good timing for that reason and that we’ll be able to get the scores before the first year of implementation.
Gregory: DCAS was ruled out as the test was ruled as the test that was going to fix all the flaws of DSTP. What flaws presented themselves in DCAS that caused you to go to Smarter Balanced?
Murphy: DCAS was a significant step forward for us. It was certainly one of the, one of the most sophisticated assessments in the country over these previous years in the sense that it provided an adaptive measure for our children. If they got questions wrong, it got easier, if they got questions right, it got harder. It provided that. It’s where some of the future generations of assessment is going as we see from Smarter Balanced. What Smarter Balanced offers is two major things. One: A deep and complete alignment with Common Core Standards. Our teachers have been implementing these standards now for multiple years and they deserve an assessment that is aligned with those standards. And secondly, it is a ***significant step forward in the quality of assessment. So it will ask children to write, it will ask them to engage in performance assessments, not just multiple choice.
Gregory: My concern, and this is not a question, and I’m going to sit back and let others ask questions, but I’ll have other ones. But we’ve taken a DSPT test, DCAS, and told our kids that they were failures, and kids have lived with the word “failure” because of a test that we admit was flawed, had it’s shortcomings, or just didn’t do what it was supposed to do. Now we’re going to go to a third test. But that’s an editorial comment. Somebody else may have a comment…
Chukwuocha: I’d like to acknowledge we’ve been joined by councilman Darius Brown. Councilman Walsh…
Walsh: Thank you. If the planning process is seemed to be thought failing, what would the process to make a decision on the next step: Charter, closure management company look like and would the community be engaged in that?
Murphy: We are totally focused on the quality of this 120 day planning process which is why we, I think we noted, and may have been embedded also in one of the earlier questions that we did not necesarrily clarify, which is that we are offering multiple opportunities for our districts, six opportunities to constantly engage around quality so that we can reach the end of December with high quality plans. We also know that our children cannot wait, they cannot wait years to have much better services provided for them. So what we are totally focused on is based on the urgency of now in terms of that quality and that planning process.
Walsh: Yes, forgive me, cause I’m not up on top of all of your terms as much as a couple of the other council members are, but I’ve been reading about the kickback that you’re getting from your school districts on your MOU, and what’s going to happen if they don’t come up with these plans and sign these papers and do all those things that you are requiring?
Murphy: I apologize if we’ve used language that didn’t make sense.
Walsh: I can figure out what an MOU is.
Murphy: I’d certainly be happy to clarify what any other language is. So there are two major components right now. One is the MOU and the other is the school plan. What we’ve been communicating to our districts as we work with them is that the MOU draft that came before them is a draft that we are willing to talk about and we are willing to potentially negotiate so we are having those conversations. So we fully intend to move forward with an agreement around that MOU. As it pertains to the plan, what we are deeply focused on now is empowering those school communities to engage in that school planning so that they can get busy on that immediately.
Walsh: That I understand. But you have a deadline of December 31st. You don’t have a whole lot of time and so what are you going to do if a district really kicks back on you and says “You’re negotiating but we really don’t like your negotiations?”
Murphy: What were doing is focusing on ensuring that they move forward and at the same time holding a quality bar. We have nearly 2,000 children in these schools, and the 2,000 children are overall struggling. So our focus has got to be on reaching agreement on the MOU and reaching agreement on the quality of the plan.
Walsh: Well Secretary, as people who live in this city and represent the city we’re well aware of how our children are failing. Not just in city schools but in other schools throughout New Castle County. I’m not getting a clear answer of what’s going to happen though. If they just flat-out say I’m not signing this. Cause the kids are all the ones were still concerned about, correct? (Murphy interjects: “The regulatory”, Shabazz continues) So the kids have to be somewhere when the adults are all fighting.
Murphy: That’s right.
Walsh: I don’t know, maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re telling me.
Murphy: What I’m telling you is that we’re totally focused on how we can insure that the quality of the plans and the work going on in local schools is meant for the kids should we reach the end of the 120 days. Should we reach the end of the 120 days, the regulatory framework sets up an opportunity for the schools to have limited options and those limited options that are outlined in the regulations and in the MOU limit that school to working with a charter or a management organization. pa
Walsh: Okay, say that happens, and I’m following up on that. Say that happens, and I have a kid in one of those schools. Do I have a choice whether or not to stay there?
Murphy: I think you have a choice now as we have a choice window each year for parents to choose different schools.
Walsh: I understand that, but if it came to down to you closing and turning it into a charter or whatever, would I have, as a parent with a child in one of those six schools, would I be able to pull my kid out of it then?
Murphy: We would certainly work with our parents to determine what those best options would be.
Walsh: Okay, thank you.
Congo II: I heard you speak of, to the importance of the relationship between your department and the schools within the state. I think you even said you visited Booker T. Washington (in Dover), when they were successful, just to honor them rWhat has been your relationship, specifically, to the priority schools in the past? Have you gone in there to visit them or to get observations and to give feedback to the administration?
Murphy: Our team at the department has been involved in almost all of these schools that are part of the priority in lots of different ways. Some of the six schools have been what are designated focus schools in the past which has involved my entire team in working with the schools. Some of these schools have been partnership zone schools in the past which has also had that relationship. These schools have participated with us in ways around implementation of Common Core, around recruitment of different teachers, there’s lots of components there, but yes, we’ve been involved in the schools in supportive ways, in monitoring ways, in comprehensive school reviews, there’s been many opportunities for that interaction to have occurred and did occur.
Congo II: So please Mr. Chair, just a follow-up. I just asked that question because I heard from one school specifically, I’m not gonna name it, but they said they’ve been in that school 4 or 5 years and they haven’t seen anyone from the Department of Education. And they were just frustrated that now they are being scrutinized when they haven’t had an opportunity to have a relationship with the department. That’s all, thank you.
Chukwuocha: Councilman Dorsey Walker…
Dorsey Walker: Thank you Mr. Chair. Just really quickly, I listened when you spoke earlier about James, because if James is a student at one of those priority schools, I know that there’s a school that actually has 50 students in a classroom. And this is following up with what Councilman Congo was sharing with you. The importance of making sure that we visit these schools. I visit all the schools in my district, in the 6th district, and that’s how I know there are actually 50 kids in those classrooms, and it is very, very difficult for teachers to teach. So when you talked about culture being one of your key points, are we dealing with the culture in the classroom as well as the culture in the community where we’re making these decisions about our children?
Murphy: What you heard from us is a significant value in that, as well as the other areas that we noted. Those decisions, what that culture looks like, how that classroom is set up, the schedule, the structure of the school, but were asking that those decisions be made by those closest to kids in those schools.
Shabazz: Through all this process, and planning that we’re talking about, through this whole process, how will this help us as community members to gain more authority over our elementary schools?
Murphy: It certainly presents an opportunity, so as Dr. Schwinn outlined, there is an expectation that is outlined both in the MOU and in the turnaround guide in regards to engagement of the community in this process. And so from a, from a chance to, to be engaged, to have a say, to have a seat at the table, to help shape the direction of a priority school, we’re saying that expectation is there, that the community and the parents will be engaged in that conversation meaningfully.
Shabazz: And you mentioned that the Department of Education is giving autonomy to the school to make decisions that we find is best for that population of that cultured school. So this would then allow the DOE would accept all we find that is necessary? Because we have been advocating for changes and things for our children in the past. So now the new tone is that you’re gonna accept what is necessary for our children and allow it to be implemented? And also to fund it?
Murphy: We outlined what funding is available right now. We also outlined that expect the schools to take a hard look at the way they are currently spending their dollars, and what we are saying is that we are going to hold a bar for excellence, but the decisions on how to meet that bar will be made locally, yes.
Gregory: That’s not what I heard.
Shabazz: That’s why I asked the question. I think that we have been stating that there’s not enough resources, that we understand the amount of dollars that you’re allocating. And so I’m just trying to see what’s going to be different now.
Murphy: I think we outlined what would be different, uhm, if I can rename a couple of those things so that you can ensure that we have some clarity. One thing that is different is we are trying to set up a list of conditions for the schools to have greater autonomy and flexibility for how they are doing their work at that school level. Another difference is that we are adding funding to this. The third difference is that we are taking a significant emphasis on school leadership. I think that when we look at the process difference, the process difference is that we are asking for deep and meaningful engagement of the community and how they chart a path forward for their schools.
Chukwuocha: Councilman Darius Brown…
Brown: Thank you Mr. Chair. Secretary Murphy, as you’ve heard me in previous conversations we’ve had, you know that I have the priviledge of representing three of the school districts in the City of Wilmington, so many of the youth that I represent feed into Christina, Brandywine and Colonial, I have some of the charter schools that DOE highlights like Prestige and Eastside Charter, Thomas Edison, and we also have other schools like Moyer that are also in my council district. And we have some of the success stories of the partnership zone from about 3 years ago with the turnaround of Howard High School, but also the challenges of Stubbs Elementary School, which was one of the partnership zone schools three years ago and now is a priority school. Three years ago they took part in the turnaround program in that leadership. So I wanna know, what, with Stubbs being identified again, what kids in my district also go to Bancroft and Bayard, but I want to talk specifically to Stubbs. What is the difference in Stubbs being designated in partnership zone and Stubbs being designated in priority school?
Schwinn: So in the kind of big picture terms it has to do with the ESEA flexibility and in essence it’s a name change. So it went from partnership zone and now it’s called priority school. So with the flexibility in ESEA, it’s in essence a name change.
Brown: So same thing, just different label.
Schwinn: No, no.
Murphy: No, the outline that we gave is significantly different, and Dr. Schwinn outlined some of the differences from before to now. One of the other things to highlight is that were ten partnership zone schools in our. Eight of them have made the gains to reach their exit criteria. Two of the ten, Stubbs and Bancroft are still among the lowest performing schools in the state.
Brown: So what is your idea, your utopia idea, of how investment could be made into Stubbs and Bancroft to turn those two schools around?
Murphy: As we noted, that decision needs to be made by the community that supports the children in Stubbs and Bancroft.
Brown: As a part of priority schools, what was noted is that head of the school would be at a salary of $160,000 and it would be my contention, I think many people’s contention, that dollars of that amount should be invested into the actual classroom and not into the head of the school. What is your theory, or philosophy (audience clapping) around that?
Murphy: We know that our schools that struggle the most deserve the best possible leadership, so one thing to keep in mind here is that we have to attract and retain the best possible leadership, #2: $160,000 is 5% over what some of the principals are currently making in Newcastle County. Third, should the district decide that $160,000 is not appropriate for their schools, then we are certainly willing to have that conversation.
Brown: So that is a part of the MOU agreement, and that is negotiable?
Murphy: Yes, as we noted, if the district would like to pursue terms that are different to that, we’re open to that conversation.
Brown: Of noting Stubbs, and the other six schools, clearly, from my interest in Stubbs, could you speak to the last six years, I know the state has been heavily involved in, is one of two states that were awarded Race To The Top. What was the investment in Stubbs and the other priority schools over the last six years?
Schwinn: I can give a general, not by each school, but I can give a general sense. In one of those priority schools that you mentioned, the investment in Race To The Top was several hundred thousand dollars, or over a million dollars, so you’re looking at a range depending on the size of the school anywhere from $800,000 to over a million dollars per school.
Gregory: In your presentation there were, I heard some internal inconsistencies in how you described the process and/or the plan…I heard the word flexibility, I heard the word autonomy, local development, empowering local, then you mentioned this MOU that has these mandates that you must do, and so it’s also my understanding that you all are gonna set the rubrics for educating these schools. Is that correct?
Murphy: Broadly speaking, the MOU outlines conditions, and as I noted, if there are conditions or expectations there that our districts do not believe are in the best interests of the children, then we are willing to have that conversation. Uhm, the MOU outlines the conditions, the rubrics outline the expectation, the level of quality, the way in which that happens, the programs, the culture, those types of things, that is determined at the local level.
To Be Continued in Part 2….