Which Delaware Charter School Leader Called Their Students Something From An Old Polish Proverb?

A Delaware charter school leader sent an email about student climate and discipline to their staff in April.  While I understood some of the leader’s concerns, referring to your students as monkeys in a circus is probably not the wisest thing to say in this day and age.  If you don’t believe me, ask Roseanne Barr.  Even if it could possibly be explained in any context,  (see “Not My Circus Not My Monkeys” for why this is crossed out) another email sent from a former staff member only cements the racist tone of the school leader given what the school has been doing gave me some heartburn because of what it suggests.

Delaware Design-Lab High School Interim Executive Director and Dean of “Academic Intensity” Rebecca Collins wrote what will assuredly be infamous words in the history of Delaware charter schools.  To put this in perspective, it is essential to look at the school’s demographics between the 2016-2017 school year and the 2017-2018 school year:

African-American 16-17: 48.9%, 17-18: 44.3%

White 16-17: 36.8%. 17-18: 42.6%

Hispanic/Latino 16-17: 11.8%, 17-18: 9.7%

Asian 16-17: 2.2%, 17-18: 2.3%

Multi-Racial 16-17: .4%, 17-18: .7%

Low-Income 16-17: 39%, 17-18: 34.6%

Special Education 16-17: 25%, 17-18: 20%

English Language Learner 16-17: No information available, 17-18: 3%

While their demographics have not shifted to a huge degree, there are enough subtle changes, especially given the nature of some of the second email I’m posting, to show there is a pattern in the making.  Some call it cherry-picking, others call it discrimination, but it is what it is: social engineering of a Delaware charter school to change demographics in a manner more suitable to the school.  One thing to keep in mind with those demographics is there was no 12th grade in 2016-2017 so they couldn’t say there was a radical swing in their demographics due to an entire class graduating.  The 2018-2019 school year will be the second year the school will have a senior class as they just opened in 2015 with 9th and 10th grades.

Like Roseanne Barr’s tweet earlier this year, folks will have differing opinions on the language in Collins’ email.  Combined with what was said in the second email from the departing staff member, I see some very covert racial tones in what Collins’ wrote.  There are some students named by their initials in this email, but I have changed them to the letter x in case they could be identified by their initials.  I have bolded the referral to the students as “monkeys” for emphasis.

From: Rebecca Collins
Sent: Tuesday, April 24, 2018 12:59:23 PM
To: DDLHS Staff
Subject: Consistency/Behavior/The Plan!

Hi team,

THIS IS A LONG EMAIL, BUT VERY, VERY IMPORTANT.  PLEASE READ IT WHEN YOU HAVE TIME TO DIGEST IT FULLY, BUT BEFORE STAFF MEETING TOMORROW!!!

As everyone knows, school is a cycle.  The year begins strong with high expectations and behavioral norms.  Students and teachers wane between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the days get shorter and colder and emotional issues peak due to holiday stress.  Everyone comes back energized after winter break, and the cycle then progresses again through year end.  There are only 30 school days left in the year and, during that time, we would be naive if we did not expect our students to test limits and devolve as they anticipate the end of school.  Some will devolve because the weather is nice.  Others will devolve because the end of school is terrifying – they do not know how they will feed themselves all summer, where they will go each day, or (if they are graduating) what the future may hold.

In an effort to support all of our students and teachers through the last weeks of school, a few basic reminders are in order:

1) The NUMBER ONE way to prevent behavioral problems is to ENGAGE STUDENTS WITH CONTENT!!  We are, in fact, circus directors!  Each and every one of us.  To revamp a famous line – these ARE our monkeys and this IS our circus.  Make your classes fun, engaging, someplace students WANT to be (and not just because they know they can get away with murder in your room).  To the point – students work in the Den…they work hard.  But it is also a place many students want to be, because they are allowed to work independently and productively in an atmosphere that recognizes their needs.  I know it is a tall order, but the stronger your instruction, the easier classroom management will be.

2) Be CONSISTENT in your classrooms, in the hallways, everywhere.  The system falls apart if even one of us does not uphold the proper expectations.

The basic rules that EVERYONE must consistently enforce include:

a) Confiscate cellphones when you see them and they are not identified for educational use in your lesson plan.

b) Make students take hoods down and put headphones away.

c)  Do NOT allow students out of your classroom without a pass, or during the first or last ten minutes of any class.

d) Do NOT allow more than one student out of your classroom at a time.

e) Do NOT allow students INTO your classroom if they do not belong there.

f) Do NOT allow students to go to other classes without a pass from that teacher.  Do not allow students into your classroom if they did not check in with their teacher first.

g) Have a seating chart and USE it!  Separate students who you know cannot work effectively together (this includes romantic pairs – please!!!)

3) Utilize the supports we have in place, such as:

a) The three please system

– Student A, is there a reason you are out of your chair?

If yes, direct the student to an adult who can assist, whether that is counseling or the nurse.

If no:

Student A, please sit down.

Student A, we already have established that there is not a valid reason for you to be out of your chair.  Please sit down.

Student A, please sit down.

Student A, please report to the front office.

IF A STUDENT DOES NOT RESPOND TO THE 3 PLEASE SYSTEM, PLEASE SEND THEM TO THE FRONT OFFICE WITH A PASS.  I know the reflection room has gone by the wayside, but my office is actually way more intimidating.  So please, for extreme cases that cannot be handled inside the classroom, send them down and someone from administration will address the situation.  Your job is to teach!

b) Restorative practices

– When a student has been removed from your class, insist on having a face to face conversation with them before they return. Either one on one or ask for administrative support from Durrell, Avery, Dave Brown, or me. Restorative practices build rapport and allow both parties to feel a sense of understanding about how the situation could have been handled differently.

c) If you have a lesson that you anticipate needing extra support for (either because it’s dry, or it’s complicated, or whatever the reason may be) ASK FOR IT!  Nikia, Dave, Durrell, or me will be happy to go over it with you, assist you with planning, work with you to utilize the Den to maximum effect, develop strategies for success.

And finally, for our four junior ladies (x.x., x.x., x.x. and x.x.) with whom we struggle, I am asking EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US to abide by the plan that has been developed.  Dave has made an easy chart below so you can see your responsibilities.  The girls will know theirs, as well.  They are, however, children.  They are not likely to be able to hold up their end of the bargain without our excessive support.  If we are not able to support them in this manner, it is incredibly hard for administration to ask the Board to step in because the failure will be ours, not theirs.  Whether you believe they can be successful here or require an alternative placement, no further action can be taken unless we as a staff consistently enforce the following expectations.

Accordingly, please read carefully:

Students Staff
·Students will turn in the cellphones and headphones to the school office or Mr. Harris upon arrival to school

·Students will not ask to go any classroom or other area (other than the bathroom or school office) that is not their assigned classroom

·Students will ask for an escort to go anywhere outside of their assigned classrooms. (Will not ask for a pass to go anywhere)

·Students will use appropriate language including tone and volume throughout the school day

·All student requests to meet with a staff need to be communicated by the student through Schoology.  The student(s) will wait for the staff to provide an appointment time and escort, if necessary.

·Students are not to be given ANY hall passes nor given permission to walk unescorted to any location

·Students are not to be given permission to work outside of their assigned classrooms

·The students are not to be allowed to use their cell phones or headphones in any classroom

·The students should have assigned seating in every classroom

·No exception to the rule should be made to any of the expectations without prior and express WRITTEN permission of Ms. Collins or another administrator

·Staff are to verify any statement made by the students PRIOR to making a decision that would necessitate ANY deviation from this plan or regular DDLHS

·Staff will immediately report any failure to comply to Mr. Harris and or Ms. Collins

·Students will be acknowledged when
“acting appropriately.”

·Staff will communicate with parents about the students’ appropriate or inappropriate behavior

The girls’ failure to comply with their expectations should be noted to them at the time of the misbehavior (i.e., in the hallway, “x.x., you are obligated to use appropriate language in this building and the words you just chose are not appropriate.”) and documented in an email to Mr. Harris, who will note it in eSchool and communicate with the parents.   We also MUST communicate when they do something well.  It takes seven positive interactions to counteract every negative interaction, so this is critical.

If you have any questions, please see me, Durrell, or Dave Brown.

It has been a wonderful year, so hang in there – only a few more weeks!!!

Rebecca

Sorry Ms. Collins, but referring to your school as a  “circus” and the students as your “monkeys” is not going to go over well when you face the Charter School Accountability Committee this fall when Design-Lab is up for charter renewal.

Like I stated earlier, another email came across my lap.  This one was from a former staff member who resigned from the school shortly before school got out this year.  For the former employee’s protection from getting blacklisted in the Delaware public education system, I have removed her name and her title.  It is great to theorize that someone speaking their mind wouldn’t have consequences, but this is Delaware!

From: xxxxx xxxxx
Sent: Friday, June 1, 2018 8:41:11 PM
To: DDLHS Staff
Cc: Melissa Siwiec; Rebecca Collins
Subject: Goodbye

I wish I was able to tell each and everyone of you in person, but given the circumstance I knew that would not be the case.  I have spent many months and weeks contemplating how I would put this into words. I have not been happy here for quite some time.  I tried to be optimistic, but much to my disappointment things did not get better. I can not consciously continue to stand by and watch the injustices happening to students and staff alike.  No matter how I did this I am going to be talked about and blamed for things not getting done or going wrong.  I am quite OK with it, because I can truly say that I did what I was PAID to do and tried to do what I could for the students within my power. My heart aches for the students I am leaving behind as they will not have anyone to advocate for them anymore.

When I first came here I thought I found my FOREVER job.  The atmosphere was one of encouragement and equality. We were all on the same team striving for the same goal.  We had just gotten the XQ Grant and everything seemed like it was falling into place. Unfortunately, as the year came to a close my feelings had begun to change.  

Change happens and most of the time change is good. That wasn’t the case with Design-Lab sadly. I was optimistic at first and knew the transition would be a little rough.  As the year went on I realized the changes that were taking place were not in fact for the better. Teachers were leaving and not being properly replaced. The constant harassment towards the students is almost like they are targeting certain students who were troubled instead of offering the much needed guidance to help them make the right decisions. Those students being targeted are being labeled as “Bad” students.  If they just took the time to talk to them instead of at them they would realize that they are not bad, just misguided. Not everyone comes from the white picket fence neighborhoods. The majority of them come from 3rd generational homes with grandparents trying to do their best with the tools they have.  Unless you have lived this life you will never understand!

The students here are underrepresented in many ways.  There is not a diverse staff. Everyone that has left has been replaced with a Caucasian.  The leadership is not diverse, everyone in a position of authority is Caucasian. The pay scales are not equal either.  How is DDLHS going to maintain when the salaries are so top heavy? I feel the staff has been bamboozled. We were told that the reason for letting Principal Mock go was due to the XQ Vision, and that the temporary person in place wasn’t in it for the money when in fact the $90,000 a year salary says otherwise.  Yet in a recent meeting we were told that in order to align with the XQ plan there is a nationwide search for a principal. Which one is it? Do we need a principal or not? I am so over the lies and deceptions. I can no longer be a part of the charade. Not to mention you hire a XQ Project Manager (to manage out $10Million) who comes from an organization that shut down due to Financial Issues and then you turn around and make her the Executive Director with no educational experience whatsoever, but that isn’t the end, you don’t bother telling parents yet cause you know it will cause an uproar, because they too have been bamboozled.

If an all “white” school is what you are gearing towards you may want to move out of Christina School District. You sit here and preach that you are all inclusive, yet you specifically only send out information to targeted zip codes.  The funny thing is that when those students come in to shadow and see what DDLHS really is you all talk about them after they do not want to come here. You can have them shadow the smartest, quietest kid all day long, however the school speaks for itself.  No evidence of Design-Thinking going on, no high level courses, kids who aren’t being engaged. That poor lady who brought her daughters here under the pretense of this being a great school to be a part of was absolutely 100% truthful in her report to Exceptional Delaware and your answer was “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”.  “No one reads that blog anyway”. Obviously you haven’t learned that word of mouth is the best advertisement. You can put up all the billboards you want and run all the radio adds your little heart’s desire, but until you are ready to really take your blinders off and see what is all around you nothing will ever change. This school needs more than a new building to be a success. You can put lipstick on a pig, but at the end of the day it is still a pig.

I know you are all going to talk about me when I am gone, that doesn’t bother me.  I know that when I was with DDLHS I did all I could in the best interest of the students.  My conscious is clear and I sleep well every night. I am just sad that the poor children left behind will not have a true learning experience and will not be college ready upon graduation. They have no one to truly advocate for them and that saddens me the most.  I won’t miss DDLHS, but I will miss my kids and that is the hardest part of me leaving. I just pray that their parents wise up and see the true COLOR of administration and see that all they are trying to do is make a name for themselves on the backs of these poor kids. All while lining their pockets with XQ $ that was supposed to be used for the kids not for salaries.  

I bet you all didn’t know this:

Name  Salary FY 18 
Burke, Damien     95,000.00 
Collins, Rebecca     90,000.00 
Siwiec, Melissa   110,000.00 

It’s Public Knowledge though!  I beg to differ.

I hold no ill will. I wish you all the best with your future endeavours. DDLHS is just no longer the place for me. My time here has come to an end.

Mrs. xxxxx

Design-Lab High School

179 Stanton Christiana Rd, Newark, DE 19702

I want to thank this very brave and courageous soul for speaking her mind.  We need more of that in Delaware.  If we are ever to change discriminatory practices like the ones she speaks of, it will require people speaking out and letting us know about injustices when they happen.

So… Delaware Design-Lab does not negotiate with terrorists?  If they want to refer to Exceptional Delaware as “terrorists” for allowing a parent to speak about her horrible experience with the school, I will gladly take that label.  From what I recall though, no one from the school contacted me in a negotiation attempt so I find the statement rather funny.  And for your information, MANY Delawareans read that article.  And more will now.  Funny how that worked out!  If you don’t want me writing about you, I would STRONGLY recommend not referring to your student body as monkeys and NOT targeting certain zip codes in your student recruitment efforts.

Ms. Collins, I have never met you so I wouldn’t have the first clue why you would call students “monkeys”, but for your sake, if you have any racist thoughts in your heart may I suggest you deal with that?  Because every single student is precious, regardless of race, gender, disability, income status, or educational achievement.  It appears to me that a $10 million dollar award from XQ Schools may buy the school certain things but it can not buy common sense in the 21st Century.  At the very least, don’t bite the hand that feeds you!

But the most interesting part about the second email is where the employee talks about targeted zip codes.  For those who may not know what this means, the school is targeting certain areas to recruit students.  These would be white neighborhoods.  Which accounts for some of the shifts in their demographics in two school years.  It will be interesting to see their 2018-2019 numbers later this fall to see if these “targeted zip codes” shift their demographics even more.  This is just more evidence of racism even if it may seem covert.

This school has been suffering from low enrollment and discipline issues since the day they opened.  They went on formal review in the months before they opened because they couldn’t reach their target numbers for student count.  While they eventually reached those numbers, they continue to dwindle.  Each year, the count for students that go from one grade to the next decreases.  That is a trajectory no school in Delaware wants, especially a charter high school.

In terms of the school discipline, I am curious to see what others thoughts are on this.  I would love to hear from educators to see if these are best practices in their own schools.

2 thoughts on “Which Delaware Charter School Leader Called Their Students Something From An Old Polish Proverb?

  1. Kevin: That line form Collin’s letter is clearly a riff on what I thought was a commonly known saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” That’s something people say when they see something is going wrong, but don’t feel obligated to fix it — Collins is turning it on its head to mean the opposite. There’s no racial undertone to that phrase, no matter how hard you try to suggest one in an effort to demonize people you don’t know.

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    • I agree. I was offended. The word “monkey” is a powerfully negative signifier, due to its perennial use in racist rhetoric; nevertheless, the context of its use is clearly key. Could she have used a more benign analogy to express what seems to be a sincere desire to steward her students’ year-end success? Obviously. She shouldn’t be pilloried for it, however. If it speaks to a larger racial insensitivity that negatively affects students of color, that’s for others to decide. On the surface, however, the issue is trivial.

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