Guest Post: Shelley Suchyj On School Choice In Delaware

Shelley Suchyj is an educator from the Christina School District.  She was also the Exceptional Delaware Hero Of The Year for 2016 for speaking out about the mold issues in her district.  As the School Choice window in Delaware will end tomorrow, Suchyj put up a Facebook post with some information that was left out of a recent Delaware Today article by Larry Nagengast.

This is a must read for every politician and parent in Delaware so please share. As the Talented and Gifted Educator for the Christina School District city schools; I have spent over 30 hours already this week, going to student’s houses and helping their parents fill out Choice forms on my personal computer. This is on top of the hours spent with a “carload of parents and students” that I attended open house with at the new Christina Honors Academy two weeks ago. There is a lot that this article doesn’t include, that most don’t even understand. Like the fact that the choice website is only in English and most city parents don’t realize that you only have from November- January of the previous year to apply for Choice in the following year. The biggest hurtle is a perception of what a “good school” is.

I have been an educator for over 23 years, 16 years as an 8th grade teacher helping parents navigate the high school choice decision. Having taught most of my years as an inner city teacher. I have had siblings in the first graduating classes of both Wilmington Charter and Newark Charter when they both opened. I have sons that have attended public, catholic, charter, magnet and choice schools in the state of Delaware since choice began in 1997 and currently. I have to say the biggest issue for everyone in the state of Delaware to understand that there are GREAT programs and things happening in every school.

My own mother thought I was crazy when I took my son out of the, believed to be best catholic school, and put him in a public school. But to this day Marbrook, and the friends, teachers and experiences he had there can not be matched. But that was for him. He learned to speak Spanish fluently not because he learned it in school, because he didn’t, it was because his best friends spoke Spanish when they arrived at school and he needed to be able to communicate when they played soccer at recess and hung out after school. He got to learn a new sport at Dickinson playing varsity lacrosse that he never would have been able to play at Sallies or Wilmington Charter because of the number of kids on the team.

My belief is that every school should have an engineering class, computer class, arts class, music classes, languages and personal finance class option for every child in grades 4-12. Lets figure out what kids are talented in and grow those talents. We have changed the location of where our children can go to school in Delaware through Choice and Charter. Shouldn’t we change what they are taught in school to be successful too? It isn’t 1950 any more.

With sincerest apologies to Suchyj, I promised her I would get this up when I saw it over the weekend, but due to weather and work constraints I was unable to do so.  Every parent interested in choicing their child to a different school should look at every possible option and not go solely by reputation.  Each child is different and has unique learning methods.

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Christina Moves Ahead With 6-12 “Rigor Academy” At Christiana High School

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On Wednesday evening, the Christina Board of Directors voted 5-1 to move forward on a controversial choice program at Christiana High School.  The new honors program, which will begin with 6th graders at Christiana High School, will pull the smarter students from existing Christina middle schools.  Eventually, this honors program with rigorous standards will have students from 6th-12th grade in it.  This will only continue the choice game in Delaware school districts.  Christina was one of the last remaining hold-outs on a program like this, but as a recent commenter wrote, they had no choice but to play the choice game.

Board President Elizabeth Campbell Paige was the only no voter for the program.  Board member John Young was not present for the meeting, but I have no doubt he would have voted no.

Earlier that day, I gave public comment at a meeting for the Statewide Review of Educational Opportunities committee addressing the increasing divide between the “have” and the “have-not” students in Delaware.  I warned the committee that very soon the divide will be inseparable.  I feel the state is heading in the wrong direction in offering all these different “opportunities” for students.  We all know the most disadvantaged students: the poor, those with disabilities, those who are English Language Learners… they don’t get the same opportunities their regular peers do.

In an inter-district choice program, a student can take a bus to school, but they have to be picked up at the closest bus stop in their feeder pattern to where the choice school is.  This is true across the state.  That makes it very difficult for students whose parents may not have transportation or the means to get their child to that bus-stop.

Choice has become a major joke in this state.  We still have charter schools that are either mostly all white or in Wilmington, many charters that are mostly African-American.  I find it ironic that the advocates in Wilmington for the WEIC redistricting plan think that will solve all the problems.  The plan doesn’t even address the segregation in Delaware, much less Wilmington.  All it will do is dump students from one district with a ton of challenges to another district with the same challenges in many of their schools.  Both districts are steadily losing students to charter schools.

What Delaware needs is a weighted choice system.  With a weighted admission system.  Where every single student can get a chance.  If there is a lottery at a school like Newark Charter School or Charter School of Wilmington, there needs to be a weighted lottery.  This also goes for First State Montessori Academy.  They need to get rid of their specific interest preference.  They need to put their five mile radius preference first.  For a school that is located in the heart of downtown Wilmington, their demographics don’t show it.  Charter schools should represent the areas where they are.  If the General Assembly won’t put something like this through, I have no doubt the courts will one day.  Unless it is for good cause, I don’t think any student should go to a charter school outside of their school district.  There should be an immediate ban on this practice.

No more of these “rigor academies” that purposely leave out students who don’t have a chance.  It is stacking the deck a certain way.  This includes these “honors” programs and even the World Language Immersion programs.  The districts are killing themselves and they don’t even know it yet.  The districts think these programs are these great things, but they aren’t.  It might be for the few who would most likely have the same advantages either way, but not for the students who need more supports and just aren’t getting it.  These are 21st Century discrimination games.  No matter how many ways you cut this deck, students who need the most will continue to be shoved under the table and can’t make the final cut.  What a success story Delaware…

What country had a complete failure with a school choice program?

Here’s a few hints.  It’s in Europe, it’s cold and dark in the winter, and very light in the summer.  They have given America musical exports including ABBA, Ace Of Base, Roxette and The Cardigans.  They did invent Swedish Meatball, but they don’t know why it’s called Swedish massage in Sweden, but they think it’s pretty funny.  What nobody is laughing at in Sweden is their school choice program.

According to an article on Slate.com, Sweden is not very happy with how it’s students did on the Programme for International Assessment (PISA).  The results were released last December, and Sweden was below the international averages in reading comprehension, math, and science.  What contributed to these declining marks?  Many Swedes blame it on the country’s school choice program.

In the early 1990’s, Sweden began a school voucher system.  With this voucher system, the government would issue vouchers to the public to help support new private schools.  As a result, private schools sprang up all over the country.  As the money rolled in, the schools grew like weeds.  The rich began opening schools, and it didn’t seem to matter how good the education was, as long as it was showing a profit.  The students were doing very well, and standardized tests showed Sweden to have one of the best education systems in Europe.  So what went wrong?

It was actually the standardized testing itself.  In the USA, our teachers do not grade the standardized tests.  They are graded by the computer program or outside evaluators.  In Sweden, the teachers grade these tests.  And the Swedish students were doing well.  But what happens when you administer an international test, not graded by Swedish educators, and it shows a significant drop in the country’s educational standing with the rest of the world?

Sweden investigated this matter, and they found the students who attended the voucher schools were undereducated and performed bad on these types of tests.  Those who attended the government schools (public schools), did much better.  It was determined the teachers in the voucher schools were grading the national assessments much easier than those of the government public schools.  The schools wanted to keep the students, and no parent is going to transfer their child out if they are doing well.

Furthermore, since they were private schools, they weren’t backed by the government.  They were financed through private equity firms.  A Danish firm, called Axcel, decided to stop backing the schools in Sweden.  Over 10,000 students found their schools abruptly closed in Sweden.   For a country of only 8 million people, that is a considerable size.  Sweden’s education system prior to the voucher system was very good.  But corporate greed got their hooks in, and the results were horrifying for Sweden.

The voucher schools in Sweden weren’t exactly the same as the charter schools in America.  Most of the charter schools in America are non-profit.  But some similarities can be made.  The rise of the charters in America has occurred at about the same rate as the vouchers in Sweden.  Children at charter schools don’t always perform as well on standardized tests as those in public schools.  Public school advocates do not like the charters because they feel vital resources are drained for their own districts to support the charters.  As well, both the voucher and the charter schools tended to attract “brighter” and “wealthier” students.  In other words, it wasn’t a guarantee anyone could get into a voucher school in Sweden.  But if you had the money, there was a pretty good chance.

Now Sweden views itself as a national embarrassment based on their international standing.  15 years ago they were near the top, and now they are below average.  Scandinavians are a proud lot, and to have a neighbor like Finland getting all the great headlines about their education system while they are below average is humiliating for a country like Sweden.  A lesson can be learned here for Americans, and especially Delawareans, about what can happen when corporate entities push their way into schools.