16 To Watch In 2016: Tony Allen

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Tony Allen wears a lot of hats these days.  First and foremost, he leads the Corporate Communications for Bank of America’s Consumer Banking.  He sits on the Board of Directors at the Rodel Foundation.  But his biggest role in 2015 was the Chairman of both the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee and the Wilmington Education Commission (WEIC).

Unless you’ve been living in a hole, the WEIC’s job is to formulate a redistricting plan to get the Wilmington schools in the Christina School District shifted to Red Clay Consolidated School District.  Originally, the Wilmington schools in the Colonial School District were to be a part of this initiative, but their board said no.  They are still a part of the commission, but the most recent draft isn’t calling for their less than 300 students to move over.

WEIC has been controversial since day one.  Their biggest hurdle will be how to fund this long-term plan.  Ideas have surfaced over the past few months regarding raising property assessments to current day levels over time.  Many in Delaware oppose this, especially those in Sussex County around the beach towns.  Property values have increased dramatically in this area, and any change in property assessments will hit those homeowners very hard.  Recently, WEIC called for $6 million from Delaware’s General Fund in the budget for Fiscal Year 2017.  Delaware Governor Jack Markell promised members of WEIC at their most recent full commission meeting that Red Clay citizens will not have to pay for this.  So who will?  This is the question on everybody’s mind.

WEIC will present their draft to the Delaware State Board of Education on 12/17, next Thursday.  At that point, it is expected the State Board will vote yes on it in January and it will go the Delaware General Assembly for a vote.  This is where WEIC will face its greatest challenge.  With Delaware projected to have anywhere from a $150-$200 million dollar deficit for FY2017, many are guessing WEIC and the redistricting will be dead in the water once it hits the House and Senate floors.

For Tony Allen, he sees this as a “once in a generation” action.  Others feel this is being rushed through for various reasons.  I have always been suspicious of the overall motivations of the redistricting.  Kilroy’s Delaware thinks it is revenge against the Christina School District.  But there is one thing Red Clay has which none of the other districts do: they are a charter school authorizer, the only one of its kind in the state aside from the Delaware Department of Education.

As recently as last summer, Governor Markell was overheard, when asked about where the Wilmington students would go to high school, as saying “The Community Education Building”.  If WEIC is not all it claims to be from its leaders, expect a lot of heat put on Tony Allen and Dan Rich.  There are many who would benefit from Wilmington eventually becoming an all-charter district.  I pray this isn’t the end result.  I sincerely hope this is not the intentions of Tony Allen.  But I often ask if he has been used in this initiative, if he is one of the chief architects, or if the fears of many are just that.

At the end of the day, it should always be about the students.  Will the students of Wilmington truly be better off under one banner so to speak?  This is the question that all decision-makers will face in the coming months.  These children are the most vulnerable of all Delaware’s children.  The bulk of them come from poverty and low-income, are minorities, and many students with disabilities.  They are the ones that matter.  They are trusting the adults are doing the right thing.  If that trust is broken, how many generations will it take for that trust to be restored?

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Tony Allen’s TedX Video Is VERY Illuminating: “Fix Poverty, Fix Education, or Fix Nothing”

On October 15th, the Chairperson of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission gave a TedX presentation on poverty and education.  I agree with Dr. Tony Allen on many of the things he said in this speech.  But in my opinion, this was a very harsh attack against the Colonial School District.  Whether Tony Allen was correct or not about Colonial’s standardized test claims, he used the argument to validate a district’s capabilities on a very flawed system.  Standardized tests are not a true indicator of any school’s standing as an educational institution.  There are many measurements and indicators of how good or bad a school district is and standardized testing should never be used as a measure of success or failure.  While I don’t disagree with Tony that education needs to change, especially in our current environment, using a flawed system is dangerous and further perpetuates the perception of what a failing school is.

Chair of Wilmington Education Improvement Commission Tony Allen Clears The Air & My Thoughts On Special Education For The Commission

In a Facebook post on the “Solutions for Wilmington Schools” page, Wilmington Education Improvement Commission Chair Tony Allen addressed some concerns people were having, including myself.  I will fully admit I reached out to Tony last night and he responded very fast:

As always, I welcome the thoughtful critique and continued questioning relative to my decisions and related actions on this historically important set of issues. It will make our Commission better, our mandate more focused and the resulting product more meaningful to students and families.

To level set everyone, the 23-person Commission is effectively a steering arm and ultimately an approving authority for what will be the work of our five working committees. I use “working” intentionally here as each will carry a heavy burden, over the next five years, to create strategies to implement the recommendations outlined in the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee’s final report, “Strengthening Wilmington Education: An Action Agenda.” Updated versions of this report are available now.

As for the Committees themselves, there are five: Redistricting; Meeting the Needs of Students in Poverty; Funding Student Success; Parent Family and Community Engagement; and Charter and District Collaboration. At present, we have only named the Co-Chairs of those committees. The Co-Chairs will finalize all of their respective committees over the next week or so, but you should all know that there is plenty of room. What I hope everyone experienced in the WEAC process was a spirit of candor, engagement and full participation. I don’t expect any of that to change with the new Commission.

On the notion of representation from Early Care & Education, Daphne Evans, you raise good points, but I think you will find that we are well-represented along those lines. There are more than a few Commission members that a passionate about the issue. And perhaps more important, in my view, the foremost authority and one of the most ardent advocates on early care & education is Dan Rich. He remains the Commission’s chief administrative and policy counsel on this work and is the reason that more support for the early care movement is central to the recommendations outlined in the WEAC final report.

Kevin Ohlandt has also written a piece and talked with me separately about special education and the need for it to have its own committee. I am confident he is right, but I don’t think that such a Committee needs to be standalone in this work. To be clear, the issue of serving low-income students is multi-pronged and interwoven. That is why one of our core recommendations and legislative priorities deals with more funding for special education K-3. This issue will be taken up in the “Meeting the Needs of Students in Poverty” and the “Funding Student Success” committees.

Finally, many have rightly noticed our website moniker, http://www.solutionsfordelawareschools. We decided to broaden our materials because many of our recommendations have applicability statewide and we believe deal directly with the 51% of public school students throughout the state that are low-income. In short, while much of the discussion has been focused on redistricting, as I have said many times, simply redrawing lines does not constitute a new path for Wilmington Education. We see and have presented our recommendations as a package of ideas to be considered together and will not make additional recommendations that don’t holistically attempt to address the fundamental problem of student success.

Despite my many thoughts, concerns, issues, and predictions with the overall outcome of this whole thing, I think Tony Allen is a stand-up guy.  He is making this process very transparent which will be the key to community engagement and letting folks know what is transpiring.  I believe the whole “basic funding” for K-3 students is pivotal to making this happen, it is just one part in a machine called special education in Delaware that has 1,000 other issues that need to be fixed.  But it’s a start, and if anyone out there is a strong special education advocate and knows what Delaware needs, I strongly suggest attending these meetings and letting your voice be heard.

I had a conversation last night with parent advocate Devon Hynson who is well-known in Wilmington and around the state to be a very strong voice for students with disabilities.  We both agreed Child Find is integral to special education improvement in Delaware.  Child Find is part of IDEA and Delaware state law which mandates that if schools see issues with a child they proactively attempt to get an evaluation and contact the parents for permission for any such evaluations.  Instead, many charters and districts punish first and ask questions later.  As a result, students tend to become lost in the system.  When they could be getting the special education they legally deserve, they are treated the same as their peers.  I’m not saying schools should be diagnosing kids, but if teachers or staff see certain behaviors or situations happening, they need to reach out to their special education coordinator or educational diagnostician to get the ball rolling.  Even one school year can make a huge different in a student’s life.

Even with all the new laws passed by Senate Bill 33, which stemmed from the IEP Task Force last year, there are a host of other issues this hopefully reconvened committee needs to address.  The most important of which is “the battle”.  This is the time when districts or charters try to negotiate with the parents or advocates over services for an individual child.  This is a very fine line, and one misstep over it can have disastrous results for a special needs student.  Personally, I think every child who gets an initial evaluation should have a full-blown neuro-psychological report done by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist.  These types of tests are very long and time-consuming, but the benefits far outweigh any expense.  The reports generated tend to be very specific about what a student needs and what kind of services they should have.  The IQ tests and behavior analysis tests given for initial evaluation do not give a full picture or delve into the full scope of what a child needs.  This would help the IEP process immensely as the report will give most of what the student needs.

As any parent of a special needs child knows, dealing with schools can be your worst nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  There is a difference between collaboration and negotiation.  Frequently, these children can not afford to have any service cut or put on the back burner.

For the general population, many think of special education as Autism or Aspergers, or, I hate to say this because I find it offensive, the “kids who ride the short bus”.  This is so far from the truth it is ridiculous.  Disabilities in children run the whole gamut of dyslexia to social learning issues to ADHD to Autism.  And several components combine in children, which makes it even trickier to help them.   When these students manifest their disabilities, which are often neurologically based, all too often the perceived notion is they can control it.  In most cases, they can not, and the law is written to understand this.  But society as a whole doesn’t get this, including schools.

I’ve always felts psychiatry needs to play a much larger role in special education.  Therapy with a psychologist, councilor, or therapists is very important, but since disabilities are neurologically-based, and this is a psychiatrist’s area of expertise, why are we relying on psychologists for everything when they just study behavior and how to fix it?  Some manifestations of disabilities, even in the highest-functioning and brilliant child, can not always be “fixed”.  But the student can learn coping mechanisms or the school can work around these things.

For example, if a child cannot control a body movement, like tapping their fingers, instead of telling them to stop, maybe give them a soft cloth or matting so they can tap on that.  This way the child is able to manifest their uncontrolled action (not behavior), and it is not a distraction to the rest of the class.  It can be that easy!  But I can guarantee with almost 100% certainty if you try to make a child stop an uncontrollable action, it will result in conflict.  If that energy is not released, it will come out in other ways.  I like to think some special needs children have coping mechanisms wired into them to sub-consciously mitigate their actions.  While tapping is minimal, it could be the child’s way of stopping themselves from jumping up and down.  A classroom is not the place for a battle of wills between a special needs student and a teacher or staff members.  Heck, there is nowhere in school this should happen.  It embarrasses the student, frustrates the teacher, and distracts the rest of the class from effectively learning.

As a parent of a child with Tourette Syndrome, I see physical manifestations of my child’s disability all the time.  I have seen research and videos and case studies that report the same thing every single time: if a child is having tics, just ignore them.  Pretend they don’t exist.  Even in the 10% of Tourette Syndrome when they have coprolalia, the uncontrollable swearing, most experts say to ignore it.

Children with special needs often go undiagnosed and this can result in a disproportionate number of suspensions or expulsions compared to their non-disabled peers.  This is one of the largest problems going on in Wilmington schools.  And yes, putting a child in an out of school placement is often a punishment.  For too many kids, it’s the school giving up and throwing their hands in the air and refusing to deal with the true issues: their inability to provide adequate special education.

When I hear about children with disabilities being placed in day programs and residential treatment centers, my first question is always “How long did the child not get the essential services?”  If a child with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder begins showing this disability in Kindergarten, but they didn’t get services until 5th grade, of course this child is going to have major issues.  Because the child has learned that any time they exhibit their disability they are “bad” because that’s how they have been treated for the past five years.  A brand new IEP isn’t going to erase years of damage for this child.  That road to recovery, if ignored, is going to set up a lifetime of anger and resentment on the child’s part.  Their very foundation in school is a symbol of failure in that child’s mind.

These are key things I feel the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission needs to look at right away.  Funding doesn’t solve everything, some things are just common sense.  Instead of fixing special education, we need to be embracing and celebrating these unique individual kids.  They need us to understand them when the world is screaming at them.  They are scared, and feel isolated, and they don’t get why everyone hates them.  They need compassion and empathy, not a strong hand and rigor.  They want what all of us want: to feel accepted and acknowledged they are a person, not a problem.