Elizabeth Scheinberg, a former Christina Board of Education member, wrote a “redline” response to Atnre Alleyne’s letter to the editor in the News Journal that appeared last week.
It’s time to redline. The following opinion was published by the News Journal on 2/28. It was authored by education advocate Atnre Alleyne. Alleyne is the founder and executive director of an education advocacy organization, DelawareCAN: The Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now.
As a Christina parent and former Christina Board Member, I am compelled to set right the history that Alleyne has twisted to fit his vision an education crisis in Christina. Though I do not always agree with Christina, it’s still mine, it owns me as much as I own it. I live within it, advocate for students and parents in its schools and advise any members of the Christina leadership team who seeks my sentiments or strategies for improving our school system.
The Christina school board has perfected the art of pushing paperwork that produces little progress for Wilmington kids. Mr. Alleyne provides a beautiful set-up for an us verses them conversation. However, despite the highway between Newark and Wilmington the onerous paper-pushing affects every child, teacher, leader in the district. Much of it is the direct result of the same MOUs that Alleyne refers to below.
Its members recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Gov. Carney’s office designed to take a bolder approach to education in a district whose graduation rate has dropped each of the last three years and is the lowest in the state (69 percent). Gov. Carney’s approach is no bolder than the deeply flawed Race to the Top, a program that several school boards across the state adopted under the duress of the Delaware Department of Education. I clearly remember the night when former Sec. of Education Lillian Lowery told our board that should we not approve her MOU and join, the changes set forth in the MOU would become law and Christina would have to fund them locally. Did they become law? Some. Did they improve education statewide? No. The longitudinal data is in – as Alleyne cites above – turning education into a competition was not a sustainable model nor did the interventions result in sustained improvements in the graduation rate.
Yet, as interesting as some of the details of the MOU may sound, experience tells us they are sure to fail. With a school board that has failed to follow through on previous reforms, Christina School District’s kids will not see change until we address the deep dysfunction of its school board. We agree that these new reforms will fail. Few have yet to unlock the wardrobe door to Narnia of education. I don’t believe that Carney has the key. These previous MOUS failed because Christina properly identified schools in crisis in both the city and suburbs, BUT has been unable to fund the treatment of the needs and ails of the children served within. When we look upon our lowest performing students, we find children who live in dire poverty among violence with little access to critical nutrition and often credible adult guidance needed to navigate their personal world. These children carry their heavy burdens to school where they act out, not because they want to misbehave but because they’ve been taught that even negative attention is better than no attention at all. Of course, Christina’s board could throw every penny of local education dollars at these societal concerns, but without the other administrative agencies who are far more competent to combat the socio-emotional-economic inflictions putting their own boots on the ground, Christina will still fail.
First, we blamed the teachers. Now, we blame the board.
You know you are dealing with a school board that is committed to inaction when the governor needs to attend Christina’s board meetings to plead and prod them to do what a high-functioning board would do without prompting. Nearly half of the state’s bottom 5 percent schools are in the Christina School District, 38 percent of kids from Christina now attend non-district schools and the district is wasting taxpayer dollars with most of their schools currently less than half full.
Alleyne, you don’t know the half of it. But, first, to address the falsehoods. Because a board of individually publicly elected members parse and due diligence does not make that board low-functioning. Christina is constantly being bombarded by the state and the department of education with mandates to implement as part of whatever the latest MOU demands. These MOUs come with strings attached, prescribed funding, and allow for little local control. To keep all the parts moving is a juggling act for which few would apply. One need only look at CSD’s vacant Director of Special Education position to understand exactly what is being asked of the individuals we hire. Christina expects them to perform to the best of their abilities and invests in their development. Carney and his private department of education, like those before him, demand that these individuals play god. That is the essence of test-fail-punish. I sat on the dais when Christina’s Board finally stood up to its bully, Jack Markell, and said no more to Race to the Top. I believe we saved our district millions of dollars in doing so while defunding mandates that provided no sustainable change. I believe we were taking steps to re-stabilize our students in schools that the MOU had blown off their foundation. Race to the Top took the last good thing our desperate children had – it took away the one final constant – the security of school. It took away teachers who knew them and loved them and reinvigorated the “voluntary transfer” process as teachers fled the strings of RTTT demands that did not comport with their education and teaching preparations. And for all that RTTT money we spent, each and every dollar we received was accounted for and dispersed for the benefit of the children as prescribed by the MOU. Christina didn’t push papers. We did get thwacked by Lillian Lowery in a closed meeting for openly challenging the process and progress that was occurring. We were admonished for the sincere scrutiny of some of the more active board members. The DOE literally went on the attack with no respect for the fact that we were legally elected unpaid servants who provided our own professional development often at our own cost, and that we represented not one interest, but the interest of every child and tax payer in our district. That is the balancing act before the board. How far can you push the tax payers to support the kids before the tax payers start saying no. In Christina there has been a resounding no to referendums. It’s nearly impossible to pass one on the first try and that means no more MOUs that come without the necessary funding to be sustainable in the long term. Not four years, not eight, but in perpetuity because what is most likely to be successful is a rather expensive proposition.
As to your half empty buildings. Roughly 20 years ago, under Lillian Lowery, Christina attempted to close several city schools to address the very concerns listed while also becoming more in line with the Neighborhood Schools Act. The rubber stamping school board of those times blindly followed Lowery’ s lead. However, the City of Wilmington sued and won and Christina was required to continue operating aging, under-utilized facilities without additional income to ensure their maintenance. It has been openly accepted since then, that the only way a city school will be closed is by the Governor himself. The City of Wilmington shoulders the full fault of these cash-draining buildings and the effects on the district, the board, the kids, and their communities. And true to form, what has always been predicted has come true. City closures by the Governor himself.
Christina does have several other unnecessary assets. The park across from Drew perceived to be a city park, is owned by Christina. Each overdose, each injury, each gun shot, each condom, each knife, each addict that calls that park home creates more liability for the district. Sell the park. It truly belongs to the City and Wilmington should invest in purchasing it. If the city declines, sell it for construction or turn it into a pay lot. It’s proximity to the heart of the business district lends it some real value.
Move on to Eden. Eden, though utilized by some departments, needs to be levelled. It sits on several desirable acres in a growing commercial region. The district could orchestrate a buy-out that would divide the parcel and provide for a new Eden built to suit the needs of the district. Or sell it entirely and renovate another underused asset to house the department currently homed there.
Yet Gov. Carney (and Gov. Jack Markell before him) have had to expend significant energy and political capital just to get the district to sign a piece of paper committing to real action. Seriously? Expend political capital? Did they really need to call in all the favors due them to get Christina to sign a piece of paper? Are Christina’s School Board members that influential that Carney spent political capital to compel Christina to following his plan? No. It took one Governor, Carney, to write a meaningful figure on that piece of paper as proof to a board that has been hosed by DOE for years, one signature that ensures enough money will in fact follow the plans on the paper. The only significant expense of energy has been what DOE put into desecrating Christina’s reputation.
That it takes ultimatums, lawsuits, federal investigations and hand-holding from the highest levels of our state government. It would not be so bad if the district actually had a track record of delivering on their commitments. They don’t. Christina delivers on commitments every day. Ask the children that leave its schools, what did you learn today? You might be surprised what they tell you.
Just two years ago, on March 4, 2016, the Christina School District signed a similar agreement with the Delaware Department of Education by which it committed to implementing reforms that would dramatically improve their lowest-performing schools.
Yet Christina school board member Harrie Ellen Minnehan remarked: “None of the actions designated in the doc were put into place as stated but the monies did go to the Wilmington city schools. I believe (Secretary) Godowsky wanted it signed strictly for audit purposes.” When and where is this remark? A statement out of context is just a statement out of context.
With no intention to deliver and no true accountability from the state, Christina School District has mastered this game of sign and switch. Cute, “sign and switch.” I feel like you’ve just inked an MOU on a new board game. Having had to live with those MOUs, I can tell you that I felt accountability every day and I believe that our current board members do the same. They don’t all agree on how to do it, but they all have one commitment, to see that children like mine and yours receive a good education. Mine is receiving a fantastic education in a new program that has a waiting list of students who want to be there. This is Christina going to back to its roots and implementing innovation to bring back those students you’ve already mentioned as having fled. They fled for lack of choice, not for lack of faith.
In 2014, the Christina school board released a three-year strategic plan that took a school year to develop. They called it “Imagining the Future for Christina” and, like the MOUs, it addressed the essentials for creating a high-performing district.
But in The News Journal last September, Vice President Fred Polaski said the plan was never put into action. Instead, it was “put on the shelf” and none of the goals in the plan were met before it expired in 2017. Please let me provide the context of Polaski’s comment:
” Conversations about priority schools, state takeovers and redistricting have distracted from the real issues, the school board’s vice president Fred Polaski said, leaving little energy or appetite to focus on anything else.
The district’s most recent strategic plan, which took an entire school year to put together, was basically “put on a shelf,” he said.
“There was so much in it, you couldn’t get it all done in the timeframes we hoped for,” he said. “We never sat down and said ‘OK, we can’t do all of it. What can we do?'” -The News Journal, Sept. 22, 2017.
These comments ran beneath a headline that proclaimed “CHRISTINA EMBARKS ON MASSIVE TURNAROUND TO HELP WILMINGTON STUDENTS.” Clearly, these comments, in context, do not satisfy the paper-pushing assertion. There has been no “Sign and Switch” here.
With Polaski’s comment in full context, I think many “interventions” perpetrated on the district by our government and DOE prevented the full implementation of that strategic plan. RTTT consumed one, leaving no funds left to implement a separate plan. In my opinion our strategic plan at the time was utter obfuscation to the extent that some members wanted their names removed, including mine. The next plan was being conceived when I retired my board service. That plan was interrupted by Markell and the DOE and their aspirations for those schools that fell in the bottom 5% of the state and the fate of the Wilmington schools. Now, Christina is again back to the drawing board. This time under the weight of the unknown – what will happen to our Wilmington children? What will be our financial obligation when all the schools are retrofitted and when new busing patterns are designed and implemented? Who will sit in the dual generational academy and provide services to our Wilmington children? How will CSD pass a referendum to continue adding new choice options? What will happen to the excessed buildings? Carney has already promised to exclude them from Charters seeking to lease them. But, who else wants a school building? Will they be mothballed? Will we continue to pay utilities there? What will be the cost of new curriculum that is sensitive to the needs of these students? What teachers will want to VT in or out of the schools? It is almost impossible to bear forward an amazing actionable plan when you have so many unknowns with which to bear. And no one has said a single word about the carve-out MOU that must be approved by the Christina’s unions as Carney’s interventions require work that is currently outside the scope of the current union contract.
In 2013, the state withheld $2.3 million of the Christina School District’s funds for failing to deliver on its commitments. In 2011, the state was close to withholding $11 million from the Christina School District for reneging on a previous agreement. I absolutely support the 2013 board action that resulted in the state withholding of $2.3 million in Race to the Top Funds. Christina did not want them. The prevailing board members believe that our students would be better off if we ceased to operate the failing interventions tied to those funds. In 2011, Christina made the final payment on its $20 million loan from the state – one year early. My board then jeopardized the district allotment of $11 million in RTTT. Why? As was widely reported, our human resources department in conjunction with our former superintendent strayed from the plan regarding the evaluation and hiring of teachers in our Partnership Zone Schools. Christina did not act to refuse the funds. The board wanted the hiring process repeated with fidelity. What we learned from our lawyer, after the fact, was that fidelity is not a legal measure. Compliance is. What our HR and Super had done technically fell within the bounds of Substantial Compliance and our board was forced to revote the issue, after which the State pushed the funds into the district to begin turnaround. We took fire from every direction because we wanted to do RTTT right, sticking to the measure we had agreed to with the state and while also holding the state accountable on their end. To that extent, the board had an independent leader review the RTTT monthly efforts and outcomes in the partnership zone schools and report to us directly to ensure we were receiving true information and not the sugar-coated kind. This is leadership. Seven members, each elected, with seven different experience and interpretations of the job before them. Of course, there is going to be debate, intense, thoughtful, sometimes painful and intense debate. But, when you are looking at the large sums of money and the strings attached, a board member must advocate and compromise their positions. What lies before them must be thoroughly vetted before we subject students, staff, parents, and tax payers to what we’ve been required to transform.
This pattern of ineffective leadership is bad for taxpayers. It is even worse for the many students and families who desperately need Christina’s schools to be of the highest quality. The leadership, though at time troubled, is similar to the leadership of many other boards in our state. A down state board member is lighting up the press today. None of us have lost sight, even those who have come and gone, of the need for CSD to be of high quality. I can honestly say that I believe my son is receiving a comparable education in his CSD choice program to that of our effective local charter schools. I also believe that the Strategic Plan should capitalize on the success of this first ,agnet endeavor. I urge our school board to keep pushing forward despite the changing landscape as DOE demands.
But because this year’s Christina School District drama features a new governor, a new secretary of education, a new Christina School District superintendent and a few new players, we are expected to act like we have not seen how this script ends. We are expected to be comfortable with handing over an additional $15 million to a district that has not been asked to account for how it spent previous dollars designated for improving its schools. Christina has absolutely accounted for the spending of every dollar. Read the online check book. Visit the P-Card page. Ask questions of the financial director. Go to a CBOC meeting. This information is transparent and available for free to all.
How can we be excited about the promises of the latest MOU when the district has failed to honor its longstanding IOU to our kids? This district has been constrained from being creative and expanding its offerings because of the RTTT/Partnership Zone, bottom 5% school mandates, Smarter Balance, etc. Christina spent so much time and money providing exactly what the MOUs said, despite the pain of knowing that the interventions when observed from a longitudinal lens were going to fail as they failed everywhere else. The question that should be asked is, how is Carney going to ensure the interventions he’s directed are going to succeed. What data can he provide? As I can surely show you mine.
In 2020, my daughter will be starting kindergarten and her current feeder pattern would have her headed to Stubbs Elementary. If we continue our current path, 2020 will bring yet another year in which fewer than 10 Stubbs students are proficient in math and fewer than 20 are proficient in reading. Your daughter is fortunate. Her father is a well-read, though deceptive, educated advocate. Based on the most recent plan I’ve read, your daughter will first go to Stubbs as she would if she were old enough to attend kindergarten now. She will spend a year there before she grows her wings and attends one of the two 1-8 schools. That is exactly what you should want for your child. And her success will depend on how you invest in her. Parental involvement does not need to take place within the bounds of building. It happens in homes far more frequently than educators recognize.
That is not the future I want for my child or any of the children of the Christina School District. Again, I am beyond satisfied in the education my son is receiving in CSD. I have lived with one foot in each a traditional district and the other in various charters. I have transferred my children, at times, to have access to better special education service providers, to allow my children to attend the same school at the same time for at least part of their young lives, and even for familial convenience. I currently have one child bused curb to curb and another requires a carpool due to a lack of busing.
So state leaders should definitely provide the students and educators in Christina’s Wilmington schools the additional investment and support needed. Wait, are we back to Wilmington-specific education again? You slip and slide with all the facts you’ve mangled. But only after they find a way to give our community a school board that represents us and can deliver the results our kids deserve. Alleyne, I am not your enemy. In fact, I think that Wilmington should have an ad-hoc committee of education experts overseeing these funds. I also think that the success and/or failure should lie on their shoulders and not that of the current board. I would support CSD in creating a committee of education leaders from within our city district’s boundaries to oversee the application of the funds.
I look forward to the day I see Mr. Alleyne run for school board member. He just may find that the map to success is far more complex that he current credits.
Atnre Alleyne is the founder and executive director of an education advocacy organization, DelawareCAN: The Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now.
Elizabeth Scheinberg is the co-founder of a community partnership that provides children with autism and their families free recreation designed to address sensory and social needs in a safe environment. Her daughter was also the inspiration between Glasgow Park’s Hi5 Park for children with autism. Before writing this redline, she has slain 8 dragons before breakfast and thought of 8 more absolutely impossible things to overcome.