Dept. of Ed. FAQ on Priority Schools

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Putting together the puzzle pieces

Delaware won the Federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. With it came to the state $120 million. Of that $120 million, the 19 school districts and 20+ charter schools received roughly half to implement key programs like data coaches ($8.2 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). The other half of that $120 million was reserved for the DoE to use toward their internal programming. These funds likely went towards new units at DoE like the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit and other areas of bureaucratic largesse.

However, it was revealed quite a while back that the state hadn’t fully spent its half of the RttT funds by the time the grant expired on June 30, 2014. They were given an exception by Federal DoE to keep the funds as long as they were to use it in an appropriate manner.It’s expected that those leftover RttT funds will be used toward this Priority Schools initiative in Red Clay and Christina.

In order to fully inform myself where the monies are expected to come from for these Priority Schools AND to get an idea of HOW the DoE’s portion of RttT funds were spent in those four years, I sent the following email to DoE Sec. Mark Murphy:

Hello, Sec. Murphy:

 

Hope the school year has gotten off to a great start for you. I’m feeling quite at home with my new friends at Warner Elementary. They’re quite the dedicated and talented staff.
In doing my own research related to the proposed Priority Schools in my District, I’m interested in getting some financial information from you. In this email, I’m requesting year-by-year financial reports on how the Department spent its portion of the Race to the Top funds. As is known, roughly half of the $120 million dollars went to the school districts and the other half remained at the Department. I’d first like to know the total amount received as the Department’s portion. I’d then like to see the annual reports of how those monies were spent. As well, I’d like to see how much has been unspent and what projects DoE will be doing in order to spend down those monies.
If this information is easily accessible — and digestible — on the Department website, please feel free to forward me to that link. I’ve had members in my Association question me about this new Priority Schools initiative and the potential connection to RttT. Some of those members and myself are quite concerned about the lack of details provided at the press conference on Thursday and would like to peruse financials to learn more.
Hope you enjoy the weekend and thanks so much for your assistance,
Mike

It’s also expected that a California transplant named as DoE’s Chief Accountability and Performance Officer, Penny Schwinn, will be heading up this project at DoE. For those interested, John Young has some information on what Mrs. Schwinn brings to Delaware.For some perspective, she has less than a handful of years of actual teaching experience. At last month’s State Board of Education meeting, she was quoted by multiple sources, myself included, as saying that violence in our city communities “isn’t necessarily something our children need to overcome.” Mrs. Schwinn must have some perspective to make that comment. However, considering she only started her job in Delaware on June 9 of this year, I fail to see how her perspective and understanding is relevant.

I’ve shared with some of my RCEA members my concerns about the state’s plans. There is still much internal discussion to be had, particularly with our three impacted buildings, Warner, Shortlidge, and Highlands Elementary Schools. Within the next week, I’m sure you’ll all be hearing as more and more information and interpretation of said information is digested. Stay tuned.

 

Partnership Zone v2.0?

I pride myself on having excellent long-term memory. As friends and family would likely attest, my short-term memory regarding things like what I ate last night or where I placed my wallet is severely poor. However, I can remember bizarre facts to the day about something I was doing 20 years ago.

Though I don’t recall who recruited me, in my first year of teaching I was selected — likely by my union — to serve on the planning committee for the implementation plans for Race to the Top. I received a substitute day to attend a seminar on RttT held at the Groves Center in Marshallton. I didn’t know him then, but I believe future Red Clay School Board President Kenny Rivera was there representing Brandywine School District. ON another day, I remember going to District headquarters, which at the time was still located in the penthouse suite in Linden Park in Pike Creek. My good friend Vicki Seifred was there, if I recall correctly, and we were tasked with reviewing the final RttT application before we were going to submit it to the State for final approval. One of the first questions that left my mouth — this novice, non-tenured teacher’s mouth — was about sustainability. How was Red Clay — in working with the State — going to ensure the SUSTAINABILITY of the funding for the programs that would be included in our Race to the Top application?

The short answer was there was no guarantee of sustainability because Race to the Top, all along, was a temporary program meant to set in motion a few key practices that could be maintained without future funding. PLCs? Data Coaches? $60 million cash straight to the DoE with little accountability? No problem!

Under Race to the Top, provisions for Partnership Zone schools were made. Some of the “lowest-performing” schools could get access to some cash to implement new programming and professional development for its staff. Sounds great, huh? Well how about a mechanism to sustain those funds once they dried up? Ummm…nope! Not part of the discussion. Case closed. Good night.

Imagine my surprise when I was told late last week that three schools in Red Clay would have the “honor” of essentially being the “new” Partnership Zone schools. Only now they’re called Focus Schools. Or, wait, sorry. Scratch that. They’re call “Priority Schools.” Holy hell if only we had the same level of outrage with this rebranding of BS that the public did over New Coke!

The three schools named in Red Clay are Highlands, Shortlidge, and Warner Elementary Schools. Coincidence they’re all located in the city? Hmmmmm…

I don’t at all question some of the positives that can come from this. If these schools are getting funds to run effective and meaningful after school programs or perhaps provide some truly engaging professional development for the teachers within, then by all means let’s have at it. However, until we have:

  1. Identified a sustainable mechanism that can KEEP those funds for key services coming into these SEVERELY high-needs schools and…
  2. Decouple the idea that FAILURE to achieve certain scores on standardized tests would then mean the school would potentially be targeted for closure and turnaround through, of all things, a charter organization.

then you’d better damn well believe you likely won’t get the support of either the EDUCATORS into those buildings or the communities who send their children there.

Priority Schools are borne out of this idea that SOMETHING needs to be done with the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Rather than Gov. Jack Markell and the legislature truly coming together to look at something like our dysfunctional UNIT COUNT system, they’d rather take the easy way out through competitive grants and coercive faux-accountability provisions like No Child Left Behind to further the instability of the communities in which our neediest schools reside.

I’m proud to report that the staffs at the three schools impacted in my District brought their A-game today. At each of the three schools, a District administrator showed up to share the news about this opportunity. Some of the questions in these three buildings were quite direct. In one school, a teacher said with a somewhat quivering voice, “I’ve been here for 16 years and for 16 years our students have been slighted. And now the Governor wants to come here and grandstand?” One member asked a question surrounding sustainability. The response? Well, we can plan for three years and they’re we’ll “have conversations.”

I will say this once again: For too long, teachers have been the type to go along to get along. They neither need nor desire conflict. They want to come in, work with their children, and then go home to their lives with friends and families. However, at a certain point and at certain schools, enough has turned into enough. Teachers are starting to speak up with a clear passion. And no amount of secretive government money or grants will be able to shut that up at this juncture.

Thanks to the members in those three buildings who spoke up. I hope THAT becomes the new norm.