Fixing Wilmington’s Schools
The city’s classrooms are once again segregated, but there just might be, at long last, some hope.
Illustration By Brian Hubble
Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams recalls his days as a city cop, being put on alert as children across the city were, for the first time, boarding buses bound for suburban schools. Police were prepared to board with them—just in case. “It was tense,” Williams says.
The year was 1978. For more than 20 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, Delaware had been under various court orders to desegregate New Castle County schools. Many families disagreed with the new busing plan philosophically. Many resisted the change because it was forced upon them. Parents, children and teachers at schools across the county protested passionately and, fortunately, peaceably.
The county could have blown up. Protests over similar plans in other places, some violent, rocked whole cities for weeks. But despite all the local acrimony, something near miraculous happened when busing finally began: In the classrooms and cafeterias, on the ball fields and elsewhere, the kids worked it out. Groups of black students may have sat with groups of black students. White students may have sat with groups of white students. And, yes, some students felt out of place or discriminated against. But the kids, for the most part, learned to get along, and everyone had equal educational opportunities. For a while. Even if the overall quality of education was lackluster.
Today, schools across New Castle County may have been desegregated, but traditional public schools and the charters in Wilmington are segregated again. Race is only part of the equation. The segregation of Wilmington school children is equally economic. The vast majority of students at traditional public schools in the city live in poverty. They live in neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates, high rates of violent crime and incarceration, high numbers of households headed by single adults and all the other social ills associated with the inner cities of modern America. Those students go to school tired, hungry and stressed out. They sometimes act out. Many ultimately drop out. And, as a group, they are the lowest academic achievers in the state.
“I think we should all be angry about that,” Williams says. The world has changed since Brown was decided in 1954. Wilmington has changed. It could be said that, in allowing re-segregation, the entire state has taken a step back 60 years. But in recent months, there have been steps forward. After 15 years of accelerated backsliding in Wilmington, the moment when true change begins may have arrived. “I know folks have been down this road before,” says Tony Allen, the governor’s appointed leader of an effort to recommend improvements. “I am cautiously optimistic.”
Let’s just say that a few months ago, a lot of people interested in Wilmington schools got really, really ticked off. On many issues, the city had been left on its own for years, but it had been almost totally abandoned on education. Since the state’s Neighborhood Schools Act of 2000, four groups had formed to address the needs of the city’s schools and students. The players were good ones—the mayor, City Council members, black legislators and community advocates. They made many excellent recommendations, but failed to find the broader support needed to move their efforts further.
In September, as work toward improving public education throughout the state continued, Gov. Jack Markell declared Delaware’s worst schools—five Wilmington public elementaries and Bayard Middle School—“priority schools.” He announced a plan to make way for new leadership in the buildings—one that required all current teachers to re-apply for their jobs—while the districts wrote improvement plans.
Soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a grievance with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, claiming the state’s charter law was re-segregating Wilmington schools. Unrelated to that complaint, Mayor Williams sued the state to keep Moyer Academic Institute charter school open, though it was, according to the state, not meeting educational standards. Another city charter, Reach Academy for Girls, set to be closed, also sued. (Both schools serve African-American kids.) By March, 700 people attended a News Journal-convened forum in Wilmington on the future of education in Delaware. Despite the backlash to the priority schools declaration, “Any time you can get that many people involved on a public policy issue, it’s a good thing,” Markell says.
Long before that meeting, the governor had issued Executive Order 46, forming the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee to examine ways of improving education in Wilmington. He stacked the group with teachers and administrators (both active and retired), school-board members, respected education activists and longtime community advocates. And he appointed Allen, a former leader of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, as the committee’s head.
For the first time, the city had real ownership of the issue. Building on the recommendations of past groups but with a strategy all its own—and with other issues concerning Wilmington putting it at the fore of major policy actions—WEAC has become the most effective group yet.
It is as easy to conflate issues of race and class as it is to mix up the issues of desegregation and improvement of public education overall, yet the re-segregation of Wilmington schools is a direct result of efforts to improve education across Delaware. It is a long story.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 struck down the separate but equal doctrine in public schools, but it took a federal court order in 1956, a result of the local suit Evans v. Buchanan, to force Delaware to comply. It then took another 10 years for the state Board of Education to dismantle the last black school district.
By then, the population of Wilmington schools was soaring toward 79 percent African-American—a drastic shift from the days of Brown, when the school population was 73 percent white. The black population of suburban schools, in contrast, was less than 10 percent, due in part to a 25-year-long post-War trend of families leaving the city.
In response to the court order of 1956, the state board in 1968, under its new Educational Advancement Act, finally consolidated Delaware’s 49 school districts into 26, 11 in northern New Castle County. The law excluded the Wilmington School District—some claimed intentionally, to keep black children out of “white” suburban schools. It wasn’t long before a group of city parents sued, claiming the law had, in fact, led to segregated schools across the county.
As a result of the suit, Evans v. Buchanan was re-opened. A federal court in 1974 ruled the Educational Advancement Act unconstitutional, and a panel of three district and circuit court judges ordered the county board to, again, desegregate its schools. Despite several legal challenges, a single school district was created for northern New Castle County in 1978 and, as all hell broke lose over busing plans in cities like Boston and Louisville, a complex inter-district busing plan was implemented. Students were forced to attend formerly “white” schools in the suburbs for nine years; formerly “black” schools in the old Wilmington and De La Warr districts for three. Some were bused upward of an hour to schools as far as 18 miles from their homes. Private school enrollments started to increase.
In 1981, the state created four districts in northern New Castle County, and each—Red Clay, Brandywine, Colonial and Christina—was assigned part of the city in order to mix urban and suburban children, based on the idea that equal access to quality teachers and resources would help those most in need. By the late 1980s, Delaware had come to be considered a national model of integration, thanks, in part to busing. Though the court at long last declared the districts racially “unified” in 1995 and soon after ended its supervision of busing, the practice continued.
“Desegregation worked to desegregate,” says Bill Manning, a former president of the Red Clay Consolidated School District board. “But during that era, we lost a lot in quality of education.” Enter school choice and the charter movement, both in 1996—choice partly in response to busing, charters driven by a group of business executives who, concerned about declining college and workforce readiness among recent graduates, pushed for a new model for education.
Passage of the Neighborhood Schools Act in 2000 officially ended busing. The law allows students to go to the closest public school, though the city schools remained under the management of the four districts. (Brandywine is exempted from the law, due to “hardship,” and it continues to bus students within its borders. It is widely lauded for serving the needs, educational and otherwise, of all students well.)
Charters and the Neighborhood Schools Act have had especially disastrous effects on city schools. Charters proliferated in a way never intended or anticipated. Charter enrollment statewide has increased from 500 in 1997 to 12,500 in 2015. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Delaware ranked third in 2011-12 for charter school enrollment as a percentage of total public school enrollment.
Ninety percent of charter schools have been approved by the state, unlike other states, where 90 percent are approved by school districts. Nor has Delaware approved its charters according to the best practices promulgated by the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, or with regard to how charters fit into the overall strategy for public education. Funding charters means shifting monies away from traditional schools.
The ACLU contends that charters have contributed to segregation. Of the 11,500 children enrolled in Wilmington schools, 75 percent are African-American. In the 2012-13 school year, the four Christina district schools in the city counted only 63 white students among a total of 1,500. Among the 1,500 students in the four inner-city charters, only seven were white.
Clearly the city has returned to a 1974 state of affairs, but with the additional pressures of far more degraded neighborhoods, a condition that resulted in large part, many say, from the loss of neighborhood schools. With children attending schools miles away, they say, those schools lost their preeminence as centers of community.
Over the years, those who could afford to leave the neighborhoods did. The trend desegregated suburban schools organically, but it also helped to leave behind an underclass that needed more than anyone for their children to attend schools near home. Despite the protests of their advocates, the Neighborhood Schools Act passed, with the unintended consequence of concentrating large populations of students in poverty—and the trauma they deal with—in the traditional public schools. When the recession of 2008 hit, that concentration only increased.
For all the policymaking and reform efforts, public education overall didn’t improve, and no one has suffered more than the city’s children. “Those kids have gotten the short end of the stick, no matter what the policies were,” says WEAC member Tizzy Lockman, a former president of the PTA at the city’s Highlands Elementary. “The system has denied the right of those kids to get a good education.”
In 2014, only 68 percent of African-American students in Wilmington graduated high school. (It should be noted that Wilmington hasn’t had a traditional high school for almost 20 years.) Among black male city residents over age 25 last year, only 33 percent had earned a diploma or equivalency. Among all public school students in Wilmington, 70 percent live in poverty.
Whether a result of busing or something else, the achievement gap between white and black students in Delaware has widened. The National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Alliance for Excellent Education report that more than 60 percent of Delaware graduates are below proficiency in reading. That percentage soars to 80 percent for African-American students. According to education policy analyst Ron Russo—former head of The Charter School of Wilmington, the best-performing school in the state—Delaware colleges report that 53 percent of Delaware freshmen need remedial courses. Of the new African-American college freshmen who graduated Delaware schools, 73 percent require remedial courses.
All of this, according to Russo, despite relatively high spending on public education. The $14,000 Delaware spends per student each year—nearly $1.3 billion of the total $3.8 billion state budget last year—puts it in the top 10 states for school spending. According to WEAC, everyone is to some degree at fault for Wilmington’s re-segregation and the state of public education in general, though no one is to blame.
“No one intended this. No one sat down and designed it,” says Dan Rich, a senor public policy fellow at the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration and counselor to WEAC. “No one thinks a single stroke will change public education, but you do need to remove the obstacles.”
Among the obstacles WEAC has identified in Wilmington is the tangled governance of its schools. Counting district and charter school boards, 21 different entities make policies. And when it comes to the composition of the four district boards, Wilmington historically has been under-represented. The number of governing bodies makes it difficult to create a unified strategy for improvement overall, and it reduces accountability for quality. Streamlining governance, Allen says, is a major step toward enabling significant improvement.
To create responsive governance of city schools, WEAC has recommended creating a solid mix of traditional public schools, charters and vocational schools as part of an overall education strategy, and engaging the city through a new City Office of Public Education and Public Policy, to be established by state law. It has also recommended cutting Christina and Colonial out of the city. Colonial serves only 300 students in Wilmington, though it operates no schools in the city. Christina is a discontiguous school district, meaning it consists of two territories separated by several miles. The distance is a challenge for many families. “That’s a big problem,” the governor says.
The Catch 22 of poverty is especially vexing. Though education is recognized as the primary means out of poverty, the problems associated with it are the greatest barrier to learning—not to mention a barrier to effective instruction. WEAC has preached far and wide about the need for additional support in schools for kids in poverty. In making the case that 51 percent of all schoolchildren in the state qualify for free or reduced-price lunches—an upward trend—it has gotten the attention of legislators across the state.
WEAC contends that the state needs to meet the needs of low-income children through a comprehensive plan for integration of state services; deploying other public, private and nonprofit institutions, including the state Interagency Resource Management Committee, to carry out parts of the plan, and engaging parents—many failed by the same broken four-district school system that is failing their children now—in education.
WEAC recommends adjusting funding, through a weighted funding formula, to support continued investment in early childhood education efforts, to implement the redistricting of city schools, and to provide special education from kindergarten through third grade, provide service for high-poverty schools and schools with large numbers of English learners, and provide the services and supports needed by low-income students.
“These kids are dealing with real trauma,” Allen says. “We need to deal with that trauma right there.” Scrapping the state’s archaic unit count funding formula would allow the schools to pay for support services—psychologists, intervention specialists, specialized teachers, food programs, after-school programming—they identify as necessary.
“We have to meet families where their needs are—and not in judgment,” says Jacqueline Jenkins, a doctor of education who serves as Williams’ chief strategy adviser. Finally, the report recommends establishing, by statute, an independent Wilmington Education Improvement Commission to make sure changes are made and advise on further education policy.
Many of WEAC’s recommendations have been approved. “My mantra has been: no great Wilmington, no great state,” says Allen. The legislature seems to agree. Frosty, if not outright antagonistic toward the city in years past, it has softened. It realizes the broader value of strong schools to major employers like Allen’s: Bank of America. And having watched violent crime increase in Wilmington, it has realized the ill effects of poverty, which is increasing across the state. “The thing that seemed to be isolated in Wilmington is true across Delaware,” Allen says.
All 62 legislators supported the governor’s other big intervention in Wilmington over the past few months—a commission to study crime prevention strategies—and it is widely believed that those who are driving the escalation in shootings and murders are those who fell through the cracks of the four-district model—a trend doomed to continue unless it is dealt with in the schools. “You can’t talk about violence in Wilmington unless you talk about education,” says Red Clay board member Adriana Bohm, a member of WEAC.
Support for the city—and for improvement of public education in general—is proved by new laws made in June. The governor and legislature approved the redrawing of school district lines in Wilmington (minus Colonial and Christina), the formation of a Wilmington Office of Public Education and Public Policy, and development of a statewide plan for charters and other public schools, an action set up last winter when Markell ceased approving new charters until such a plan could be made.
All of which makes even the toughest skeptics optimistic, for now. WEAC still has a legislative agenda. The question is does the state—or a new governor come next election—have the will to sustain the current effort? “If we truly want a society based on equality and fairness,” says Nnamdi Chukwuocha, chair of Wilmington City Council’s education committee, “we need to do this.”