Our Public High Schools
Public schools face bigger challenges than ever, yet many succeed where others fear to tread. Herein, the high schools ranked, with the latest on testing programs, new charters, the budget crunch and more, so that you may plan your child’s education wisely.
Page 1: Choosing a School
Page 2: What’s Up with New Charters
Page 3: Appoquinimink is Awesome
Page 4: The Budget Crunch
Page 5: The DSTP Question
Page 6: Rerouted—Re-Segregation?
Page 7: The Big High School Ranking
Last fall, 35 parents braved the cold and camped overnight outside the Brandywine School District office in Claymont. By morning, hundreds had joined the ranks.
The shivering throngs of parents were there to sign up for Brandywine’s school choice program, and given the wealth of information and data now available to them, that choice is not so cut-and-dry.
State testing results, SAT scores, and dropout and graduation rates all give some indication of a school’s strengths and weaknesses, but are they truly the measure of a school?
Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff says parents should take into account several factors when choosing a school.
“Look at the things that are important to you as a parent,” she says. “For example, what’s the strength of the school’s music program or athletic program? Is there a special curricular emphasis at this school? What’s the school size? What’s the social heterogeneity?”
Then visit the school in person, she says. “Look for things like teacher interaction and the general tone of the place.”
Kids know the importance of SATs as a golden ticket for college acceptance. But are good test scores signs of a good school? Or even a college-bound student?
Maureen Laffey, director of the DOE’s Delaware Higher Education Commission, says scores are not the sole means of measure for college admission, as colleges will examine a range of achievements, from extracurricular activities to community involvement.
Woodruff has even less faith in test scores as an indicator. “I have never been a believer in looking just at state testing or SATs,” she says. “Those are one-time measures. No assessment is ever going to give you a true picture of any school, any district, any state.”
The AP Factor
For the college-bound, or for students simply looking for an academic challenge, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs are an ideal option. The college-level courses have become a key component in high school education and routinely play an important role in college admissions as they show a student’s initiative in pursuing a more dynamic education, Laffey says.
The more courses a school offers, the more opportunities there are for students to challenge themselves and wholeheartedly prepare for college.
“Is college for everyone? Not necessarily. Is college readiness for everyone? Absolutely,” Woodruff says. “We work a lot with our districts and say let’s look at the fact that whether or not all your kids are going to college, it’s what are you doing to improve the curriculum across the board that will help more kids to be able to reach that goal.”
Class Size Matters
Intuitively, a smaller class size points to a closer relationship between teacher and student. But Woodruff warns that sometimes you need to have a few bigger classes in order to have those smaller, tightly knit classes.
“I think in Delaware we’ve done a good job across the board of keeping class sizes in a pretty manageable situation,” she says.
Still, the attention a pupil receives from his teacher is a key to a healthy education, says Middletown principal Donna Mitchell. When Middletown reached its peak occupancy of 2,300 students, it was able to keep a ratio of 15 students per teacher.
Does Spending Make a School Stronger?
Student spending is determined by a district’s tax base and referendums, so some districts don’t have as much spending money as others. But high spending doesn’t necessarily translate into higher achievement.
Woodruff points to districts like Milford and Indian River, which are not wealthy by any stretch, but perform at a high level. Both districts allot about $10,000 per pupil and both carry “commendable” district ratings.
“Then you have a few districts that spend a lot of money because they have a lot of it, and they’re not doing so hot,” Woodruff says.
More important, according to Woodruff, is the focus of the school, what the school does to support its teachers, and how the school executes its curriculum. “Those things are not measurable by statistics, but they make a school stronger or not,” she says.
Teachers’ experience, the district’s salary structure and number of special needs students and programs also contribute to a district’s expenses.
What do the rates mean?
The top eight graduation rates in the state are from specialized schools, which shows that the more eager students are to attend school, the more likely they will graduate, says Howard principal Evelyn Edney.
A high dropout rate could indicate a struggling school, but Woodruff says a closer look might be needed to find out what the school is doing to improve. “How are they working and communicating with the families to prevent dropouts?” she says.
Pick the best fit for your kid
School choice is alive and well, Woodruff says, and parents have more options than ever. Look for the school that will serve your child best, she says.
“If there’s a school that has an International Baccalaureate program and you want your kid to be in that program, you should be able to go after it,” she says. “There may be limited space, but at least you have the opportunity to say what you want.”
Page 2: What's Up With New Charters
Jack Perry fought to change charter school laws. Now the state is taking a break to see what else needs changing.
The state in June closed the books on all new charter school applications for at least a year while it examines related legislation, which has not been reviewed for 13 years. “There were some questions,” says DSEA president Diane Donohue.
Perry’s Prestige Academy Charter School in Wilmington opened in September 2008 after a new law allowed same-sex charter schools. Prestige, the first same-sex charter in the state, teaches a college program to minority and low-income boys from families who can’t afford a similar private school education. It was one of the last charters approved before the moratorium. Aspira Charter School of Delaware, Gateway Charter School, First Responder Charter School and a planned all-girls school also slipped in under the wire.
“People have been critical of the department for not authorizing tons of charter schools,” says outgoing Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff. “But one of the things that we’ve learned is that if we aren’t strict early on, we end up having a lot of problems.”
Charter school founders have the desire, Woodruff says, but they don’t always have the know-how. Some charters struggle with finances, curriculum and teachers early on, she says. Yet some view the moratorium as an attack on non-traditional schools.
“I think moratoriums can be dangerous,” Perry says. “The charter movement has been successful in Delaware, and parents have been very happy with the choice. I don’t know if a moratorium is necessary to strengthen the process. But if there’s a way to make sure better schools open for our kids, I’m all for that.
“The moratorium certainly puts those of us trying to provide choices for parents on the defensive.”
Charter schools have no doubt diversified public education. The Charter School of Wilmington has been an academic juggernaut in its 12 years of existence, outperforming every traditional public high school in recent years. Others, like Maurice J. Moyer Academy in Wilmington, haven’t been as successful. Moyer ranks near the bottom of the state in test scores and dropout rates.
The argument for charters is that they can be creative and innovative while providing a focused curriculum, so they have a place. “Look, charter schools are here to stay,” Woodruff says. “The whole idea of empowering families with choice is here to stay. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
With a new administration coming this month, aspiring charter leaders may soon see the cloud lift on the moratorium and, quite possibly, a new future for charters. —Matt Amis
Page 3: Appoquinimink is Awesome
Surrounded by the noise of bulldozers, power saws and nail guns, Appoquinimink School District Superintendent Tony Marchio stands in the crisp morning air, beaming with pride.
He ignores the patchy lawn and mostly empty parking lot, walks past the drivers ed car—still displaying temporary tags—and admires the four blindingly white pillars that welcome people to the new, state-of-the-art Appoquinimink High School.
“This is my home,” he says.
In retrospect, it might not have been the sanest idea to leave a stable post in West Virginia for a small but growing school district in Delaware. Back then, in September 1995, the district was a work-in-progress, and having seen its student population double over the past 10 years, it remains one. Yet due to high academic performance and a vigorous building program, it is the envy of districts across the state.
“I used to work in the district, but we never dreamt it would become as huge as it has become,” says outgoing Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff. “They are growing, as well as putting out a reputation of doing a good job. He’s doing a great job of adjusting to their changes.”
Change has been most apparent at Middletown High School, where a fairly new building designed to hold 1,600 people had been surrounded by trailers to house more than 2,300 students.
Where most people would have seen a problem, the district saw an opportunity. Over the past decade, it has expanded the AP program from three courses to 17, passed four referendums for new schools, and had all six of its elementary schools ranked as five-star locations.
A key to the successful growth is the staff’s ability to incorporate students’ opinions into strategic plans. When students feel they are an important part of the system, they are more likely to leave satisfied, says Middletown High principal Donna Mitchell.
“The more people you have, the more opportunity there is for students to feel disenfranchised,” she says. “Our challenge is to make sure every student feels like they belong.”
Marchio has applied the same philosophy to the whole community. By including everyone in the process, the district created a boom of parents who are focused on their children’s educations, which Marchio says has led to successful referendums to fund construction. Appoquinimink plans to finish five new schools by 2015.
The most recent addition to the Appoquinimink family is still trying to find its place. With only two of the four grades in the new Appoquinimink High, it still feels empty, but it is allowing Principal Felecia Duggins, a veteran of the Middletown High administration, to drive home her motto.
“Failure is not an option,” she says. —Bob Thurlow
Page 4: The Budget Crunch
The Budget Crunch
In the secretary of education’s office sits a glass jar. Its label reads: “Medication prescribed for Valerie A. Woodruff for symptoms caused by budget cut-induced migraines and other aches and pains. Take as needed.”
The outgoing secretary tries to keep the jar filled with peanut M&Ms. Given the lumps she’s endured recently, she’s had a hard time.
The state slashed $19 million from the public education budget for FY2009, even as total student enrollment grew 1.8 percent. As the Department of Education and the Joint Finance Committee prepare for the start of budget hearings next month, FY2010 is looking tight as well.
“We have to live within our means. We can’t borrow on credit cards or print money in the basement,” says J.J. Davis, former director of Office of Management and Budget. “If the economy is in a downturn, we have to reduce our expenditures. Some of the nice-to-haves have to go away.”
Public education is the largest recipient of state money—about $1.7 billion in FY2009. Of every dollar in Delaware’s operating budget, 34.4 cents goes to public schools.
With the economy slumping, The Delaware Financial Advisory Committee reduced state revenue projections by about $130 million for this year and next. As a result, educators are building next year’s budget with even less money.
“Energy prices are up, food prices are up, pensions, investments are down,” Davis says. “We’re not immune to any of that. That means massive budget cuts, very tough choices.”
So far cuts have been limited mostly to ancillary programs and things such as extracurricular help and professional development. But one has to ask: Will the budget crunch affect the quality of education?
“We tried to keep cuts out of the classroom,” says Bert Scoglietti of the Office of Management and Budget. Division I funding, which goes to teachers’ salaries and benefits, for example, remained fully funded. Mandatory summer school did not.
Students attended classes for four weeks before the program was cut—with several weeks left to go.
Because the affected student population is small, the Delaware Student Testing Program is likely to be ended and other funds have been freed up, Woodruff says, axing mandatory summer school isn’t a big deal.
“Districts can use the money now however they need,” she says. “If they want to reserve some of those dollars and use it for summer school, they can.”
Budget cuts have run deep, but they seem to have missed any major arteries. Next year might be a different story. Yet all remain hopeful.
“When they do have the money,” says state board president Joan Allen, “we will restore those things.” —Matt Amis
Page 5: The DSTP Question
The DSTP Question
When the Delaware Student Testing Program was instituted in 1998, it was not meant to be a weeklong exam session and stress monster for students, teachers and parents. The idea was simply to measure student performance against state standards.
Indeed, with the number of students meeting those standards having risen about 20 percent over the past decade, the DSTP has proven useful to the Department of Education.
But even Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff, who has nurtured the program since she took over the department in 1999, thinks time is up for the DSTP.
“It has served its purpose and done it pretty well,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking into other methods.”
Woodruff, who will step down when Governor Ruth Ann Minner leaves office this month, won’t be around to oversee the new system. Her biggest concern is that Governor-elect Jack Markell continue discussion of improving it.
Any new system needs to track each student’s growth throughout the year—not just the week of DSTP hell—and account for factors such as disabilities and special circumstances, says Robin Taylor, associate secretary of assessment and accountability. “It has to be more than just an end-of-the-year type of thing,” she says.
The key to the next generation of testing is increasing standards and complying with the federal guidelines of No Child Left Behind while raising expectations for students and educators around the state. One way is to aim for international benchmarks.
“I think we ought to have very high standards for our students, and that is one way to track them against strong competition,” says Markell.
The state needs to ensure that students “are ready to take their place in a very competitive global economy,” says Woodruff. “If not, we are not serving them well.”
The biggest issue now is feasibility, especially with the growing concerns with state and federal budgets. But Taylor thinks a new system could be in place within 18 months of inception. The challenge would be to continue funding the DSTP while trying to implement a new exam.
Thankfully for the state, advances in technology will make it possible for the new version to be computer-based and less troublesome to manage.
But all the speculation means little to principals like Noreen LaSorsa at Christiana High School, who have to focus their teams for an impending battle: How will you prepare for a new test?
“That is the miracle question,” LaSorsa says. “There is really no one way to do it.” —Bob Thurlow
Page 6: Rerouted
Thirty years after buses first moved city kids into suburban schools and suburban kids into the city, some worry Wilmington is lapsing into re-segregation.
Busing came to New Castle County in September 1978 and forever changed the landscape of public education. The action aimed to foster diversity in public schools. But three decades later, some say we’re back to where we started.
“We have in the city of Wilmington almost resegregated schools,” says outgoing Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff.
District Court Judge Murray Schwartz’s decision 30 years ago required students from Wilmington to spend nine of 12 basic years in suburban schools and suburban students to spend three in city schools while creating an 80-20 while-black balance in all schools.
The hope was that underachieving students from poor city schools would perform better at predominantly white schools.
“But there was so much white flight that it soon became about 40 percent black and 60 percent white across the countywide district,” says Raymond Wolters, University of Delaware history professor and author of the book “Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation.”
Though the aim may have been noble, evidence suggests neither blacks nor whites benefited greatly from the move. Scores among black students on standardized tests fell while dropout rates climbed.
“Schools have never regained their former level of quality,” Wolters says. “Practically everybody now realizes that busing for racial balance was a momentous wrong turn. In fact, it was a colossal failure.”
Josephy Brumskill, a Brandywine School District board member and a longtime warrior for racial equality in Wilmington’s public schools, says diversity is imperative in public education. Though he believes in integration, Brumskill says Schwartz’ busing legislation failed because black students and teachers simply weren’t accepted at mostly white schools.
“Schwartz had a good idea, but it didn’t work,” he says. “It wasn’t the bus ride itself. It was what students confronted when they got off the bus.”
In 1995 a federal court decided racial balance had been achieved and lifted busing laws. Yet since busing began, the two traditional high schools in Wilmington had either been closed or repurposed. As a result, many district feeder patterns remain as they were during court-ordered busing.
In 2000 the General Assembly passed the Neighborhood Schools Act, which mandated students attend the schools closest to their homes. But by then, school choice, open enrollment, and the proliferation of charter and vo-tech schools had given parents more options. The resulting racial makeup points to resegregation in New Castle County.
“There are some of us who are concerned with that, and there are some that are not,” Woodruff says. “I can see the advantages of having a neighborhood school—kids live together, grow up together, family involvement, community support. But all the family involvement and community support doesn’t come unless the school and the community and the families can come together.”
About a quarter of students in Red Clay, Christiana, Brandywine and Colonial school districts attend predominately white or predominately minority schools. Six out of 17 area charter schools serve a high percentage of black students. And though minority students have made strides in closing the so-called achievement gap, research shows mostly minority schools made up of lower income kids still lag.
Do the advantages of neighborhood schools outweigh the value of diversity? It seems choice is in the hands of the parents.
“Parents want their kids to go to a particular school for many reasons,” Woodruff says. “And we are past the point that racial ratio is high up on the importance scale.” —Matt Amis
Page 7: The Big High School Ranking
The Big High School Ranking
Overall ranking based on rank in six key areas (number in red). T denotes a tie.