IR school board aims to cut future out-of-district transfers

Teachers beg for relief

 Jesusa Pavon is concerned about the 28 students in her kindergarten class. When she walks them through the hallways at East Millsboro Elementary School, “I don’t see the end of my line,” she said. There are too many students and not enough teacher.

“So the issue … is safety, and it’s what worries me the most. I am one person. I am unable to see the end of my line when I walk them places.” She said she loves teaching, but “28 children is a lot for one person.”

She described her predicament to the local board of education during a Sept. 24 discussion of student population growth and school choice.

As the population of the Indian River School District continues to grow, school board members want to stop accepting new transfer students.

In years past, the Board of Education happily accepted the out-of-district students who commuted to IRSD schools. But with schools “bulging at the seams,” the school board is now updating the school-choice policy to give more precedence to students already in the district.

Although existing out-of-district students would have more protections in remaining in the IRSD as they move up the ranks (such as from middle to high school), the district would ultimately put the kibosh on future out-of-district transfers, at least while space is at a premium.

They hope to continue allowing school choice for in-district students, where there’s room.

After much discussion, including pleas from elementary school teachers, the board approved the first reading of the related update to Policy JECC-A.

The school choice application process for 2019-2020 starts in November, so the board needs a final document soon. The Policy Committee will continue the discussion on Monday, Oct. 8, at 4 p.m. at the Indian River Education Complex in Selbyville, at a meeting that is open to the public. The school board will likely vote on the second and final reading of the updated policy on Monday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.

The biggest policy change involved would be IRSD including out-of-district students in the definition of “Returning Student,” for the same school or the next school in their designated feeder program (i.e. John M. Clayton Elementary School to Selbyville Middle School).

That would cover any IRSD student, whether they live inside or outside of the district. Once accepted, they’re IRSD students. But it does not include students who withdraw or are terminated from the Spanish Immersion, International Baccalaureate or STEM programs.

The definition does not include a time cap if a student fully leaves the district and attempts to return. But Mark Steele said anyone wishing to continue uninterrupted enrollment must notify the district immediately if they move outside the attendance area.

Students who live in the geographic range of their school are automatically eligible to attend that school, by state law. But a challenge will face students who want choose a different school — either in or out of the school district — or a special program.

The State sets the first few school-choice priorities: returning students who continue to meet the requirements for their program or school, new students whose parents live in the school’s designated feeder pattern; in-district siblings of in-district students who are already enrolled and will be returning to the program or school; and out-of-district siblings of out-of-district students who are already enrolled and will be returning to the program or school.

Next, the IRSD would consider accepting children of pension-eligible school employees; then district students outside the school’s designated geographic zone; and, finally, non-district students.

The IRSD could also reject a school-choice application if the school is at 90 percent of its building capacity. That is a proposed increase over the current 85 percent cap. The draft policy does not define the capacity of individual programs.

The goal is to “try to keep the kids we have in the system here, but try to prevent out-of-district kids from coming in as much as we could. … We are going to have to start paying very close attention,” said Superintendent Mark Steele. “We are approximately 75, 80 kids higher than we were last Sept. 30.”

Some board members struggled with nuances that could give out-of-district students higher priority than in-district ones. But Board Member Jim Hudson reminded the board that, once the IRSD accepts a student, they’re an IRSD student. Maybe they shouldn’t have accepted them before, he said, but they’re IRSD students now.

Graduating the existing out-of-district students from the system will help, but another 288-house neighborhood was just approved in Georgetown, Steele said. Local growth is still happening.

The IRSD will also look into establishing caps on the special programs, plus ensuring all students meet the criteria of the program they wish to continue.

District officials said the high schools also need to better market special programs, such as STEM or IB, to existing district students. They can’t rely on out-of-district students to fill empty slots.

“We’re a district bulging at the seams, but we don’t have enough students for a program — there’s a problem,” said Board Member W. Scott Collins.

Plenty of students leave the IRSD, too. The district used to gain money from school choice, but now loses a net of more than $500,000 for students to leave the IRSD and school-choice outside of the district, including charter schools. Last year, about 430 students choiced out, but 184 choiced in, estimated Finance Director Jan Steele. That’s good for the overcrowding problem, but not ideal for school retention.

The independent Sussex Technical High School could return to a more traditional vocational-technical mission, said Mark Steele, so the IRSD could lose some students to that re-focused specialty, while regaining students who had left the IRSD for Tech’s college-prep programs.

The school choice policy has changed six times in six years.

“It’s something we touch every single school year, trying to make it the best we can,” Collins said.

Teachers’ union president J.R. Emanuele suggested the board go a step further, by eliminating administrators from the school-choice decision process, because it’s the teachers who actually manage the overcrowded classrooms on a day-to-day basis.

Kindergarten teacher Wanda Williams asked why school choice has been allowed when East Millsboro Elementary School already feels overcrowded. She also asked that schools be allowed to take advantage of their full unit count funding. (The State share of salaries is based upon student population as of Sept. 30 each year, known as “unit count.”)

“Please let us spend those units so we can get some help,” Williams said. “We are heavy in all of the classes. We would sincerely like some more consideration after the Sept. 30 unit count.”

The draft policy JECC-A can be read online at www.boarddocs.com/de/irsd/Board.nsf/Public (Click “Meetings,” then “Sept. 24,” then “View the Agenda,” and scroll to “6.07 Policy”).

State test results in

Results are being released for the spring 2018 state standardized tests. The school board examined how many IRSD students met proficiency standards, compared to the state average, in the eight elementary, four middle and two high schools.

“I think it’s important to look at the data and then make plans to move forward,” said Kelly Dorman, director of elementary education.

“We also pride ourselves in wanting to be above everyone in the state, so now we kind of pinpoint our eyes” to make improvements, said Renee Jerns, IRSD director of secondary education. “We’ve started doing walk-throughs in all buildings and hundreds of classrooms, and collect data where to provide instructional support.”

In the spring tests, in third-grade English Language Arts (ELA), five schools met or exceeded Delaware’s average proficiency level of 52 percent. In fourth grade ELA, six schools exceeded the 58 percent level. In fifth grade ELA, six exceeded the 58 percent proficiency level.

Overall in ELA, the IRSD ranked seventh in the state in third and fourth grades, and fourth in the fifth grade.

In third-grade math, four schools exceed the state’s 54 percent proficiency level. In fourth-grade math, seven exceeded the 50 percent level. In fifth-grade math, all eight schools exceeded the 43-percent average.

Overall in math, IRSD ranked fifth for third and fourth grades, and third for fifth grade.

All four middle schools met or exceeded the state averages in the mid-50s percent range for ELA. IRSD schools ranked sixth in sixth grade, second in seventh grade and first in eighth grade in ELA.

All four middle schools met or exceeded the state average of 40 and 39 percent proficiency for sixth- and seventh-grade math. In eighth grade, only three schools exceeded the 39 percent state average. Still, IRSD ranked second in sixth- and seventh-grade math, and fifth in eight-grade math.

Delaware pays for every 11th grader to take the SAT in March, in an effort to increase college access. While 26 percent of Delaware 11th-graders met the SAT English and math benchmarks, local scores dropped at both IR and SCHS, to 25 and 17 percent proficiency, respectively.

Delaware’s average SAT score will appear artificially low compared to the nationwide numbers, because the SAT is not mandatory in most of the country, so those who might decline to take the test in other states are required to do so in Delaware, reducing average scores.

“Please keep in mind that the State of Delaware chooses to assess every child in the state,” making it one of just a few that do so, said Jerns. “So when you look at those [national ranking] results, you’re comparing to states who are about average 28 to 32 percent of their students taking the SAT.”

In other IRSD news:

• The teachers’ union is hoping for some transparency as the district quietly researches how administrator salaries compare across the state.

Rumors and misinformation are circulating, warned Emanuele, president of Indian River Education Association (IREA). “Apparently, this [salary] matrix has been circulated amongst the administrators, but there’s still an air of secrecy.”

He reminded the board that the teachers had reduced their scheduled pay raises to help the district stay afloat during last year’s budget crunch.

Although the IREA has no say in administrator salaries, an open discussion would help dispel rumors, he said.

“It’s hard for me to help and distribute accurate information when nothing’s being shared. I’ve asked before, and I’ll ask again: Can I have a copy of that matrix?”

• The subdivision process is nearly complete, clearing the way for the IRSD to officially oversee a new 33.9 acres parcel acquired to build a replacement Howard T. Ennis School in Millsboro, across from Sussex Central High School. The design process should begin around Oct. 5, and construction could begin around July 1, said Mark Steele. The replacement school would be an entirely State-funded project, overseen by IRSD, since Howard T. Ennis serves students from across the state.

• In a time when districts are already desperate for bus drivers, parent Lisa Bryant demanded better and ongoing background checks for drivers. She said she just happened to know of pending legal matters that should have prohibited her son’s bus driver from driving.

“We spend a lot of time … making sure our children are safe in the school halls. In reality, the most dangerous part of the day,” Bryant said, is the drive there.

• Phillip C. Showell Elementary School was approved for $25,310 for roof repairs. The G.W. Carver Academy will install a learning garden for its preschoolers. The garden will be fertilizer-free, and will the children and their families to enjoy the harvest as production allows. Long Neck Elementary School will remove some outdoor exercise equipment and an outdoor habitat area that are outdated or under-used.

• After touring the schools, Superintendent Steele reminded the school board how great the district is: “I came away last week feeling absolutely terrific after those learning walks. … I just think we’re going to see great things over the next few years,” Steele said, encouraging the board to visit the classroom and not forget the great things happening there day-to-day.

• The board approved SCHS to become a bus parking site, as IRSD will need a central northern location for nine working buses, plus four spares. The $5,000 electric and equipment costs can be paid by minor capital improvement money (partly funded by the State). Materials will cost up to $10,000 (local funds), and district staff can provide the needed labor.

• Special Education Week will be Oct. 22 to 26, celebrating the local programing and people in special ed.

The next IRSD Board of Education meeting is Monday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.

 

By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter