The perception and reputation of the Christina School District was thrust into the spotlight after several recent public meetings touched on the education system’s influence on the city.
Over the course of three meetings at the end of September and into October, city council and University of Delaware officials raised concerns about Christina, some asserting that the district’s reputation negatively impacts the city’s potential for economic development.
In a meeting to discuss the University of Delaware’s economic impact on Sept. 26, the conversation between UD Executive Vice President Alan Brangman and city council turned to the district.
Councilmen Jerry Clifton and Mark Morehead said that the poor impression of the school district impacts the decisions of families considering moving to Newark.
“It’s going to be somewhat difficult for you to make the case that you ought to live in Newark and raise a family in a great neighborhood that we have, but, by the way, you’re probably going to have to send your kids to private school somewhere for $20,000 a year,” said Clifton.
Morehead said he has seen the effect on city employees as well.
“It’s not a well-kept secret at all that a tremendous number of folks that work in this building in higher levels don’t live in town, don’t live in this school district,” Morehead said.
These perceptions, Superintendent Richard Gregg said in separate interview, are something the district takes seriously.
“We’re working hard to change that perception,” he said. “That’s why we’re working on some of things we’re doing, to create different programs that would retain the students we have and attract new students to the district.”
One of those changes came last month, when the school board voted to approve a reimagining of the three high school programs. The district will transform Newark, Glasgow and Christiana high schools by creating structured, concentrated pathways that will give each school a specific brand and focus in order to better compete with charter and vo-tech schools.
Under the plan, all three high schools will offer dual enrollment programs with Wilmington University, Delaware State University and the University of Delaware; work-based learning experiences; industry and trade certifications/licenses and yearly summer training with stipends for teachers.
While the bones of the programs already exist, others will be phased in in the next few years.
The programs will start in students’ freshman year and the students will take a course in their pathway each year. During their senior year, they would participate in an internship or other hands-on experience on- or off-campus that would lead to certification or work experience.
Newark High School – the high school closest to downtown Newark and just a few blocks away from from the University of Delaware’s campus – was prominent in the conversation between council and Brangman.
“I know [UD does] things with Newark High already, but I think that, at some point, this needs to be a full-court press; we need to get serious,” Clifton said.
Brangman said Newark High and the district have been a topic of conversation between him and the dean of UD’s College of Education and Human Development. He referred to Newark High as “low-hanging fruit.”
As he discussed the development of STAR Campus – and the university’s desire to turn the site into a research and innovation hub – he remarked that its success hinges on the public education system.
“If that doesn’t get fixed, all this other stuff we’re talking about isn’t going to matter,” he said, continuing that the university is in the process of hiring a new dean for the College of Education and Human Development. “My guess is that when those candidates come in, [President] Dennis [Assanis] will talk with them about how they’re going to embed themselves in the community. That is something that we need to do.”
Gregg said that the district already has been in conversation with the university, specifically with the College of Arts and Sciences “to see how we can develop pathways and partnerships to build a stronger relationship with the university and the Christina School District,” he said, adding that that connection is for all three high schools.
What the community and the city can do to support the school system was another factor that came into play in recent conversations. When city council voted to approve a unnamed successor to the Downtown Newark Partnership, a new nonprofit that will focus on the entire city and work to address issues beyond just the concerns of the business community, Dan Rich, director of the university’s community engagement initiative, said that education could be something this organization looks at.
He pointed to evaluations, including a city-sponsored one, that have found concerns about the public education system in the Newark community.
“What’s the commitment in this community to do something about that?...I think that’s what we need to do,” he said. “If we’re trying to build up economic prosperity, you have to build the foundations of it.”
Councilman Jason Lawhorn discussed ways council could open dialogue between the two entities. He said he reached out to Taylor Green, public information officer for the district.
Like the university has a representative take questions from and give reports to council, Lawhorn suggested the district could do the same.
“It could be something that could really help us change the perception of our school system and at minimum we could do that. At a maximum, maybe we start to identify problems that exist and maybe we can help with and we just don’t know exist today,” he said.
Gregg, who appeared before council in June for a presentation on Christina’s 2018-2021 strategic plan, agreed that more frequent communication between the district and city would be an improvement.
“I think it’s important for us to improve our communications with the city council so that they’re informed and then they can be advocates for the district, as well as participate in conversations with us,” he said.
Ultimately, Gregg said that the district relies on the community to support the district and noted that Christina is working diligently to develop strong educational programs for the students and families it serves.
“We’re looking at a way to bring the district back up to a reputation that it once enjoyed, and it’s not going to happen overnight because we didn’t have this occur overnight,” he said. “This happened over years of experiences and circumstances. So, we’re working hard to figure out ways to improve the reputation of the district in the community.”