Hanlin stresses security in annual schools report

Dr. Donna C. Hanlin: “And with our most chronic offenders, we are responding with the strongest disciplinary consequences; in some cases, not returning to classrooms anywhere in our school system.”

Addressing security concerns and implementing goals expected under a sweeping state education improvement initiative are among the top task list items for Wicomico schools Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin.

In her annual State of the Schools address held this week before a crowd of community leaders, Hanlin unveiled her “Achieve 4.0” strategic plan and reviewed progress made under her previous “Imagine 2022” goals list.

Hanlin reported progress in the areas she has targeted for improvement: preparing pre-kindergarteners to enter school, increasing graduation rates, and retaining and attracting top teachers and staff members.

She also announced that the 2020-21 spending budget she’ll soon present to the publicly elected school board will only ask for funding expected under the state’s Maintenance of Effort formulas, which sets an expectation for local education support based on county needs and resources.

County taxpayers’ overall contribution to the schools has long been a contentious issue. Hanlin, assisted by some top members of the county’s business community, has worked in recent years to win more public support.

“We need to remember that public education is an investment and not an expense,” Hanlin told those gathered for a luncheon at Parkside High School. “We invest through support and advocacy, as you have done by embracing Imagine 2022, and we invest through funding to implement the plan.”

Wicomico’s elected leaders have concerns that span across the upcoming county budget, and a big unknown is how much more the county will have to spend to meet the expectations of the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

The commission, which has strong General Assembly backing, is a multi-year initiative to research and develop major funding and policy reforms to improve the quality of Maryland’s public education system.

Under Kirwan’s initial formulas, Wicomico public schools would have to spend an additional $83.2 million over a 10-year period. Most of that cash would come from the state, but the county’s contribution would be an extra $9.4 million over the decade, beginning this year.

The spending would be applied to a variety of programs such as expanding pre-kindergarten, placing more counselors and health professionals in schools, boosting aid to schools with many poor students, improving career preparation programs and giving teachers money for school supplies.

Teacher salaries would also be raised, in hopes of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.

On the security issue, Hanlin touted four priorities.

“We will continue with the work we have been doing with prevention and intervention, but we will have a laser-like focus on safety specifically focused upon reducing the percentage of students with repeated incidents of physical aggression,” she said.

She said data reveals that about 3 percent of the student population causes the most trouble, and those students need to be monitored and counseled.

“While this is a small percentage of our student population, that small percentage can create total disruption and lead to students’ and staff feelings of insecurity,” Hanlin said.

The superintendent stressed that extraordinary focus has been placed on safety.

“We are continuing our efforts to engage parents as partners in addressing student behavior,” she said. “I am committed to maintaining consistency in schools’ administrative teams in our schools to the greatest extent possible.”

Hanlin said the school system will maintain campus patrol positions to monitor hallways and support a positive school climate. She has expanded mentoring efforts and included faith-based partners and other community organizations.

“And with our most chronic offenders, we are responding with the strongest disciplinary consequences; in some cases, not returning to classrooms anywhere in our school system,” she said.

Hanlin noted that community demographics force a need for resources.

In Wicomico, the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged has grown by more than 2,000 students in the past 15 years, with nearly 60 percent qualifying for free or reduced-cost meals.

The Special Education population has remained constant at about 12 percent; the English Learner population continues to grow, nearly three-fold in 15 years.

Meanwhile, full-time staffing continues to grow based upon enrollment and needs, adding expenses.

The school system has exceeded even Hanlin’s goals for kindergarten readiness, thanks to the addition of Pre-K classes in recent years.

Kindergarten readiness is measured by the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. In 2016, only 33 percent of students entering Wicomico kindergarten classrooms demonstrated the skills, knowledge and behaviors needed to fully participate in kindergarten curriculum.

“We have surpassed our goal of a 5 percent increase by 2022 — now our 2018 kindergarten readiness at 41 percent,” Hanlin said. “But more revealing is the fact that 51 percent of those students who attended our Pre-K classrooms demonstrated readiness for kindergarten in 2018.”

In 2018, the system increased pre-kindergarten enrollment to 60 percent of those students who attend kindergarten – that enrollment will grow to over 70 percent.

Increasing the graduation rate is another Hanlin priority. The baseline in 2016 was at 81.5 percent, meaning that percentage of students who entered Grade 9 in 2012 graduated four years later. The 2019 number hasn’t been confirmed yet, but for 2018, the four-year cohort rate was 83.2 percent.

Hanlin reported that student enrollment continues to grow, with a population that reflects a majority-minority student body. With more than 15,000 students, Wicomico is the largest of nine Eastern Shore districts and 14th largest in the state.

With 932 students, Delmar Elementary is the county’s largest elementary school. James M. Bennett is the largest high school, with 1,567 students.

“All 24 schools are at capacity,” Hanlin said, “which is important to recognize as this often hinders our ability to expand programs and/or reduce class size.”

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.