Public schools ready for students’ return next week

Dr. Donna Hanlin at Sunday’s Fresh Start event for back-to-schoolers.

When students return to the classroom next week, Wicomico County Public Schools will be ahead of schedule along the path to reaching some strategic goals, according to Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin.

Named superintendent in 2016, Hanlin spent her first year taking stock of the system and listening to the community. She held focus groups within the school system and out in the community, listening to people’s hopes and dreams for their school system.

In 2017, she launched Imagine 2022, a strategic plan that is focused on three priorities: increasing the number of preschool children who are kindergarten-ready; increasing the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate in four years; and recruiting and retaining a quality school system workforce and decreasing the annual teacher turnover rate – all by 2022.

In 2016, 33 percent of students entered kindergarten ready to learn. Hanlin wanted to raise that percentage to at least 38 by 2022. Two years into Imagine 2022, the kindergarten readiness rate is 41 percent, with another three years to go — well ahead of schedule.

After entering ninth grade, just 82 percent of students were graduating from high school within four years when Hanlin took the reins. Her goal is to move that up to 87 percent by 2022. It’s 83 percent now, which is progress, but there’s more work to be done.

Based on a three-year cohort of teachers, Hanlin found about 24 percent were leaving the system sometime during their first three years in the classroom. She wants to retain more of them.

“We use different strategies each year to approach those goals,” Hanlin said.

Kindergarten readiness

Wicomico schools are working to increase kindergarten readiness using a variety of tactics.

Universal, full-day pre-kindergarten for all students is a goal, but Wicomico public schools is reaching across boundaries to work with available programs and resources outside the system..

The system has increased efforts to work with existing nonpublic pre-K programs such as private daycare facilities and Head Start. Teachers in those settings are invited to attend the county’s professional development classes to help them understand what will be expected of students when they enter public schools. The classes are offered free of charge, thanks to grant funding through the Board of Education.

There’s also Ready at 5, an initiative of the Maryland Business Roundtable that offers resources to families and schools in an effort to strengthen the foundation for entering formal school. And Parent Learning Parties, through which parents are invited to the school to learn how to access resources and work with their children at home.

High school graduation rate

In 2016, 82 percent of ninth-graders graduated within four years. Hanlin aims to raise it to 87 percent by 2022. It’s now up one percentage point at 83 percent – progress, but with plenty of work remaining.

Hanlin is placing the needs of individual students in the forefront, and finding creative ways to meet those needs.

“ I believe strongly that students should have programming or pathways,” Hanlin said, “especially in high school, where they are engaged in learning that leads to careers of interest, for them to have opportunities to explore careers, in addition to the Career Technology Education program located at Parkside High School.”

A new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program called NeXgen Academy will enter its second year at Salisbury Middle School.

A comprehensive school for the arts in Wicomico County is under consideration, as is an expansion of career tech education. This year a digital media program has been added, housed at Wicomico High School although it is under the CTE umbrella.

The digital media program is so popular, the county is looking to hire a second teacher.

In addition, the county has expanded its evening high school for students who need nontraditional setting. And it is adding a second lab to allow more students to take advantage of online learning opportunities.

“There are a number of reasons to go this route,” Hanlin said, “such as taking classes that won’t fit into the regular schedule, working during the day or just failing to succeed in a traditional classroom.”

Overall, Hanlin is focusing on addressing the social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students, to build a foundation for learning and to provide extra support and increase the likelihood students will be able to finish school and graduating.

“Our request this year to the county for funding above Maintenance Of Effort was primarily focused on addressing those needs,” Hanlin said. “In fact, I believe our success in getting more than MOE is because we have a plan and can say specifically why we need it.”

Hanlin hopes to hire more social workers, a new mental health coordinator, more guidance counselors, psychologists and home-school liaisons who work to improve home-school communication.

Teacher retention

Recruiting and retaining a high-performing workforce is key to reaching student achievement goals.

“We have placed an emphasis on recruiting minorities into all positions, including teaching,” she said. “We have been recruiting at historically black colleges last couple of years, and in the last couple of years doing recruitment fairs locally, starting early and working with both University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Salisbury University to make sure they know our needs.”

To retain quality teachers, Hanlin said the system has developed a mentoring program for teachers, and will be emphasizing that this year. Aaron Deal, former Maryland State Teacher of the Year, is coordinating the mentoring effort.

“We are doing everything we can do to keep in touch with new teachers, to find out what they need in terms of support to make them comfortable staying here,” Hanlin said. “We need to do better. Having a consistent workforce helps maintain the momentum for student achievement.”

It’s paying off already.

“Looking at next cohort, which was hired for the 2016-17 school year, we are at about 14 percent,” Hanlin said. The goal for Imagine 2022 was to reduce it from more than 20 percent to, at most, 15 percent.

School construction update

Beaver Run Elementary: Still in the design phase, this project involves constructing a new school on the same property on Old Ocean City Road. The old building will remain in place so students will not need to move to a temporary site and only move when the new building is completed.

Mardela Middle and High: This project is in very early stages but moving forward with feasibility studies. The Building Commission and the Board of Education selected Option 3, which will use the existing footprint but expand upon it.

Other projects

Safety: The system is working to ensure all schools have secure vestibules. Wicomico Middle, Mardela, and Pinehurst and Pemberton elementary schools were completed this summer.

One thing important to board members was completion of the tennis courts and track at Wi-Hi.

Delmar Elementary and Parkside High are no longer open-plan buildings; classrooms now have doors. Delmar Elementary has an elevator.


Wicomico hired 118 new teachers, counselors and psychologists, with more openings to fill. One reason for this is the system received funding from Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, legislation that came out of the Kirwan Commission for kindergarten and community schools, thereby creating new teacher positions.

This year’s back to school speaker was Ron Clark, known as America’s Educator. He is a Disney Teacher of the Year. The Delmarva Education Foundation, Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and Peninsula Regional Medical Center all contributed to fund this.

This August, he ran a workshop for school staffers and 172 people attended. Attendees said it was the best professional development session ever.

“He is a classroom teacher. I visited Atlanta to meet him,” said Donna Hanlin, superintendent of Wicomico Schools. “In essence, he is about expectations for students. If you raise expectations, they will rise to the challenge. Educators should teach to the smartest students in the room.”

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