Superintendent unveils ‘Achieve!’ strategic plan

When Dr. Donna Hanlin arrived on the Wicomico scene in 2016 to assume the mantle of Superintendent of the public schools system, she found herself standing in the middle of a crossroads.

The demographics of the student population was changing. Teacher retention was a huge problem and student discipline concerns abounded.

County elected officials and school system leaders were openly suspicious of one another. Funding for education was an annual battle that usually produced hard feelings all around.

Hanlin immediately used her Salisbury-native personality to mend relationships. She preached transparency. In 2017, Hanlin set out to build a strategic plan the community could rally around and challenged all who would listen to think of public education as a public investment — not a public expense.

On Monday in her second “State Of The Schools” address held at Parkside High School, Hanlin said “we’re making progress” in trying to turn a good school system into a great one.

Basing the hoped-for achievements on the business book “From Good to Great,” Hanlin touted the author’s well-regarded flywheel principles and said the school system is gaining momentum.

“I continue to be very excited about the future of Wicomico County schools,” she said. “I feel the momentum of our flywheel and we will continue to push with creative intensity and relentless discipline.  We will persevere, understanding the power of that momentum to compound over time – decision by decision, action by action, turn by turn – each loop adding to the cumulative effect.”

Monday’s event was sponsored by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and attended by both government and business leaders. It was a crowd to which Hanlin has continually stressed the need for funding to add school-improvement programs.

“What support do we need for the plan, to continue to build the momentum of our flywheel?” she asked. “We need to view public education in Wicomico County as an investment and not an expense. … We invest through support and advocacy, and we invest through funding to implement the plan.”

She was complimentary of those in the community who helped communicate the finances issue, turning it into an issue in the November elections.

“Your support and engagement with our schools and our school system demonstrates that you share in that commitment,” she said. “But I remind you once again that investment also means financial commitment.

“And we have started to see that realization through funding from our county leaders for both operational dollars beyond maintenance of effort and the ongoing support for capital improvements,” she said.

Hanlin used the event to make a public statement concerning the criminal investigation under way at James M. Bennett High School concerning a guidance counselor and a student.

She acknowledged the counselor’s police arrest has “devastated students, parents, staff, our (school) board and our community.”

Achieve! 2.0

Hanlin reviewed the school system’s vital measurements, which provide a clear look at what the system is both facing and accomplishing.

Enrollment: Wicomico’s enrollment continues to grow. County is still just under 15,000 students but is one of 14 systems in Maryland that grew in enrollment from the previous year.

Demographics: Of 14,367 full-time students, 1,718 require Special Education Services, 1,114 are English Language Learners, and 8,311 students qualify for free-and-reduced meals based on family income. About 41 percent of the students are Caucasian, 37 percent are African Americans, 10 percent are Latinos and 3 percent are Asian. The system is world-diverse — 8 percent of the students speak one of more than 30 languages.

Food Services/Transportation: Well over 2 million meals served and almost 2 million miles driven transporting students to and from school.

Staff: As the third-largest employer in Wicomico County, the system now has some 2,300 full-time staff members and more than 3,000 employees when part-time and contractual employees are included.

School Construction: Last year opened West Salisbury Elementary School. Plans under way for new Beaver Run Elementary School. Decisions remain on whether to renovate or rebuild Mardela Middle and High School.

Finance: Nearly three-quarters of schools’ general fund budget goes to instruction.

Student Achievement: State Assessment scores are steadily rising; college SAT is now given to every student and scores remain strong; system fared well in state’s new STAR ratings, which consider multiple indicators; scholarship money offered graduating senior in 2018 approached $18 million.

In her address last year, Hanlin stated three goals for the system and they have remained her mantra in the months since: Increase the number of students who enter kindergarten prepared to learn; increase the high school graduation rate; reduce turnover within the teaching ranks.

She declared the progress to have been significant.

“Not only do I see our progress toward goals,” Hanlin said, “but I see evidence of our strength and our goodness every day.”

Goal 1: Increase the percentage of students who enter kindergarten ready to learn from 33 percent in 2016 to 38 percent by 2022.

Result: Percentage increased dramatically to 47 percent for students who entered in fall of 2017, and was reported at 41 percent of students who entered kindergarten in fall 2018. Students who have attended the pre-kindergarten program outperform students whose experience is at home or in informal care, 53 percent vs. 16 percent.

The schools used the county’s increase in spending above Maintenance of Effort and a $45,000 donation from the Wicomico County Education Foundation to equip pre-kindergarten classrooms with technology packages used by teachers and students to support high quality instruction.

Goal 2: Increase the percentage of students who enter grade 9 and graduate four years later from 82 percent in 2016 to at least 87 percent by 2022 as measured by the 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate.

Result: The state-confirmed numbers for 2018 have not yet been announced, but the graduation rate did increase to almost 84 percent for the class of 2017.

The system has employed strategies that include an increased emphasis on nontraditional graduation pathways, such as the expansion of evening high school, summer school, the credit recovery program and online learning opportunities. Home-school liaisons have been added in high schools to work with families of students who have been identified as most at-risk for dropping out of high school to provide needed supports. Early identification of students who might perform best in Career Technology Education programs should also play a factor.

Goal 3: Decrease in the three-year average turnover rate from more than 20 percent in 2016 to at most 15 percent by 2022 in the effort to recruit and retain a high-performing workforce.

Result: Hanlin and the school board have already succeeded in stemming the tide of departures. Teacher hiring classes are measured against each other and teachers hired in 2015-16 exited at a rate of 14.5 percent in their first year. That same group showed a 9.8 percent drop in the second year, but a relatively flat 8.9 decrease in 2017-18.

The school system has initiated local job fairs, increased recruiting at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; amped up collaboration with Salisbury University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and continued to expand its Teacher Academy of Maryland program in each of the high schools.

“I think that you will agree that we have made steady progress toward goals, as seen in our 2017-2018 Annual Report, and that you will agree that the state of our schools is indeed strong,” Hanlin said.

Achieve! 3.0

With Achieve! 2.0, Hanlin offered specific goals; with Achieve! 3.0, she offers three “strategic priorities,” directly related to the already stated goals, toward which the system must strive.

Priority 1: This is aimed at increasing on-grade level reading by third grade, through a specific goal to increase kindergarten readiness.

Children who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are likely to feel alienated from school, and are four to six times more likely to drop out of high school, and the consequences often stretch well into adulthood.

“We know that the formative first years of life are unquestionably important,” the superintendent said. “What happens to children during those very important beginning years of life greatly impacts brain development.  During those critical years, if children don’t receive the stimulation and care they need for healthy development, many of those children never catch up.”

Priority 2: Ensure that students graduate college or are career-ready.

Hanlin said the number of children with significant social, emotional and behavior needs entering schools across the country is on the rise, and Wicomico County schools are no exception.

Not only is the number of students needing support growing, but the severity of their needs is increasing and manifesting at a much younger age. Research shows that children with mental health needs that go unaddressed, are much less likely to achieve academically and are at greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system.

Therefore, the schools will increase its support for the social, emotional and behavior needs of students through programming and staff, including additional social workers and school psychologists.

“I am confident that investment will greatly impact our graduation rate,” she said. “But we recognize that there is so much more that needs to happen to impact our second priority of graduation rate – everything that happens between pre-kindergarten and graduation.”

She said she will continue to provide students with increased opportunities for engagement in relevant curricular pathways that prepare students for future careers, as demonstrated by the successful NexGen Program at Salisbury Middle School. The plan is to add another 50 students from across the county to that program, expanding that program to 100 students.

The system will continue its strong collaboration with Wor-Wic Community College, and expand an early-college program in Computer Science. Also possible are programs where high school students can complete an associate degree at the same time they are completing their high school diploma.

Priority 3: A high-performing workforce.

Hanlin was especially emphatic on this strategic priority, calling it “the priority that supports and is the underpinning of all that we do in our school system.”

Retention efforts have shown progress, as have recruitment initiatives, but teachers face challenges from the student population that affects the quality of their job.

“We hear from our teachers that when students enter our schools with significant mental health needs, their ability to teach is compromised,” Hanlin said. “By increasing our efforts to address the social, emotional and behavior needs of our students, we will be creating an environment where teachers are better able to do what they are hired to do – teach.”

Hanlin said she and the school board “are committed to fully implement the recommendations provided in the salary study by the Management Advisory Group to bring our support staff salaries in line with comparable markets.”

Performing Arts High School

Hanlin has previously floated the idea of a Performing Arts High School for the county as a way to serve students who desire such a curriculum and compete with private schools.

“In numerous studies, researchers link involvement in the arts to better child development and higher student achievement,” she said.

“A student involved in the arts is four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement than those who are not. Students of low socioeconomic status who are involved in the arts are five times less likely to drop out of school than their peers who do not participate in arts programming.”

She said low-income students who are highly engaged in the arts are twice as likely to enter and graduate from college than their peers with no arts education. Also, she said, students who take four years of arts education average almost 100 points higher on their SAT scores than students who take only a half-year or less.

“Arts education is not simply about training talented students to become artists or performers.  An arts education has been found to result in a heightened sense of fulfilment and therapeutic release of tensions, enhanced knowledge of social and cultural issues, the development of creativity and thinking skills, stronger communication and expressive skills, and advances in personal and social development,” Hanlin said.

She announced the school board has authorized an education specification study – a detailed study that guides the design of an educational facility – to determine budget needs.

“We don’t plan to go down this path through the normal public school construction process,” Hanlin said. “Instead, we have been engaged in conversations with individuals who understand the nuances of funding this project through a public-private partnership.”

She added that an important component will be private philanthropy.

“We have already had a number of conversations with individuals and organizations who have expressed interest in making significant contributions to bring this project to fruition. … I am thrilled that our Education Foundation could potentially play a significant role. They too believe that this venture could be a major game-changer for our community.”


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