It seems that it has become fashionable for Maryland’s elite to use the backdrop of breakfast as a platform for delivering scathing addresses in front of the area’s intelligentsia. On February 27, Dixon Valve CEO Dick Goodall played the role of Dr. Benjamin Carson to deliver an address that served multiple purposes.
Mr. Goodall introduced the Kent Forward initiative. The initiative seeks to enhance “the educational, economic, and social well-being of Kent County. The educational goal of the initiative is lofty – “Top five in five.” Mr. Goodall aims to have KCPS positioned as a Maryland top five system within five years. The path to this goal will be lit by seven achievable benchmarks, though improving attendance appeared to be the initiative that was most ready for prime time.
Even the most optimistic onlookers would say that becoming a top five system in five years is pretty big talk when KCPS places twenty-first out of twenty-four districts. Mr. Goodall believes that the blame for the current situation comes from an “epidemic of low expectations” which has reset our priorities and tarnished the region’s perception. Goodall brought a few statistics to bolster his case.
- 52% of students are on free or reduced meal plans.
- 72% of students are absent more than five days a year.
- 23.5% of students are absent twenty days or more.
- 53% of first graders are not at grade level in reading.
- 23% of eighth graders are not at grade level in reading.
- Over 350 school aged children in Kent County are not enrolled in KCPS.
Goodall points out that actions taken on the classroom level are not to blame. For instance, while the statistics above do not follow the same students over an eight year period, it should be noted that our educators are doing their part to reduce that 53% figure over time. Attendance appears to be the main culprit that drives many students’ shortcomings. Absent students must catch up, while the majority of the class has to downshift in order to keep everyone on the same plane.
Many might wonder why this intiative isn’t being rolled out by the Board of Education. After all, the leaders of this initiative do not aim to become a “shadow school board.” So why should the Kent County populace take notice and react to this call for action? How is this initiative different than the water cooler conversation one might hear on campus, in the coffee shop, or online?
We can’t ignore the subtext to this address. Given the changes at the hospital and the overall business climate, we can no longer feel a sense of permanence regarding our largest employers. This meeting was the business community telling the Board of Education and the community at large that “you need to start thinking about the workforce you are supplying.”
Mr. Goodall made it a point to talk about his trouble recruiting thirty-something professional types with children. The underlying cause was the perception of the schools. As your columnist scanned the room of more than 100 attendees, he noticed a few handfuls of thirty-something types with children in KCPS. While many areas and the culture at large look at this demographic as golden geese (they made Seth MacFarlane the host of the Oscars for goodness’ sakes!), Goodall lamented their unicorn status in the immediate area.
Now this touches on the cultural divide in the region. What I want usually differs from what others in my demographic want. Some have made the leap to the upper shore, hoping that their mere presence will bring all of us store A or restaurant B. It is easy to equate the standard trappings of suburbia to economic development. For those who migrate to the area and fall into that boiler plate argument, the answer is simple: not having those things is part of the bargain they strike when they settle here.
All of that being said, what should never be lost in the bargain is an area’s quality of education or its ability to provide prosperity for future generations. What Goodall is saying in all of this is that he understands the workforce we need. If he cannot recruit it, then we must cultivate it. If we are to have it cultivated within five years, we must start now.
If this initiative is to be successful, KCPS must embrace the benchmarks proposed by Kent Forward’s leadership. The benchmarks need to be realistic. To remove the appearance of a shadow board, Kent Forward must remove itself from the business of policy making and morph into advocates for the community. At the same time, because the heads of the organizations comprising Kent Forward are the model employers for parents of KCPS students, Kent Forward must listen as much as it wishes to be heard. As part of his closing remarks, Goodall told the business community to “talk to your employees.” The feedback from that conversation will be critical to achieving the benchmarks.
My Feedback for Kent Forward
52% of students are on free or reduced meal plans: This is more of an economic indicator than anything else, but fits the narrative of lowered expectations. Three years ago, schools were dramatically redistricted in an effort that many thought was more about positioning the county for certain meal funding programs than being necessary for education. Was this pennywise and pound foolish? In other words, have we increased transportation or other costs (at the expense of the classroom) to secure the same amount (or less) in food subsidies?
Absenteeism: As I type this, my child sits home with an illness. The stats are striking and the problem is exponential in nature. If one sick child comes to school, that creates four more sick children, and so on. It is easy to say that keeping that child home for two days would net the classroom anywhere from two to eight days of instruction. What is most often said is “I can’t afford to stay home with my child.” Kent County’s employers can do a great service to their employees and the community by examining their benefits packages. If applicable, would it be possible to replace the stringent sick time/vacation time construct with a friendlier PTO policy?
First grade reading level: Kent Forward encourages school attendance as a habit beginning at the pre-K level. There appears to be a cultural shift (see the President’s recent remarks) towards universally opening pre-K education to the public. The County should take an inclusive approach, which will help drive the unenrollment figure (which drives State funding) downward. Many parents lamented that the Superintindent sent letters to parents of preschool aged children saying that she was “pleased to announce” full day pre-K instruction when all that occurred was a halving of the students included and a doubling of the instruction time allocated to accepted students. Since State funding formulas currently account for the K-12 population, public pre-K education could be considered an unfunded mandate. If grants guaranteeing universal pre-K are still years away, Kent Forward should coordinate and track parent volunteerism by parents in this age group as a means of offsetting the costs of the pre-K program.
Eighth grade reading level: It would appear that Dr. Harvey’s presentation of KCPS test scores, and Dr. Wheeler’s shock that these would be presented, spelled the beginning of the end of the Wheeler era. I never understood how anyone was aghast at the results. An educational neophyte could see that our middle schoolers were falling behind. What was and is missing in the discussion is that the back of the baseball card is what contains the true picture. There is limited to no data on Kent County’s special education scores, often listed separately on MSA report cards.
Kent County’s biggest disadvantage can be used to its advantage. With 2,000 students in the system, one student per grade per school moves the needle. Certainly there are underserved students in need of IEP or other special programs. These students are more easily identified in other school systems. Launching a program for 30-40 students countywide is cost prohibitive, and all students are entitled to free appropriate public education (FAPE). That is why a regional approach is necessary. The same thought process that goes into supporting Chesapeake College can be used for special education in the upper and mid-shore regions.
Funding is the obvious hurdle. This is where the leadership of Kent Forward must flex its muscle with our State delegation. The citizens recently passed question 7. Our delegation can do the region and the State a great service by demanding that these revenues tie into education without cuts from the general fund (a technicality conspicuous by its absence on question 7). The resulting increase in funding for the area should go towards special education initiatives for the region.
by Michael Troup