'Opportunity Funding' gives districts flexibility to boost programs they choose

Gov. John Carney has noticed that education achievement gaps in Delaware start at an early age due to inequalities in income and language. A grant from the state has helped the Appoquinimink School District create a program to move toward equal opportunity for all.

In June, the Appoquinimink School District was awarded $500,000 per year for three years through the Opportunity Funding initiative to establish free preschool for low-income and English-language learners.

Kim Brancato, director of Appo’s preschool, said, “This gives the opportunity for our low-income families who can’t afford child care or preschool for their child to attend [pre-kindergarten].” 

The Appoquinimink Preschool Center houses a program for 3-to 4-year-olds identified with disabilities for which the families pay tuition. The Opportunity Funding is not used for the preschool center.

Opportunity Funding initiative

Opportunity Funding is a state grant given to school districts and charters to help the most disadvantaged students, according to the governor’s office website. Carney set aside about $75 million over three years for English learners, low-income students and new mental health support in schools. Of that, $60 million is dedicated to “opportunity funding” and $15 million is for “mental health and reading support.”

Carney visited Brick Mill Elementary Feb. 12 to see the pre-kindergarten, which he considers a prime example for his initiative.

According to Appo’s grant application, the district has nearly 2,000 students who are classified as low income or an English learner as of 2016.

He said the children who struggle to meet the Department of Education’s proficiency standards are those from disadvantaged backgrounds or are English learners.

“What is most important to me is making sure every child can be successful,” he said in an interview with the Middletown Transcript. “The most important part of that is evaluating what works and doesn’t work, not just throwing money at the problem.”

Carney considers his Opportunity Funding one of his most important initiatives and wants continued evaluation to make sure it’s working.

Brancato said the district will have to apply for the state grant every year to ensure funding for all three years.

Carney said he wanted the use of the grant money to be “flexible” for districts so each can use it for their specific needs. He said the Indian River School District is using all of their Opportunity Funding for English learners.

“Even in a small state like ours, each district is different,” he said. “We have negotiated with members of the General Assembly to require some of the money be used for reading specialists or guidance counselors, which are good things, but some districts may or may not think this is the most important thing [for them].”

Pre-k in a pod

Pre-kindergarten is in a self-contained wing at Brick Mill Elementary School that includes four classrooms of about 15 students each — 60 total in the program. The classes are grouped around a central “learning pod’’ that accommodates large groups.

Between Brick Mill and the preschool center, about 350 pre-K students are enrolled in the district.

During Carney’s tour, Brancato said the children are not only improving their cognitive abilities, but also routine skills, such as knowing to hang up their backpacks and coats and walking in a line when asked.

“High quality pre-kindergarten is one of the best investments we can make. It’s linked to fuller, richer lives for children and their families,” she said in a press release from the district.

Each classroom has one teacher and one paraprofessional. A bilingual paraprofessional travels between all four rooms. A certified Special Education teacher stops by several hours each week to assist with learning strategies for two students, according to the press release.

Most of the $500,000 is for the four paraprofessionals, accounting for more than $263,000, according to the budget attached to the grant application.

Preparing students

At a General Assembly Joint Finance Committee meeting Feb. 6, University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis was asked why less than 40% of the school’s students come from Delaware. He said the university needs better-qualified students coming out of Delaware’s K-12 schools.

Carney said the state should have more of their students prepared to go to a university.

“[We need to] make sure more of those children are accepted to University of Delaware and other colleges, making sure all the kids graduating from high school are going into the workforce,” he said. “That’s what is going to make our state more competitive and more successful on the economic side.”