A look inside the state Opportunity Funding initiative that aims to close achievement gaps among low-income and English-learning students.

Gov. John Carney took notice of education achievement gaps in Delaware among young students of low-income and English-language learners. He made room in the state budget to help more than 30 districts and charter schools move toward equal opportunity for all.

Opportunity Funding is a state weighted funding initiative given to school districts and charters to help the most disadvantaged students, according to the governor’s office website. 

The 2019-20 academic year was the first year for the program and is expected to last three years. Carney set aside about $75 million over three years for English learners (EL), low-income 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 said in an interview with the Middletown Transcript Feb. 11 he wanted the use of the money to be “flexible” for districts so each can use it for their specific needs. 

The goal

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said the program’s purpose is to better serve English learners and impoverished students, who the state determined were disadvantaged subgroups. 

“These are two underserved subgroups that don’t perform as highly, like on a proficiency test,” she said. 

Bunting said the short-term goal is to improve reading proficiency with third graders and middle schoolers. A primary goal of Carney’s is to increase math scores with middle schoolers, she said.

“Math scores in middle school are always of concern,” she said. “[Math and reading] are gatekeepers to student success in the future. Being a proficient reader and being able to do math will help students be successful in whatever they choose to do after high school.”

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

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

Carney visited school districts throughout the academic year to evaluate the use of their Opportunity Funding.

Funding

Each school district is allotted an amount of funding dependent on how many students live below the poverty line or who are an EL. They get $500 per EL and $300 per low-income. If a student qualifies as both, they receive $800.

Districts submit a budget plan with the amount they are allowed to receive and have the flexibility to use it for whatever they choose, as long as it goes toward helping these subgroups of disadvantaged students. 

Every year, districts will be required to submit a budget plan in June based off their allotted funds.

The amount school’s receive each year is based on the state’s Sept. 30 student count from the previous year, Bunting said. For example, the 2019-20 academic year was based on how many students classified as an EL and/or low-income student as of Sept. 30, 2018. The 2020-21 school year will be based off the count from Sept. 30, 2019.

If their plans are approved, schools receive their money in the summer.

Bunting said Opportunity Funding is a three-year program, but the legislature has to approve the funds for it every year.

“You can never promise that the legislature will back it, but this is a huge governor’s initiative and the economy is good,” she said. “I definitely think it will get its three years of funding.”

Bunting said it could become a permanent part of the state budget if evidence shows it is making a difference. 

The Department of Education and Rand, a nonprofit that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis, is evaluating the initiative’s effectiveness. 

To see how much each school district receives, visit governor.delaware.gov/opportunity-funding/.

Appoquinimink

The Appoquinimink School District was awarded $584,100 to establish free preschool for impoverished and EL students.

Kim Brancato, director of Appo’s preschool, said in a previous interview with the Middletown Transcript, “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- and 4-year-olds identified with disabilities for which the families pay tuition. The Opportunity Funding is not used for the preschool center.

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

Pre-kindergarten is in a self-contained wing at Brick Mill Elementary School that includes four classrooms of about 15 students each — 60 total. 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.

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 money is for the four paraprofessionals, accounting for more than $263,000, according to the budget attached to the funding application.

Indian River

Indian River School District was allotted $2,117,205 — the third most of all districts and charters — that use for resources and teachers at their elementary and middle schools.

According to the governor’s website, the district uses it for interventionists and teachers for high-needs schools; an after-school or summer program for EL and low- income students; English as a second or foreign language certified teachers; professional development for EL teachers; family liaisons; and online math reading intervention programs.

Three schools most of the resources are allocated to are Georgetown Elementary School, North Georgetown Elementary School and Georgetown Middle School. Kelly Dorman, director of elementary education, said these schools received more because they have the most students classified as an EL or low-income.

IRSD has seven elementary and three middle schools.

Dorman said the Opportunity Funding aligns with the resources they already include in their budget. 

“It’s an amazing opportunity to have this money,” she said. “We are hopeful by the end of the year, we can look at the data and analyze it and determine that our students have made progress from the resources we have implemented.”

Neil Stong, Georgetown Elementary principal, said his school gets one mental health counselor, three EL support teachers and an academic summer program.

He said the summer program is three tiered, focusing on basic reading skills, basic math and analytical skills, and technology and science enrichment. 

Forty-four percent of Georgetown Elementary students are EL, according to the district’s budget plan attached to the funding application. 

“We have a very large number of English learners who with additional support, make a lot of progress,” Stong said. “They are our students, and it’s our responsibility to put things in place that support them.”

He said he sees an increase in math and reading proficiency scores on state tests when these students are given additional resources. 

Stong said teachers and interventionists will preview the vocabulary and material for a lesson before they present it to the whole class.

“The small group instruction these students get, you can see a very immediate affect in the classroom,” he said. “It’s more effective than trying to catch them up.”

Capital

Capital School District received $1,146,200, primarily used in their elementary and middle schools. 

The funds were used for two EL teachers, one part-time paraprofessional, one language specialist to coordinate education programs for EL instructors, seven licensed social workers and professional instruction for teachers of ELs.

The money is in two different pots, Capital Superintendent Dan Shelton said. One is to increase achievement among EL students and one to increase achievement among students from impoverished backgrounds. 

“We used it in two completely different ways,” he said. “For the EL students, we were able to expand our number of EL teachers. In the past, we had a lot of teachers who had to share multiple schools, so now we have no teacher that has more than two schools that they have to work with.”

Prior to the Opportunity Funding, Shelton said a single EL teacher would be responsible for three or four schools. Now a teacher only has two schools.

Although adding additional EL resources was a large part of their budget plan, $770,000 was used to hire seven social workers, according to their budget plan attached to the funding application, which is more than 67% of their funds.

“One of the things we felt we lacked was the ability to link [low-income and EL] students with services, and really all of our students,” Shelton said. “Each one of our buildings has a licensed social worker. Their job is to only work with students, but link students and families with outside services.”

The superintendent said it’s too early to see the full affect of the initiative, but he has seen an increase in test scores and there is a different atmosphere inside the classrooms.

“I don’t know how to describe it. There is a different feel,” he said. “People feel like the kids are being supported in new and different ways. They seem more ready to learn. Now that they are ready to learn, they have better access to what we are trying to do.”

Shelton said the plan they submit each year could change based on what Capital sees is working for them.