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Inspiring a Generation of Little Colonials: Q&A with Dusty Blakey

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Dusty Blakey, Ed.D. was named the superintendent of the Colonial School District in June of 2014. Since then—and throughout his 13-year tenure with the district—Blakey has made early childhood education a major priority.


We talked to Blakey, who also serves on the Delaware Early Childhood Council, about the importance of early learning to the Colonial community, and about becoming the first district in the state to open a licensed, 5-star early learning center.


The Colonial School District supports students starting at age three, and utilizes partners in the community to support even more. Why, in your mind, is early learning so important?


Early learning experiences lay the foundation for all later learning, and we recognize that children and families who have access to high-quality preschool programming experience a lifetime of benefits. At our Colonial Early Education Program (CEEP), we actively involve families, who then feel valued and engaged. By hiring highly qualified early childhood staff, providing ongoing high-quality professional development, educating our families about additional resources available at school and in the community, and offering developmentally appropriate experiences, we set our children on the path for social-emotional and physical wellness, as well as for academic success. What we are doing works because we have many families who stay in contact with our pre-k staff and who bring their children back to visit pre-k year after year.

How big of a priority is early learning for you at Colonial?


We have four pillars on which we focus our efforts and our core beliefs in Colonial. Early childhood is our first and most important pillar. When combined with our fourth pillar—Access and Opportunity—they provide us with a blueprint for success for all students and families in Colonial. Following the lead of these two pillars, we offer high-quality early learning experiences in the classrooms at CEEP.

We also partner with Parents as Teachers to provide weekly playgroups at The Colwyck Center and we offer itinerant services to our children with identified special needs who attend community Head Starts and child care centers. By partnering with early learning programs in our Colonial feeder pattern, we strengthen the entire Colonial community. Early learning is where it all starts, so we must continue to provide access to these early learning opportunities.


Why did you decide Colonial should lead a Readiness Team?


Delaware Readiness Teams forge relationships between and among early learning stakeholders in each of the communities that they represent, allowing each team to focus on the needs of the young children and families in their geographic area. By creating the Colonial Readiness Team (CRT) in 2014, we’ve brought together parents, healthcare providers, librarians, public and private preschool and elementary school staff, mental health counselors, nonprofit staff, child care providers, community leaders, home visitors, financial advisors, and so on.

Team members 1) learn about the services that each team member’s agency/program offers then use this information educate and inform the children and families, 2) support and participate in ongoing community events, 3) plan and implement activities for our young Colonials and their families, and 4) advocate for initiatives and policies that support your youngest learners.


Tell us about shared professional development that happens in your district between early learning providers and elementary schools? What’s the objective of that collaboration?


Our CEEP team and our elementary team partner with our early learning community in a variety of ways. The Colonial Readiness Team and the CEEP team have invited and included our local Head Start staff, Parents as Teachers home visitors, charter school staff, child care providers, private pre-k staff, and elementary staff to professional development trainings, such as Handwriting Without Tears, Ages and Stages Developmental Screening (ASQ), Fine Motor Boot Camp, Conscious Discipline, and Creative Curriculum.

Delaware’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan clearly highlights the need for professional development collaboration and partnerships between LEAs and early learning providers. As stated previously, when we partner with early learning programs in our feeder pattern, we strengthen the entire Colonial community, which benefits all Colonial children and families.


What’s the significance of connecting the early learning world to k-12?


We want to support the transition from the early learning setting to the K-12 setting as well as we can, and we want to make the transition as seamless as possible. Children and families should feel confident and comfortable when moving from the birth-pre-k world to elementary school and beyond. In Colonial, we offer personalized tours for all interested families at all of our Colonial schools. Families can contact any school via phone or website to schedule these tours. Our elementary staff partners with our local Head Starts and CEEP to have pre-k students visit local elementary schools prior to kindergarten. All schools in Delaware need to continue to work toward stronger and more effective early learning and K-12 partnerships.



What unique strategies does the Colonial Early Education Program employ? Tell us about where your district has pioneered in services offered—not just those that are traditionally educational, but also more holistic approaches to wellness.


We have made great strides toward our goal of making sure that all of our students and families are aware of the services and programs available in the community, and that they have access to those services.

We recognize that Colonial families need access to high-quality early learning programs that are affordable and full-day. While our children with identified special needs attend for free, our children without identified needs pay a tuition. Our tuition is lower than any pre-k program in our feeder pattern, but it was still difficult for some families to afford. In 2015-16, we began accepting Purchase of Care (POC) for our students without special needs. That year, we also moved from half-day pre-k programming to full-day pre-k programming for all of our four-year-old students and for many of our three-year-old students. We also began offering onsite before- and after-care.

Partnerships (with the Department of Public Health’s Dental Screening Program, 211/Help Me Grow, the Henrietta Johnson Medical Center, Vision to Learn, and others) allow us to help our families access basic needs such as housing, food, and medical care, and to educate our families about community resources, such as parenting classes, financial/budgeting support, and job training.

Our future goal is to use our newly created partnership with The Life Health Center and Nemours at the state’s first elementary School Based Health Center (SBHC) at Eisenberg Elementary to further provide preventative behavioral and physical health services to our pre-k students.


What does Colonial offer in terms of developmental screenings—and how do you ensure follow up to ensure children get the identified services?


Developmental screening is a huge priority in Colonial. Decades of research demonstrates that when children who are eligible for early intervention services receive those services and participate in high-quality programming, they are more likely to read on grade level, graduate from high school, and not need special education services later in life. Studies show the Return on Investment (ROI) for early intervention to be about 13 percent and high-quality preschool programming to be seven to 10 percent.

Colonial School District is committed to offering free ASQ developmental screenings to 100 percent of the children ages birth-five who live in our district or who attend early learning programs in Colonial. This screening is available online for all Colonial families, and the ASQ link can be found on our CEEP website. In addition, all Colonial Elementary School secretaries offer developmental screening information to families when they register their children for kindergarten, just as all family and center-based child care centers, Head Starts, and private pre-k programs in the Colonial feeder pattern have been invited and encouraged to utilize Colonial’s developmental screening portal for free.


What is your team doing to ensure kindergarteners are registered on time?


We hold annual Kindergarten Carnivals at William Penn High School, and all Colonial families with a rising kindergartener are invited. We advertise kindergarten registration on billboards, buses, and banners, as well as in email blasts, and flyers that get distributed to community partners.


Where would you allocate more resources if they were available?


Federal funding for preschool programming is extremely low, as is pre-k finding in our state. While our K-12 students in Delaware are funded at approximately $9,500 per student annually, our preschool children ages three to five with identified special needs are funded at about $500 per student per year.

Delaware’s Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP) is available for children whose families are living at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and ECAP funds 845 children per year. We are grateful to be able to offer 40 full-day ECAP slots at CEEP, but with Colonial’s high poverty rate, we have many children who are eligible for ECAP, but not enough slots to meet the need. With additional resources, I’d definitely allocate additional funding to open more full-day preschool classrooms. At CEEP, we are operating at capacity, and we have a long waitlist. Our families desperately need access to affordable or free full-day, high-quality early learning programming.


Did your kids have positive early learning experiences? And did those experiences set them up for success later in school and life?


Yes, my children had positive early learning experiences as well as grandparents that were educators so expectations for them were high. Those experiences and expectations led them to educational and social success as they’ve grown into productive adults. Their early learning foundations helped lead to their love of learning that continues into today.



What’s the significance to you and the Colonial community to have CEEP be a 5-Star center?


This is extremely significant because 1) being a Star-level 5 indicates the highest quality of early learning programming in Delaware, and 2) Colonial families have access to a limited number of level 5 centers, particularly in the northern area of our district. As always, it is important that we strive to offer highest quality preschool programming at our district-run program.

10 Things We Heard from Gov. Carney’s State of the State Address

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As Gov. John C. Carney delivered his (technically first-ever) State of the State address last week, the Rodel team listened intently for any mentions of public education.


Here’s what we heard:


  • Not surprisingly, Gov. Carney led off with the economy. He mentioned some positive steps in tackling the state’s mountainous budgetary issues, including the newly formed Prosperity Partnership, and others.


Naturally his first mention of education arrived tethered to the economy. The governor touted workforce development—and particularly the work of Delaware Pathways—as a major key to improving outcomes on the business ledger and in citizens’ quality of life.


“Investing in the workforce will pay dividends for years to come,” he said, pointing to increased investments in institutes of high education like Delaware Technical Community College, and nonprofits like Zip Code Wilmington.



And he spoke about the still-to-be-finalized plans surrounding the Christina School District—which the governor referred to as “the most difficult thing we will do during this administration, and the most important”—including capital upgrades, early learning centers and parent supports, raised teacher salaries, and smaller class sizes.


  • Speaking of early learning, Carney spoke to the need for deeper investments there, including additional funding to continue to grow and expand the Delaware STARs system in the FY19 budget.

  • The governor touted the success of math coaches in various schools across the state (especially since, as he pointed out, math skills are important for the future workforce), saying he’ll look to increase their numbers in the years to come.


  • And he circled back to Opportunity Grants, which helped provide a range of services to schools statewide, saying he’ll propose to triple the number of schools receiving that financial boost.


  • Carney seemed to emphasize social and emotional learning, saying, “We’ve put a greater emphasis on coordination among state agencies tasked with serving our most vulnerable citizens.” He specifically mentioned implementing a set of recommendations from a Centers for Disease Control report, which aims to reduce youth violence in Wilmington. A good first start for Delaware, he said, will be helping various agencies better share data, and target resources where they’re needed most.

  • On teachers, Carney called them the most important job we have, and said he plans to hire 200 new teachers to match student enrollment growth (which is required by state code). He also mentioned working alongside Rep. David Bentz, Sen. Bryan Townsend, and the DSEA, to create a student loan forgiveness program for educators that will help the state retain educators in our highest need schools and in the highest demand subject areas.


  • He thanked his wife Tracey for stewarding grant funding from the Casey Family Foundation, which, through local hospitals, Delaware Division of Family Services, the Division of Public Health, the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, and the Office of Child Advocate, will launch Delaware Healthy Outcomes with Parent Engagement, or DE HOPE, designed to help substance exposed infants.


  • The new statewide library card campaign, which aims to deliver social services to more communities, got a brief shout-out.



As we anticipate a first-draft budget next week, Gov. Carney’s punchiest line of the day—“the state of the state is strong, and getting stronger”—will be put to the test. Stay tuned.

Raising the Bar: Q&A with John Hollis

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Image from Delmarva Life


From its humble beginnings as a science-club offshoot of the long-shuttered Seaford Dupont nylon plant, the Minority Engineering Regional Incentive Training (MERIT) program has since blossomed into one of the state’s most successful postsecondary prep programs.


Its founder John Hollis—a former teacher and counselor—is still at it after 43 years, grooming young minority students from Sussex County to aim high academically. Of the more than 350 MERIT students, around 97 percent graduated from college.


The program evolved from a small club during the school year to intensive summer programs, field trips, college campus visits, scholarship programs, alumni events, and more. There are STEM team-building engineering competitions—think fighting robots and wind turbine design contests—and partnerships with local colleges and Delmarva Power.


We talked with Hollis about the MERIT Way, and much more.


We’re 43 years into MERIT. What motivated the creation of the program? What challenge or need were you hoping to address?


It was ‘74 when it started. I was approached by the management at the Seaford Dupont nylon plant, which was the world’s first and largest (at the time) nylon plant.


There was a National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering group, and the folks at the Seaford plant wanted to participate. I was coaching and teaching science for the sons and daughters of the Dupont engineers, who all thought they needed an educator to advise and motivate these students.


So we started with a science club aimed at local African American, Native American, and Latino children. We were addressing the disparity between a roughly 25-percent local minority population, but less than 1 percent of whom were matriculating into higher education in science and technical fields. That was our goal, to address that disparity.


What happened next?


We got nominations and started a club. I had been a coach, counselor, and teacher since the 60s, so I knew that if we wanted to inspire these children to higher ed, we needed to develop the whole child, not just host them in a science club.


So we started with Saturday morning meetings with a lot of science-based STEM programming—this was back before before STEM was invented. We had sixth and seventh graders and we had these great activities that were designed by Dupont engineers.


I was getting my master’s and doing my doctoral work on motivational science, so I incorporated a lot of that theory with activities on things like time management.


And before long, what started as a science club morphed into a total youth development program. We were helping these young people with motivation, goal-setting, time management, and more.


And the program just kept evolving, right?


If you told me back in in ‘74 that I’d still be doing it in 2017, I wouldn’t believe it. We now have meetings every other Saturday during the school year and three intensive weeks in summer. And over 35 years of pretty elaborate science activities. When the nylon plant closed, Delmarva Power became the sponsoring corporate entity.


We’ve had several significant developments. At one point in the late 80s, I was concerned with this observation that many African American males lacked the motivation toward academics. So many wanted to be professional entertainers or athletes. I knew from being a coach that the chances of making it a career were minimal.


There was a motivational speaker in Salisbury, Md.—a surgeon—who had just separated Siamese twins who were conjoined at the head, which had never been done before. That surgeon was an African American who grew up in poverty in inner-city Detroit, a “hoodlum” by his own description, who went onto became the youngest department chair in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins.


So I took MERIT students to hear him speak, and they were enthralled. And eventually I got him to come to the community, and invited his three sons to be part of MERIT. They came up from Baltimore and stay with me and [my wife] Linda during the summer.


By 1994, Ben Carson had become such a fixture with us, we had established the Carson Scholars Club.


What other developments have you seen?


We’re aspiring to get first-generation children plugged into MERIT. Which is why we developed the Touch Greatness program, where we bring in scientists and motivators like Sam Beard, founder of the Jefferson Awards, to connect with these families.


And our partnerships with Delmarva Power and others continue to grow. Recently we built wind turbines as part of a science experiment. We worked with University of Maryland Department of Environmental Safety, where they have 3D printers, to design the blades of a turbine. The UMDES folks then 3D-printed our designs, and Delmarva Power provided their wind farm where we tested them out. Three MERIT teams actually generated more electricity with their designs than the test designs at Delmarva Power.


You talk about motivation. What, do you find, are key motivating factors?


I think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—how natural and logical consequences are a powerful teacher. Encouragement is the vehicle to that environment. The motivation aspect of seeing goals, setting a bright picture of the future, and then the knowledge of, if you work, you get results. If you want to enjoy the harvest you have to first labor in the field.


I was studying that theory, but then Ben Carson comes into my life and we now have a living practical example of a world renowned scientist, who went through this same process. He would envision himself as a doctor one day. We use the same formula to inspire kids. And it wasn’t just Ben—we recently had reps from six local colleges come visit us to describe the college experience to our students so that they could visualize it.


Today we have over 30 former MERIT students who hold doctorate degrees.


What keeps you motivated?


About 15 months ago I had a pretty severe stroke, and a lot of people assumed I would stop MERIT, because it’s a lot of work. Especially when you go to sleep at night not sure if you’re going to wake up the next day.


But when a young man, who I remember as a not-that-motivated sixth grader, comes back with an M.A. from Wake Forest, that’s my motivation—knowing that I played a part. When a young lady who came to the U.S. in second grade from Puerto Rico not speaking English gets up on stage to get her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech, well that’s the big leagues. That’s my motivation.


How can the rest of the state replicate what you’ve done to create opportunities for students?


A few steps I’d recommend:


Step 1: When is the last time you were in some extended involvement with a child who is challenged by poverty or a lack of formal education by their parents? Don’t just talk about, get direct involved with students.


Step 2: Become proficient in goal-setting. We set victory logs, and kids writing the good news they heard.


Step 3: Empower parents. Get them directly involved.


Step 4: Empower the community. Those engineers from Delmarva are blown away by what these kids can do.


Step 5: Go learn from lessons of the past. Seek out those people who have gone through what your students have gone through and find their lessons.


Do you think MERIT has influenced others in Delaware to carry on your example?


I think of MERIT as where the rubber meets the road. We don’t dwell in theory, we dwell in results. As a result we’ve had 14 kids graduate from Ivy League schools. If you want to talk about how to break the poverty cycle, there it is.

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