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.
East Dover Elementary School teacher Oribel McFann-Mora is president of Delaware English Language Learners Teachers and Advocates (DELLTA) and one of the architects of the recently launched Delaware English Learner fact sheet series, along with the Delaware Hispanic Commission, the Arsht-Cannon Fund, and the Rodel Foundation.
We caught up with McFann-Mora to talk about the road ahead for English learner advocacy in the First State.
What’s one thing you wish every Delawarean could know about EL students/the EL community that you serve?
There are undisputable benefits in fostering inclusive, diverse, multilingual, and well-educated generations of Delaware students. It’s our responsibility to do our best for all our students, ELs included. They’ll be the ones making decisions that will affect our collective future.
I personally have many success stories involving some of my former ELs. Some have started their own small business, others are well on their way to becoming our next generation of leading scientists, artists, athletes; the list goes on. All of them have in common gratitude for the opportunities they received at school. Many have thanked me for “all I did for them.” It warms my heart, but I always reply that I don’t know what they’re talking about—they did all the hard work; I was just fortunate to be around. As a state we can do more to ensure that all EL students have the opportunities to have this kind of success.
What could Delaware leaders and policymakers do to better support the EL community?
I must share that personally I’m not into politics; all who know me will tell you that I’m a positive and to a good extent naïve person. As a rule I see the good in everyone and in every situation. Also, I’m—to my husband’s horror—an organized and methodical problem-solver. He asks, “Why do I have to number our grocery list? It’s absolutely unnecessary.” My answer: “It must be done so you know how many items you need total and you can easily pinpoint if you’re forgetting one of the items” (he’s yet to agree with my logic).
My point is that in my straightforward way of thinking, prioritizing and funding adequately our Delaware ELs’ educational and linguistic needs is long overdue. We owe it to our EL students and their families. We have to get all stakeholders on board. We must work as a team and create actionable steps. We can’t wait any longer.
What progress have you seen in Delaware?
It’s important to note that we’ve made progress in bringing our EL needs to the forefront. ESSA does well at shining the light on making our ELs’ achievement a priority. Our state ESSA plan sought several stakeholders’ input in its development phase. DELLTA was part of that effort. But we have much more to do and work toward if we are truly planning to close our ELs achievement gap and ensure their linguistic progress.
Tell us a little about DELLTA. What’s your goal and how to you work toward it?
Our current purposes are:
We meet several times a year with DELLTA’s executive and advisory boards and hold two membership meetings in the school year.
We’ve been working hard to recruit teachers of ELs throughout our state. We’re very fortunate to have a cohesive and dedicated group of professionals that are experts in the English learning and language acquisition fields. We’re made up of active EL teachers, expert retirees, and experts in the English learning and linguistic fields. Our collective input and perspective is essential to understand Delaware ELs’ education and needs.
We welcome all those (including non-educators!) with a strong desire to further ELs linguistic and academic progress into our group.
Why is it important for teachers to also be advocates?
Many times, the parents of English learners do not have enough English skills, nor are they aware of their rights to advocate for their children. The ESL teacher has to be their advocate. For many students and families, the ESL teacher is the main link between their world and the English speaking world. We can research problems and questions for our families and help them get the services they need. How many ESL teachers have reached out the school nurse to give an eye exam to one of our ELs? Our nurses then help the families get eye exams and glasses locally.
There are so many cases and examples of this type of advocacy that happens locally. At the state level, DELLTA reaches out to our legislature to advocate for specific EL funding for our students, as well to change laws to protect and help them.
EL teachers truly understand the challenges our students must overcome daily. It’s our responsibility to speak up and advocate for what’s right for our ELs.
We want our ELs to be successful linguistically and academically in our pre-K-12 schools, but we also want them to be college and career ready. To accomplish these lofty goals, we must seek and heed everyone’s expertise in the field. Advocating for ELs is not an EL teacher-only endeavor; it’s a team effort.
Is there anything from your background—either personally or professionally—that drives your focus and passion for this work?
I am a proud Mexican-American and a former EL who dreamed big. I basically put all my eggs in one basket. I didn’t have a backup plan. You know, I’ve heard this is usually not very wise. I completed all of my education by making it a priority and by being fortunate of having a number of outstanding teachers, professors, instructors, friends, and family who supported me along the way. I am the one sibling in my family with the highest education degree. It’s a great source of pride for my family; actually, mostly for my mother.
Often times, I tell my K-4 ELs, “you need to work hard because when you go to college you need to be as ready as you can be.” You see, I want my students think of college as something completely within their reach, as opposed to something foreign and unattainable. I do realize that perhaps college isn’t suitable for all my students, but I do want it to be an option if they’re interested.
What are some factors, in your experience, that allow EL students to thrive?
From an EL/ESL teacher perspective there are many factors that allow EL students to thrive. For example, a safe and nourishing environment in school, where the classroom teacher works closely with the ESL teacher to provide the necessary modifications to the lessons and incorporating appropriate learning strategies to allow the student to learn while developing his second language acquisition skills is a major one. Academic and emotional support at home encourages the student to learn. Valuing the student’s uniqueness and their heritage is an important factor, as is using the first language as much as possible in their education when it is viable.
Additionally, it helps to view our Delaware ELs as everyone’s responsibility. Once we all recognize the assets and needs of our ELs, we can then move on to how to ensure that they’ll thrive and succeed linguistic and academically.
How could Delaware schools utilize additional funding to further support EL students?
We need adequate and sufficient funding specific for the needs of our ELs. We’ve said it before and will continue advocating for it. For years, schools and school districts in Delaware have had discretion in how ELs educational and linguistic supports/programs are delivered, and basically because of limited funding specific to ELs we’ve found ourselves doing “the best we can with what we’ve got.” This is simply not a promising system and approach. We’ve tried it for many years with the results we many of us know: Our ELs continue to still lag behind their non-ELs peers. We need specific funding to meet their education and needs.
As a result of the dozens of years of collective experience acquired from teaching our ELs and working with their families, as well as research conducted in the field, DELLTA members have pointed to the following list (not all inclusive) of best-practice places where every school could invest to support EL students, families and educator:
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