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Taheem Fennel poses for a picture with his mom and stepdad after his fifth-grade graduation ceremony at Bancroft Elementary School. Credit: Nichole Dobo / The Hechinger Report

WILMINGTON, Del. — Taheem Fennell, 12, loves to ride his bike. He taught himself when he was 4 years old while visiting older cousins in Pennsylvania. He remembers running and jumping on, feeling his feet going around and testing the brakes.

“I never rode a bike with training wheels,” he says.

Taheem wants to ride his bike to the park more, but his mother worries about him venturing too far from the one-bedroom apartment in the Quaker Hill neighborhood that they share with his stepfather and four siblings, and sometimes other relatives. Earlier this year, Taheem witnessed a shooting as he was walking to school. And in the summer of 2017, Taheem’s 16-year-old sister, Naveha Gibbs, was shot and killed in a city a 20-minute drive to the north. She was with a 26-year-old man thought to be in a gang.

So Taheem spends much of his free time inside, reading. His favorite books are in the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, about a kid who’s starting middle school. Novels help him focus his mind on something positive, his mother, Charmaine Jones, says.

He started fifth grade about a month after his sister was killed. He clutched the program from her funeral in class. He had angry outbursts. The staff at Bancroft Elementary School suggested counseling, and his mother eagerly accepted the help. Taheem learned coping strategies from a family crisis therapist at the school, whom he came to trust and rely on. She taught him how to help himself when he’s feeling overwhelmed with sadness or rage.

Despite all his struggles emotionally, he remained on track academically. He marched in an elementary school graduation ceremony in June 2018, sporting a blue polyester robe while his mom and stepdad clapped and took pictures. He flashed a big smile, with round cheeks. After it was over everyone herded into the gym, where he helped his mom with his 1-year-old brother’s stroller. School staff passed out cake with fluffy white icing.

But after Taheem began sixth grade at Bayard Middle School this year, everything began to fall apart.

In a neighborhood dotted with tidy brick row homes, Bayard Middle School rises like a drab brick fortress, virtually windowless. A chain-link fence frames an American flag on the roof above the concrete entrance. The nearly 50-year-old school spans three city blocks on South DuPont Street, a thoroughfare named for one of the most celebrated and wealthy families of this tiny state.

The children at the school are almost entirely black and poor. Many of them, like Taheem, are scarred by violence and loss.

Roughly 4 percent of seventh-graders were proficient in math and 9 percent scored proficient in reading at Bayard Middle School, Delaware’s lowest performing school.

While he was in elementary school, Taheem’s classrooms were clearly under-resourced, with a constant shortage of pencils and classroom floors so damaged that wood slabs were gouged out. But they had a librarian, and Taheem eagerly awaited his weekly visits to check out books. Bayard Middle School, when he arrived there, had a library, but no librarian, so most of the day it’s a dark, unused room. Chapter books slouch on unattended shelves. Faded posters peel off the walls. Occasionally, a glow illuminates a corner of the room where children’s faces are softly lit by a row of desktop computers. They practice for standardized tests that reveal Bayard to be the lowest-performing school in the state.

Various attempts to help the school — including with federal money — have, so far, been unsuccessful.

Educators here say they don’t have the support to do their jobs correctly. And staffing the school is a chronic problem. “The children who need the most should get the most,” said Krystal Greenfield, a longtime Wilmington educator.

Children who attend schools in unsafe communities — even if they themselves have not been a victim of a crime — score lower on academic achievement tests than children who live in safer places. Children in Wilmington are more likely to be shot than children anywhere else in the country, and the city has the distinction of being one of the most dangerous in the nation, according to a 2017 analysis by the Associated Press and The News Journal. Newsweek magazine dubbed the city “Murder Town USA” in 2014. At the time, the mayor told Newsweek that the local schools were to blame for the cycle of violence.

funding in schools
Taheem Fennel stands on his front stoop in Wilmington, Delaware on the first day of school. He’s wearing his school uniform — a red shirt. He lives on a block known for gun violence, and his mother worries about his safety. Credit: Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

When Taheem started the sixth grade, Bayard had one behavioral health consultant for about 325 students, the vast majority of whom have experienced trauma, and she was only able to take on a dozen or so cases at a time. So teachers and administrators served as ad hoc mental health or social service providers for children in crisis. A boy arrived at school the morning after his 5-year-old sister was shot. A girl stopped coming to school later appeared on a “missing child” flyer that her principal discovered in the mail one morning. And on and on.

A new federal regulation was supposed to force change at schools like Bayard. Part of the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015, it requires states – many for the first time this year – to reveal publicly how much money each school gets per student. The push for transparency is part of a slow-burning movement to overhaul school funding formulas and make them more fair. Court cases are also challenging states to increase spending for schools that serve low-income students. And presidential candidates are also pitching solutions. Former Vice President Joe Biden made increasing school funding central to his new education platform. Bernie Sanders has proposed tripling Title I funding for low-income schools. Elizabeth Warren’s plan would limit charter schools in favor of funding for traditional public schools.

Broadly, it’s known that school districts serving more poor students and more students of color receive less funding than those serving more white and affluent students. But the specifics of how those dollars are meted out have been hidden, making it difficult to know how money is spent in each school building.

“It’s been a bit of a black box for folks,” said Ary Amerikaner, vice president for P-12 policy, research and practice at the Education Trust, an educational nonprofit that focuses on the needs of at-risk students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act would require states to break down local, state and federal funding sources per student. Historically, public schools have organized spending by category on the district-wide level — teachers, benefits, materials, for instance — but there were no structures in place to calculate how much money is spent in each school building.

Nationally, schools primarily serving black and brown children receive $23 billion less than schools primarily serving white students, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit advocacy group, and now a dozen states, including Delaware, are facing state-level court challenges to their methods for allocating money to local schools.

Related: While the rest of the world invests more in education, the U.S. spends less

Still, advocates hope these numbers will have some effect as they trickle out this year and next. Advocates are working in some states to pressure legislatures to spend more money on poor children, including in notoriously stingy Mississippi.

The new funding transparency is also giving ammunition to the teacher protests that have swept the country, bringing additional pressure for change from within the classroom. Teachers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, West Virginia and Oakland have walked off the job this year over teacher compensation, class size and classroom funding.

The Trump administration rolled back some of the ESSA regulations set by the Obama administration in favor of local control that allows states to set their own rules for how to deal with schools that have chronically-low test scores and other matters. Rules that require school-level spending reports remain in effect. This fall, an official from DeVos’ department of education complained that states were burying required spending reports for fear that the public will not be able to understand the information. But already, states have begun publishing new data on how much is spent in each local school, and it is sure to fuel more debate, says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. It will be shocking, even to school principals, how much money is spent on individual schools, she said.

“It’s often jaw-dropping for them,” Roza said.

The escalating fight over money will play out in a quickly shifting education landscape, as the will to continue to invest in chronically failing schools like Bayard has dwindled on the federal level and school choice advocates like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos push alternatives to the public system. In Wilmington, enrollment across the lowest-performing traditional public schools has plummeted, with students opting for charter schools and private schools.

The year before Taheem headed to Bayard, he sometimes begged his mother to leave the lights on in the house at night. “They tell us it’s firecrackers but I know it’s not,” Taheem said. “They just don’t want us to get worried.”

It had been several months since he’d seen two men shooting at each other on his walk to elementary school. That morning, Jones was in her apartment. Taheem and two of his brothers, one 14 and the other 7, had just left for the school bus stop when she heard the shots outside. Her heart started racing, then she heard someone pounding on the door. Her husband was there with the children, telling her to get inside the house.

Jones doesn’t want her children to go for snacks at the corner store a few blocks away anymore, or to the park to play without her. After that gunfight, she called the school district repeatedly, she said, until they agreed to let the neighborhood children catch the bus on a safer block.

“They tell us it’s firecrackers but I know it’s not. They just don’t want us to get worried.”

Months later, she continued to worry. In the summer, when children were restless and out of school, it was increasingly difficult to contain them.

“I don’t want to lose another child to gun violence,” she said one summer afternoon while sitting on her stoop, watching the children play on the sidewalk nearby. “I try to give them the outside but out here it’s just too much violence. You can’t let your kids do anything. It’s just ridiculous, but Taheem just … he wants to be with his friends, and I understand that, but I’m scared.”

She turned to look at Taheem, who was holding his youngest brother’s chubby baby hands, helping him walk. “I don’t want you out of my eyesight because I don’t know what’s going to happen out here.”

Related: In 6 states, school districts with the neediest students get less money than the wealthiest

Jones was pregnant with her first child at 15 years old, and did not finish high school. Her daughter Naveha spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia, where Jones grew up, running around with people Jones now recognizes were trouble. Naveha ran away from home as a teenager, and spent time in a group home. Jones moved her family to Wilmington, 30 miles south of Philadelphia, nearly five years ago to escape an abusive relationship.

Naveha desperately wanted her brother to have a different kind of life, Jones said. She recalled her daughter saying to him: “I don’t want you ending up where I’m at. You need to do what mommy tell you to do. You need to listen in school. School is nothing to play with.”

funding in schools
Taheem Fennel and his stepfather walk to the bus on the first day of school. His stepfather talked to him about responsibility the entire walk, reminding him that he is growing up and needs to work hard. Credit: Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

Jones also wants something better for her youngest kids. At home, she encourages her children to read by assigning them to write book reports for her.

As Taheem’s stepfather walked him to his first day at Bayard, he gave him a similar lecture, about growing up and behaving in school. Taheem was upbeat. He loved school, except for the homework. He had a new camouflage backpack, a fresh haircut and cherry-red high-top sneakers. “I am looking forward to meeting new friends and math,” he said. But he was a little nervous, too.

“I really don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he said.

The year before, Bayard’s sixth grade hadn’t had a math teacher all year. Many of the school’s teachers were involuntary transfers after a budget crisis in the district — people forced to teach there because there wasn’t room for them in other district buildings. Some came from the suburbs, where teachers with more seniority can “bump” less experienced teachers out of jobs when there’s a budget crisis. Most left Bayard as soon as they could find another posting.

Bayard is, without a doubt, a stressful and difficult school to work in. Teachers have been injured by students. It’s not uncommon for teachers to call from the parking lot midday and quit. Some don’t even bother to notify; one just stopped showing up after the winter holiday break, never to be heard from again. Staff absences are such a problem that the school leaders decided they had to find several full-time substitutes to report to school every day to fill in.

Not everyone agrees that the nation’s lowest-performing schools would perform better if they were better funded. Critics of funding lawsuits have argued that the problem isn’t money, it’s that traditional public schools in poor neighborhoods tend to be dysfunctional and the money isn’t properly spent. Along with high staff turnover, they often lack a coherent approach to address the emotional and academic needs of students.

Hardly anyone would argue that school funding does not make a difference, but academic research on the effects of school funding on kids’ classroom performance and long-term success has been mixed. More money does not always equal better results for students—at least not as can be measured by math and reading assessments. An influx of money at Bayard wouldn’t immediately solve troubles like how to attract the best teachers to this tough neighborhood. Nor would it remove union rules that can block school leaders from picking which teachers get assigned there.

Bayard, for example, was given occasional infusions of cash and marched through state-monitored turnaround efforts with few signs of improvement as a result—most recently, about five years ago, when it was given money and technical assistance supported by Obama’s Race to the Top grants. This year, roughly only 4 percent of its students were proficient in math and 13 percent were proficient in reading.

“The children who need the most should get the most.”

“It turns out when you give schools extra funds they rarely feel like they can actually rethink what they can actually do with them,” said Frederick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “You end up putting more dollars into schools, and everything they have been doing for 40 years remains intact.”

And, critically, figuring out how what is spent is just the start. To get a better understanding of what a school lacks, policymakers need to know what the money is being spent on. A new report from the ACLU, for instance, reports that 1.7 million children nationwide attend schools where there are police officers but no counselors.

Related: Governments are spending billions more on education, and it’s making inequality worse

As dysfunctional as Bayard has been for years, for some students it has been an important lifeline in the community. Last school year, students came to the assistant principal, Krystal Greenfield, like a mother. One day, she got a text message from the parent of a child who had moved on to high school. He had been a shy child — someone who was bullied in middle school that Greenfield took under her wing. Now, he was taking up with a gang, and his mother knew he wouldn’t listen to anyone but Greenfield. She went to see him, pleaded with him to change his ways.

school funding
Taheem Fennel sits in his homeroom on the first day of school at Bayard Elementary School. All the sixth-grade students are required to wear red shirts and the halls of the sixth grade wing are also painted bright red. Credit: Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

“He had an internal battle,” she said. “He didn’t know whether he wanted to be a good guy who got bullied and picked on — or a bad guy who got respect for money and drugs and being that dude.”

As she walked through the halls, walkie-talkie and jangle of keys at her hip, Greenfield came to the sixth-grade floor of the school. The walls are painted an alarming scarlet red, and children are supposed to wear matching red shirts to allow staff to immediately identify their grade level. She encountered a group of students, two boys and two girls, standing in the hallway. They were bickering with a hall monitor. The monitor grew more animated and loud as the children continued to defy him. Greenfield sidled up to a short, stocky boy with his bright red polo shirt tucked into a pair of carpenter-style chinos. She put her arm around him, hugged him tight and walked him silently to the other end of the hall. She spun him to face her and smiled warmly. Then, she was firm.

“What’s going on? Why aren’t you in class?”

The boy launched into a dramatic reenactment of how he was making a “hmm” noise, and his teacher didn’t like it. He didn’t want to stop because he liked the sound. The sound is not that loud, he protested, and other students make noise, too. Greenfield listened to every word and then looked him in the eyes.

“Please, just stop,” she said.

He agreed and shuffled back to the classroom. Quietly.

Later, Greenfield explained that this child’s home had burned to the ground a few months earlier. The fire had been intentionally set by a relative. Two of the firefighters who responded to the blaze were killed.

“Kids know their story. They know what happened, they know when it went wrong and they don’t have an answer for it. They don’t know how to fix it because they have no power, they have no control.”

Greenfield said that when she runs into a child who’s having problems in school, sometimes she’ll bring the child into her office to look at their academic history together on the computer. They’ll look at that timeline as Greenfield scrolls through various data points — math and reading achievement tests, primarily — that schools track.

“I show them, I say, ‘All right, these are your test scores,’ ” she said. “ ‘This is your life, this is what’s on paper, this is what I see when I look you up.’ ”

The district’s system color codes the numbers like a stoplight. She’ll trace a finger on the screen. A student may have started out in elementary school as a green before moving to yellow, then red. “What happened that year you sank?” she’ll ask. She’s never met a child who didn’t know what happened.

“Kids know their story,” she said. “They know what happened, they know when it went wrong and they don’t have an answer for it. They don’t know how to fix it because they have no power, they have no control.”

funding in schools
Krystal Greenfield talks to a student on the first day of school at Palmer Elementary, where she was unexpectedly reassigned and promoted to principal a few weeks before the first day of school. Credit: Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

Greenfield said that if she had her wish she would staff the school fully with teachers who were trained and eager to work with this population. She’d pay them well, she said. But her more realistic plan, for the 2018-19 school year, supported by the school principal, was to create more spaces in the school for children to learn to cope with their feelings.

Instead, Krystal Greenfield left Bayard a week before classes started. The school district unexpectedly moved her to another school that had a sudden principal vacancy. Her assistant principal job at Bayard went unfilled for a few months, but the staff started the year with a teachers union-organized training to help them understand the needs of childhood trauma and the school did manage to fill every vacant staff position in the sixth grade before Taheem started classes. At other schools, having a teacher in place in every classroom by the start of the school year might be a given, but at Bayard, administrators hailed it as a major success.

Radical changes this year were meant to further improve the school’s position. Bayard became a first-to-eighth grade building this school year, as part of a plan to find additional money to support the most challenged schools in Wilmington, including Bayard, by combining several schools, lengthening the school year and paying staff a little extra if they promise not to quit.

Gov. John Carney, who took office in 2017, oversaw budget cuts, including cuts to education, early in his tenure. To deal with the state’s budget crisis, he created a “shared sacrifice” system in which programs enjoyed both by the wealthy and the poor were trimmed. Those budget cuts, combined with the inability to raise local taxes due to a failed budget referendum, propelled Bayard Middle School deeper into crisis.

Then Carney, a life-long Delawarean and the son of an educator, visited Bayard last year. He was appalled. He went into a math class, where there was a substitute doing not much of anything, papers on the floor, kids unengaged. He said the teacher didn’t even acknowledge his presence. “We had single-digit math proficiency standards in these schools. Are you kidding me? If we doubled the proficiency standards, you’d be at 10 percent,” Carney said in an interview. “You’d have to quadruple the achievement standards just to get to 20 percent. It’s immoral. I mean … you’ve got to do something about it.”

“The physical conditions of the building, the instruction, everything happening in Bayard at that time was completely unacceptable. We ought to treat these children like they’re our own.”

“The physical conditions of the building, the instruction, everything happening in Bayard at that time was completely unacceptable,” he said. “We ought to treat these children like they’re our own.”

In Delaware, the school funding formula is more than 70 years old, and no one, not even the Democrats who control much of the state government, are eager to change it. When the legislation was written, schools were still segregated by law. The state also had the dubious distinction of being the only one in the country requiring black schools to be funded only by taxes levied from black property owners. Few people of color owned property, so a wealthy member of the du Pont family personally funded $6 million for the construction of new schools for black children in 1920. It was a step forward, but it was hardly enough. The entire state only had one high school for black children until the 1950s. (Schools in Delaware were one of the five cases that comprised Brown v. Board of Education. It was the single case for which a state court had ruled that separate is not equal.)

National budget experts describe Delaware’s funding formula as antiquated and regressive. The recently retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Leo Strine, said in an extraordinary statement last year that leaders have ignored their “moral duty,” arguing that “kids who have less, need more.” It is one of the few states that provides no additional money for the education of students who are learning English, for example. Money for helping poor students, in general, is not cemented into the formula. As a result, the pot of money set aside especially for schools that serve low-income students is subject to the whims of legislators and governors who can (and do) cut it or shuffle priorities.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no constitutional right to equal funding in education, but plaintiffs in several states have successfully argued in the courts that state constitutions require at least an adequate, if not an excellent, education be provided each student. The cases, including one in New York, have resulted in funding formulas that funnel more money to students with higher needs. But court cases can take years to be resolved.

“As a practical matter, work with the legislators is a quicker way to right the ship,” said Rebecca Sibilia, the CEO of EdBuild.

In Delaware, Democrats have controlled the governorship, the majority in the legislature and nearly every state row office for years. But they haven’t had the political will to update the way the state funds its public schools.

A report from EdBuild revealed that, nationally, schools primarily serving black and brown children receive $23 billion less than schools primarily serving white students. And the number of children has nothing to do with it: The schools with children who are not white serve almost the same number of students.

“When you have mandatory spending and you don’t have revenue that keeps up with it, you just keep digging a hole that’s harder to get out of.”

When the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society Inc. sued Delaware last year, the state argued that the court shouldn’t insert itself into the debate because school funding was the purview of the general assembly and the governor. In late November, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster refused the state’s request to dismiss the case and issued a searing rebuke of the idea that the state’s courts had no jurisdiction over the matter, writing, “At the extreme, the State could corral Disadvantaged Students into warehouses, hand out one book for every fifty students, assign some adults to maintain discipline, and tell the students to take turns reading to themselves. Because the State does not think the Education Clause says anything about the quality of education, even this dystopian hypothetical would satisfy their version of the constitutional standard.”

Carney proposed increased funding for the state’s neediest students, including English language learners, and he found enough support in the Legislature. But he stopped short of proposing a complete overhaul of the school funding formula. Instead, the additional money would be set outside that system. Critics pointed out that this would continue to make the funding susceptible to budget cuts and the whims of politicians.

In an interview at a Newark, Delaware, bagel shop, Carney said an increase in spending tied to a new funding formula would make it difficult to manage the budget. “When you have mandatory spending and you don’t have revenue that keeps up with it, you just keep digging a hole that’s harder to get out of,” he said.

But the new plan, which includes the effort to combine schools in Wilmington, has proven to be a Herculean task. In addition to transforming Bayard into a 1-8 school, the district is restructuring and renovating several elementary schools. Another building will be repurposed as an early education center.

Carney dedicated $15 million to fund these changes, with the local district kicking in another $2.5 million. The money is one-time infusion, not a systematic change to how the lowest-performing schools are funded.

The plans have been difficult to execute, even with the extra money, proving just how hard it is to make big changes in high-needs schools. A major renovation planned for Bayard was downgraded. To start the year, the school got fresh paint, a playground and a key fob swipe system on doors to the upper floors. Some of the best staff have left because they can’t work for a longer school year with their own family obligations. A new librarian and art teacher started this fall.

funding in schools
Taheem Fennel waits on his front steps for his stepfather to come downstairs. They will walk to the school bus together. Credit: Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

Paul Herdman, CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a nonprofit organization that advocates for education reform, said that without the lawsuit forcing the state’s hand, and the additional transparency, it seems unlikely that there will be lasting change to how the state allocates money for schools.

“There’s the notion of taking a big political risk on changing the balance of where dollars go in a way that might adversely affect more affluent students — or at least the perception,” Herdman said. “I think there’s the perception that it’s a ‘Peter to pay Paul’ kind of situation that some people are going to lose and some people are going to win. And I that’s a really difficult political gamble for someone in office. And so I think once this lawsuit gets in place, I think it’s actually an opportunity for legislators who want to do the right thing to come up with a good solution.”

For Taheem, the reforms may come too late. In his first year at Bayard, trouble found him almost immediately.

He got into a fight in math, his favorite class. His mom rode the bus to school and arrived pushing a stroller bearing her youngest son and holding the hand of a young granddaughter to meet with a dean of students. He escorted them into a room in the main office with only one chair and a hodgepodge of old furniture. The dean leaned on a desk. Taheem stood near the wall. His mom took the chair.

Jones said that she’d told Taheem there are no excuses for his behavior. The dean asked Taheem if everything was “cool” now, or if he thought it would be a good idea for the dean to mediate a talk between the boys. Taheem wanted to talk.

At that point, Jones explained Taheem’s struggles after the loss of his sister. She said October would be a difficult month, because it’s his sister’s birthday month, and Taheem would need help. She suggested assigning him some extra books to read to “keep his mind occupied.”

“Are you in counseling here?” the dean asked Taheem.

Taheem nodded yes. But he named a teacher who runs a club, not a mental health professional.

Hearing about the counselor, his mom requested that the dean sign up Taheem immediately, and explained how well Taheem had done with that extra help in elementary school.

The dean promised to send parental consent forms home with Taheem to get him signed up.

Weeks passed before the school sent home the paperwork.

By then, Taheem’s problems had reached a frightening crescendo.

Three months in to his first year at Bayard, eighth-grade boys jumped Taheem in the hallway, his mother said, leaving him with a bump on his head and a busted lip. Taheem didn’t want to go to school at all. Then he started running around with a group of boys who were drawing the attention of the police. And he continued to have problems in school, landing himself on a disciplinary plan last year.

His mother had to quit one of her two jobs as a home health aide because she was being called to the school so often for meetings about his behavior. Jones plans to move her family to a safer neighborhood as soon she can afford it.

“Y’all pile them all up in one school, and all these kids have all these problems,” Jones said. “It’s ridiculous.”

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