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As change looms for Delaware School, faculty crave consistency

Ryan Delaney
Delaware Elementary School was constructed in 1915 on South Geddes Street in Syracuse's Near Westside.

School is out for the day at Delaware Elementary in Syracuse, but Principal Milagros Escalera is in the auditorium greeting a group of students who stuck around for a magic show.

"Did you pet the bunny?" she asks, as students marvel at the furry animal's bright red eyes.

Much like how the magician performed his tricks, what the future holds for these students and this school, is a mystery.

Required by state officials to turn the Delaware School around or close it, the school district must implement dramatic changes. Change is not new to Delaware, instead it’s consistency that faculty crave.

The Syracuse school district has tried for years to improve this chronically under-performing school. But the school has not been able to magically pull the right solution out of its hat.

"If you don't walk into the school and see what the school is about, you'd think, 'that school, what a failure.' It's not," Escalera said.

Showing progress

A number of different programs have been introduced with the hope of improving test scores; and they've come with extra state and federal funding.

But enthusiasm for each program fizzled out after a year or two as the state made changes or reduced funding, Escalera said during an interview in her office.

"Unfortunately, we didn't meet the mark."

And the school’s roughly 600 kids continued to score poorly on state assessments.

"So unfortunately, that's the growth measure, it's what we're judged by, and we didn't meet the mark for that," she said.

Delaware is located on the Near Westside of Syracuse. The neighborhood is one of the city’s poorest and a majority of Delaware’s students are minorities.

The school has been one of the worst performing in the state on performance exams for too many years in a row, so the state education department is mandating the district either close it or drastically overhaul it.

"Our students do progress," Escalera contends. "What’s not being shown is that progress on the New York state assessments."

Superintendent Sharon Contreras has pitched state education officials on the idea of turning Delaware into an in-district charter school, one that would keep the same students and same teachers in the building.

"So this is a way we’re maintaining stability for our teaching staff and for students," she said a recent school board meeting. "Obviously the final decision is not up to me, it’s up to the state commissioner."

It’s also up to the parents. A conversion of Delaware to a charter school will have to be approved by a majority of them.

"Which is another win within this particular model, that parents actually have a say. They are the only ones that can vote this up," she said.

"It may be the only option"

Charter schools receive public funding, but have more freedom from state and federal education standards. They’re usually run by private companies.

An in-district charter school hasn’t been implemented anywhere in the state in over a decade, so there are a lot of questions about how it would work.

"Well, I don’t know if it’s the best option, but it may be the only option," said Syracuse Teachers Association president Kevin Ahern.

The union has been talking to the district about running the school. Ahern argues a teacher-run charter school will allow more flexibility from the state to implement changes than the school has now.

Onondaga Community College is also being considered to run the new Delaware. The conversion into a charter school wouldn't happen until the start of the 2015-16 academic year, according to officials.

Ahern said he doesn’t want to see the Delaware School community disrupted in another turnaround scheme.

"Our interest is to keep that school open in that neighborhood," he said, "with the kids going to school in the school that they’ve been in with our members working there."

"We want them to be able to function like everyone else."

That flexibility is needed, principal Escalera said, in order to implement a program that caters to Delaware’s students and the teachers can get behind.

"We have to have assessments," she said. "We want them to be able to function like everyone else and compete like everyone else. And score well, but to give us the time to get the kids to that point where they will be competing well."

Escalera is retiring this summer after two decades at Delaware. She said while the changes coming to Delaware won’t affect her, they will touch everyone in the school’s close-knit community, from the cleaning staff to parents who attended Delaware and now send their children there.