Curriculum Case Study: How One School District in the ‘Nylon Capital of the World’ Once Faced State Takeover for Poor Performance, then Became Among the Best in Delaware

Fourth-graders in Seaford, Delaware, participate in “paired reading,” an essential part of the Bookworms curriculum, while remaining socially distanced. (Photo courtesy of Knowledge Matters)

This is the first of four pieces from a Knowledge Matters tour of school districts in Delaware, in recognition of the state’s new initiative – called DE Delivers – to encourage adoption of high quality instructional materials in its 19 districts. The tour begins in Seaford, which has seen a stunning turnaround in student achievement in a few short years. Knowledge Matters asked Kelly Carvajal Hageman, director of instruction, to write this piece. She came to the district just as it was implementing Bookworms, an English language arts curriculum that was in its infancy and being co-authored by a professor at the University of Delaware. Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.

Seaford is a small, 8,000-person town in southwestern Delaware — 3,500 of those residents are students in our school district. Previously known as the “Nylon Capital of the World,” Seaford, like so many small communities around the country, is struggling to reshape itself after its primary employer, DuPont, left town in 2003.

In the past 10 years, opportunity in the agricultural sector has attracted a growing immigrant population resulting in a doubling of our English learner student population to nearly 25 percent. For a small east coast town, we have a very ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse student body.

Being selected to take part in a national tour of schools that are models for implementation of high-quality instructional materials — referenced here later as HQIM — was a big thrill for us. We are always eager to have guests in our schools; welcoming visitors back after over a year due to COVID was even more exciting.

Seaford Central Elementary School has in many ways served as a “lab school” for Bookworms K-5 Reading and Writing, a relatively new English language arts curriculum that was developed by researchers at the University of Delaware. Our district has been implementing Bookworms for six years now. In that time, we’ve had amazing results.

In 2015, of 19 school districts in the state, Seaford was dead last in every single category and subgroup. Out of all the districts in Delaware, students in our district were least likely to meet Common Core expectations in the 2014-2015 academic year. We weren’t just a “focus school” — we were dangerously close to being taken over by the state.

Today we’re one of the highest achieving districts in Delaware as mea­­sured by English Language Arts state testing results. All subgroups of students (including ELs and students receiving special education services) had impressive gains in student achievement.

Unlike many districts that adopt HQIM, our journey did not begin with a decision to adopt a new curriculum. It began with a decision to dive into professional learning, specifically to build our understanding about the science of reading. First, we worked to develop a shared understanding among school leaders, including the school-based reading specialists and school administrators, which pushed us to keep going so that, in time, everyone in the building was involved and we became a community of learners together.

We have been extremely fortunate to have as a partner in this journey Bookworm’s author, Sharon Walpole, Ph. D. In our earliest days of working with Dr. Walpole, we recognized that the curriculum was uniquely designed to develop critical thinking skills, while maximizing daily reading and student engagement. Bookworms incorporates more than 265 whole books instead of the shorter reading passages that are often found in other curricula. Furthermore, the importance of oral language development is a consistent thread present in all Bookworms lessons.

Our recognition of these virtues helped convince us that we could end all pullout programs for our growing English learner population; Previously, we used an alternative English language arts curriculum with our English learners. But, with a quarter of our population now in this category, how could we justify that? Bookworms is a language learning curriculum – and we made the commitment that we were going to use it to provide grade-level instruction for all our students, together.

Our work has really been focused on the concept of shared ownership, utilizing a co-teaching service model. We ripped off the “pullout” band aid – and it was rough for some people. Teachers were fearful students would struggle. Roles changed and that was uncomfortable for some. But we were driven by the north star of giving all students access to grade-level content, and we knew they could meet high expectations if they had the proper support.

To facilitate this paradigm shift in how we served our students, we invested heavily in our educators. Previously, our EL teachers and para educators had not been included in professional learning alongside the core classroom teachers. Now they were learning the curriculum right with them. And with this training came new expectations, including that the EL team would support their students in meeting the standards alongside non-EL peers. Together, as a school-wide team, we operationalized a shared belief, “Don’t underestimate what your kids can do,” which required a shift in mindset to “How can I make sure my kids are ready to do this?”

This change impacted the work of our general educators as well. There wasn’t any more, “You take these kids and ‘fix them’ so I can then do my job to teach them.” The focus shifted to, “Let’s figure out how we can support students in meeting classroom expectations together.”

Seaford Supt. Corey Miklus put his bet on our principals to lead this charge, and they didn’t disappoint. At Seaford Central, Principal Becky Neubert and Asst. Principal Chandra Phillips are as capable of skillfully delivering Bookworms lessons as the best teacher in the building. In fact, they are who teachers called on when they were struggling with something. And it couldn’t be more critical that school leaders participated in the process right alongside the staff. “How can you coach someone unless you’ve been in the classroom and done it yourself?” they said.

Seaford School District’s stunning results didn’t happen overnight. We had to find our way through the fog just like everyone else. Our mantra became, “Trust the process.” Finding the right partner and investing in school leadership were keys to that process for us.

Kelly Carvajal Hageman is director of instruction for the Seaford School District in Delaware.

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