Phillis Wheatley Elementary School becomes site for Basic Needs Closet

By Rachel Lord

Phillis Wheatley Elementary School is one of 45 schools to become the home of the new Basic Needs Closet initiative that Governor John Carney rolled out last Thursday, Aug. 24.

The governor and Department of Education partnered with Nanticoke Health Services, Beebe Healthcare, and First Book to provide needy schools and students with provisions of basic needs for the school year. Allowing students to have access to basic needs - clothing, school supplies, food - can make a real difference in their ability to learn at school, said Lynn Brown, principal at PWES. We tell our students that education is the key to their bright future and that with hard work, with effort and dedication, they can accomplish anything and everything. Not having food, clothing, [or] materials can get in the way of their success, and we cant thank you enough for your efforts to bridge this gap with us.

Dr. Susan Bunting, Secretary of the Department of Education, can sympathize with those teachers of Phillis Wheatley; she worked for years in a district near the poverty levels seen in Woodbridge. If [the students] cant concentrate because theyre hungry or they dont have supplies, theyre not going to be able to succeed, Sec. Bunting agreed. So we know that that emotional and physical health is a very important part of what [teachers] do, and you need that foundation. And we know that if those needs arent met, we really have jeopardized their being able to maximally benefit from what you provide as quality learning experiences in the classrooms. Im honored to be here to witness the official opening of the Basic Needs Closet here at your school.

Associate Secretary Michael Rodriguez, DOE, also has experience in a needy school. As a former Indian River School District principal, and now associate secretary of student support, I am happy to be here to discuss the additional resources for Delaware students, Rodriguez commented. Every child deserves to have their basic needs met, and when we are able to come together as a state to make this happen, its a win for everyone. He relayed a story where he became aware of three brothers who were missing numerous days of school, and he asked the oldest why that was. The child responded that they did not have winter coats and were not going to school on cold days. Rodriguez followed up with their mother, who admitted that she was a single mother who could not afford coats for them after paying bills and heat; she was not sending them to school on cold days for that reason. He told her that the guidance counselor could provide them hats, coats, and gloves. The mother promised that if that happened, she would make sure her boys attended school. True to her word, the kids made a 100 percent turnaround in their attendance, and she also became an active participant in our PTO, Rodriguez concluded. These happy endings happen every single day in our educational system, but theres always a need to do more. More resources for more kids, and more opportunities for our students to access the supports the need to be successful. Today is the beginning of more stories like the one I shared, and were looking forward to seeing the results of those efforts.

Businesses across the state donated supplies for this project, including school supplies like binders, notebooks, and pencils, as well as clothes, winter gloves, and personal hygiene products. Local healthcare providers are invested in this initiative as well, such as Beebe Healthcare and Nanticoke Health Services, both of which were represented at the announcement at Phillis Wheatley. Jeffrey Fried of Beebe explained that several years ago, they changed their focus as a healthcare organization and began working more with preventative measures to keep people out of the hospital. Were really pleased to be a part of this program because we recognize that this program will help your students and your kids thrive and hopefully succeed in an academic environment, because that certainly benefits our community and its really part of what we want to do as a healthcare organization, Fried said. Thomas Brown of Nanticoke agreed.

Its part of whats important to us, Brown added. Its a priority just like it is for all the hospitals in Delaware to support those things which nurture the health of our community, and that couldnt be more important than it is in this particular environment. Of course, Brown also has a personal reason to be excited for Phillis Wheatleys students. His wife, Pegeen taught in Woodbridge School District before passing away. He joked that he would see a Walmart bill showing 400 rulers and 30 copies of a single book on it; he knew firsthand that many teachers pay out of their own pocket for supplies, and he hopes this closet will help alleviate that. The Nanticoke family will be supporting this effort on multiple levels, through support from our employees, medical staff and community partners, Brown said. Additionally, the organization will support this project through its Pegeen and Samantha Brown Pediatric Fund, providing an additional resource to help ensure the closets in our community have what they need. Pegeen would be thrilled that the fund in her and our daughters memory would help children in the school system that meant so much to her. Nanticoke Health Services is thrilled as well.

Equally important to the closets function will be First Book, a nonprofit that provides new books for low-income students; this past December, they partnered with the State to launch First Book First State. We delivered at that point, just as a kickoff, more than 40,000 brand new books to educators in Title I and Title I eligible schools and programs across the state, said President and CEO Kyle Zimmer. In addition, the families had the opportunity to select 10 books per child to take home with them.

One remarkable statistic that I want to share with you is in a survey of First Book educators, all of whom are serving children in need, 79 percent say that the children they work with do not have their basic needs met, Zimmer continued. And we know that every year heroic educators step up. We know that you dig into your own pockets and provide hundreds of dollars in resources to the kids in the classrooms. And we want to honor that commitment by working with you shoulder to shoulder. This is an extraordinary day because Delaware is leading the charge.

Governor Carney told the gathered teachers and partners that he realized the most important part of his job about two months after taking up the position of governor, when a group of fourth graders asked him the question. The most important part of my job is to make sure that all of you and the people in the cabinet and working with the legislators can do our jobs well and better, he said. And we know that here in Woodbridge School District and here at this individual school, you are doing a great job because weve seen the results and weve seen the improvement. The biggest priority for all of us has to be to make sure that every child that comes through the door is able to be successful. And we know that each child that comes through that door has different challenges, different home lives, different levels of support from their parents, different abilities and so on, but every child has tremendous potential. Every child is unique.

This program is to help put every child in the same level as they come into school each year, make sure that they have those basic needs met.

Gov. Carney added that they will continue to do more, such as with the newly created Innovation and Improvement office, which will support educators and students in high-needs schools, especially those in the City of Wilmington. The partnership with First Book is another stride in the direction to provide each child with the education they deserve. Were not going to be successful as a state, were not going to continue to enjoy the quality of life that weve had for generations, unless were able to reach every single child, Carney added.

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