Low-performing, high-poverty Warner Elementary School was one of six in Wilmington to receive an ultimatum in 2014: improve or face closure. WHYY visited to document the school's efforts.

 To reach their bus stop at Third and Franklin streets in Wilmington every morning, the third, fourth and fifth graders at Warner Elementary School must traverse a treacherous stretch.

Their path takes them through a neighborhood in Hilltop where the children co-exist with armed drug dealers who do a brisk business. In the last year alone, eight people have been shot, one fatally, within a three-block radius. Boarded and rundown brick homes and shops line the blocks.

Empty glassine bags for heroin and cocaine dot the children's path along the pitted and cracked sidewalks. On this morning late in May, a man marches around with a husky pit bull pulling at his leash.

"This is like drug central. You know, most of these people, that's what they do," said Carmen Monzon, who had toted her two grandchildren to the bus. "It's not the school. It's not the teachers. It's the upbringing. The mentality of where we live. If you look around, you see how poor this neighborhood is. It's the environment."

So it is any wonder that by the time the bus from Hilltop rolls up to the grand columned brick building on West 18th Street, most students are unprepared for a rigorous academic day at Warner.

The statistics bear this out.

Eighty-three percent of Warner's 428 students come from poor households. More than 9 in 10 are black or Latino. One in five are special education students. Maintaining discipline is difficult, as more than one in four students were suspended or expelled in the last year alone.

Only a scant few of these students live in homes where two parents care for them. They often board the bus with empty bellies and shabby clothes. Some have parents or caretakers who are in prison for the violence that has decimated this section of Wilmington's Hilltop neighborhood, or have been casualties of the carnage.

"I would say a majority of the students are most likely being raised by a single mother,'' said teacher Taurean Taylor, who grew up in a rough part of Wilmington and returned after college to teacher his hometown kids. "We do have a high population of students who are being raised by grandparents or aunts or uncles, and we have very few students who have actually both parents in the home, and then even in the situations where both parents are in the home, there is still some dysfunction within those families."

When it comes to the classroom, the results are distressing. Academic performance at Warner has historically been one of Delaware's worst.

Based on state tests, roughly 1 in 5 Warner students are proficient in English and Social Studies, far below the state average. But those scores look impressive when compared with how Warner students do in Math and Science, where barely one in 10 are proficient.

Teacher Andrew Corrigan said so many students arrive at Warner without the skills expected of third graders.

"There's a lot of developmental delays in a lot of these kids,'' Corrigan said.

"They may not have gone to preschool, ... they're expected to write sentences by the end of kindergarten, but if they go in not knowing their ABCs or how to spell their name, you don't have those fundamental stages of learning, you're already behind. All it is is catch up."

Markell threatened closure of Warner, other Priority schools

These troubling realities led then-Gov. Jack Markell to stand on the steep steps at Warner in September 2014 and declare it a Priority School along with five others in Wilmington with low academic performance and high populations of low-income students.

The governor dedicated about $6 million over four years to the schools but also issued an ultimatum: if you don't improve, we will "not hesitate" to close the school, replace leaders and teachers, or turn the building over to a charter.

Three years later, Warner and the others — elementary schools Shortlidge, Bancroft, Stubbs and Highlands and middle school Bayard — remain open and there are no signs their districts or the state is moving to shutter their doors.

While there have been marginal gains, Warner and the other five continue to struggle and lag far behind most other schools in Delaware.  So if a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the troubles at these schools illustrate the fragility of Delaware's educational system.

Yet nearly all Warner fifth graders are promoted to middle school, where the cycle of failure often continues and helps account for why most Delaware 11th graders can't meet proficiency benchmarks in major subjects.

Principal Chrishaun Fitzgerald, who began at Warner a few weeks before Markell's disheartening pronouncement, objects to the notion that Warner is a bad school filled with burned-out teachers, unruly students and absentee parents. She wants the public to know she and her team is dedicated to educating students who face enormous challenges yet stressed that she doesn't want the children to be defined by their poverty.

"I don't want people to have the perception that progress is not happening or that the work is not taking place,'' she said. "Our teachers work hard every day. Our students come in, they are respectful, responsible, prepared, and safe, and academically focused, and the work is happening."

Fitzgerald gave WHYY some access to classes and teachers but midway through what was supposed to be a full day of interviews she suddenly cut off the visit without explanation. Subsequent interviews with other staff members were never permitted. 

While the grim statistics at Warner about her students belie many of Fitzgerald's claims, Fitzgerald said the extra resources and the intense pressure to improve have moved the school forward. Parent involvement remains poor but is improving.

"Although the priority designation was hard at first and maybe not as comfortable, there's a lot of good work that's coming out of that priority work,'' she said.

Warner implemented a social and emotional learning program to help students deal with daily life challenges.

Groups of teachers meet twice a week, for 90 minute sessions, to devise strategies to help students perform better in state-required proficiency tests.

Financial incentives have been used to attract and retain teachers.

Warner has established more partnerships with groups like the United Way, which sponsors its book fair and gives students up to three books a year for free. Students who need a coat, book bag or other supplies are given them. Some students get weekend packages of food.

"We have blankets and coats, gloves, just really actualizing the mission of the school,'' Fitzgerald said. "We're collectively responsive, and this is how we extend that vision to the community of the school."

'When they leave, there's tremendous growth'

Ultimately, though, education comes down to how well a student performs in the classroom and later the workforce.

In that arena, Warner has set lofty goals for achievement, proficiency figures that today seem more like wish list than realistic, such as the goal to have more 4 in 10 students up to speed in math in two years - when only 1 in 10 are now.

Instead, Fitzgerald and her staff cite small schoolwide gains as major achievements, and say the true test is how much an educator can help each student grow from week to week, month to month, year to year.

"If you're judging off a statewide test, yeah we're a low performing school,'' Corrigan said. "But if you're judging off growth, and what these kids are doing when they come in to what they're doing when they leave, there's tremendous growth. So it just matters what you consider to be proficient."

"They could come in on a first grade level and they're leaving on a 3rd or 4th grade level. They make improvements. It's not like they come in, don't do anything, and learn nothing throughout the year, it may look like that on paper, but until you step foot in these schools and you see what goes on in these schools on a daily basis, you won't know how much growth these kids make."

However, Warner also lags far behind the state average in growth too. For example, Warner shows 25 percent growth in reading last year, compared with 50 percent statewide.

Fitzgerald and the teachers point out that a student's progress is relative, and that their role as educators it to help students in whatever way possible.

In that vein, Harold Pritchett teaches a class in social and emotional learning. The curriculum is designed to teach the knowledge, attitudes and skills involving emotions, empathy, relationships and decision-making. Unlike many classes where discipline is a constant problem, students sit in spellbound, rapt silence when Pritchett has the floor.

He also instructs the kids on the benefits of meditation.

"So when we meditate we look at ourselves when?" he asks.

"When we wake up,'' students reply.

"When we first wake up,'' he continues. "And then we see ourselves..."

"Coming to school."

The lesson moves on.

"So then we can look back on our day and we can see when we were doing the right thing and the bad things. And who corrects us?"

"Ourselves,'' the children respond.

So good things are happening at Warner, despite the enormous challenges and the trauma many students face in their daily lives, or the neighborhood and homes they return to after school.

The bottom line is that there almost certainly will always be a big achievement gap between Warner and schools in affluent areas. But that reality doesn't deter educators who often wear several hats, in hopes of providing children with stability and perhaps the spark they need to succeed.

Taylor says he relishes the chance to help these children in any way he can, in any role necessary.

"We're pretty much here to be everything they need — the psychologist, the dad, the uncle, the preacher, teacher whatever we need to be. So I feel like it's our job to be everything they don't have and hopefully help mold them into productive citizens."