A meeting to get buy-in for a new program that would focus efforts on improving education for Wilmington school children often ended up in the same place: Questions about the plan’s details.
“That’s been one of the more difficult things about selling the concept,” Gov. John Carney told people Tuesday night at Pulaski Elementary School.
It was one of four stops he plans to make by Dec. 21 to sell the Wilmington Collaborative Learning Program, which asks Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay school districts to agree for a new board to be set up that would oversee learning in the city.’
They are three of the four school districts who educate Wilmington children through a confusing decision made under desegregation rulings in the 1970s. The number of city students in each district comprises 15% or fewer of its student body, which means decisions made for the majority often don’t work for them.
Colonial also educates city students, but has no physical schools in the city. Their kids are bussed to Colonial schools in the burbs.
The collaborative is designed to focus on programs and resources that bear on issues that affect city learners in much greater degree than they do suburban learners, including poverty, crime, trauma, food insecurity, transiency as families move, and more teachers leaving city schools.
Ultimately, organizers want to create consistency for students while empowering educators, school leaders and communities to help them. All of that will result in improved outcomes for Wilmington students, they believe.
“People want me to tell them what we’re gonna do, but that’s not the way it works,” Carney said as the meeting was nearing its end after an hour and 16 minutes. “It works from the bottom up and engaging parents and teachers and educators, working as a team.”
Carney and others repeatedly said the program is designed to be created from the ground up and not another case of officials telling people they’ve decided what’s good for them. It’s also not a takeover by the state, they stressed.
What was clear in what James Simmons III, chief equity officer of the Delaware Department of Education, called the organizers’ 80th meeting, is that there will be no single answer, but a combination of suggestions that work to offer administrators, teachers and parents a wide range of solutions to help the children.
It’s also clear that even if the program launched year, as organizers hope, the full impact will not be felt for years, and organizers know that.
They already have been talking about the collaborative for four years.
“I don’t want to waste time,” Carney said. “I’ve been wringing my hands about that. But as Jimmy Simmons said earlier, we don’t have to do everything at once. And, frankly, it’s going to take time for people to gain the trust that you’re talking about. I think it’s going to take some time to demonstrate this is not just another fad.”
Under the Wilmington Collaborative proposal, Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay would sign memorandums of understanding to form a Trustee Partnership Board, which would govern the schools and supervise the collaborative’s small staff.
That staff would report to the board, which would remain in touch with the school districts, and implement any programs that the collaborative chose to follow.
One of the issues that city students deal with is that all four districts have different curriculums. If a family moves — and sometimes it could just be a block or two — a child may have to go to a new school, with new expectations and routines.
The collaborative may be able to help with that, organizers said.
Several questions were asked or comments made about who would sit on that trustee board. Carney and Simmons said that’s part of the conversation and would be part of the agreement. Some people suggested more teachers rather than administrators, since teachers are in the trenches.
Carney said that one suggestion had been made to have a student on the board, but since the project will focus on kindergarten through eighth grade, that didn’t seem to be a viable suggestion.
Among suggestions that may have a place is putting school meetings into places like the Police Athletic League instead of the schools so parents felt more comfortable coming, or holding events that invite parents into school for meals or giveaways, making them more comfortable with entering the buildings and talking to staff.
The former was an idea that Simmons employed when he was principal at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School. The latter was a suggestion from a longtime teacher who said she had seen it work.
Several teachers asked whether collaborative programs would require them to be in more meetings. A couple pointed out that they were already in programs designed to improve learning that involve coaching meetings for teachers and require members of the Department of Education to come through classrooms twice a month, inspecting and asking questions.
Teachers who are not in those programs don’t have to deal with that, one woman said. There’s no other profession that has to deal with that kind of oversight, she said. And it’s one reason teachers leave, she said.
Simmons responded, “I would argue that some of those things that you described need to happen everywhere.”
Programs and people who are monitored improve because they know they are being monitored, he said.
He pointed to football workouts that are better because a coach is watching.
“We got better because what they were doing was now getting monitored by the person who they knew was making the decision,” he said. “Now, critiqued and monitored is two different things. Right? So I think the feedback piece matters in how it’s presented.”
The organizers said that the state plans to help by investing more in pre-K so kids come to school more prepared; paying for more extended day programs and services; offering more on-site health services; helping with curricula and staffing costs; and establishing a Teach Wilmington Fund.
That fund would focus on retaining good teachers, innovative recruitment and high-quality professional learning for teachers and administrators.
Organizers plan to continue to present to school boards and the community through December. It’s possible, Simmons said in an interview Monday, that a district may only want to commit one or two schools to the program at first to see how it goes.
In January and February, organizers hope to be negotiating the memorandums of understanding, which would be finalized and voted on by district boards in March.
From April through June, they hope to continue goal-setting, designing the collaborations and continue community engagement.
If all of that works out, the program would officially start in July, which is the start of the state’s fiscal year 2023.
Carney and Simmons will attend three more community programs: 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 16 at Warner Elementary at 801 W. 18th St.; 6 p.m. Dec. 20 at Harlan Elementary, 3601 N. Jefferson St.; and 6 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Bancroft School, 700 N. Lombard St. Wilmington.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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