After making Gov. John Carney wait for hours at their January meeting and then raking him over the coals, the Red Clay School Board on Wednesday took only minutes to unanimously vote to join discussions to create a Wilmington Learning Collaborative.
Red Clay now will partner with the Christina and Brandywine districts in negotiating a memorandum of understanding that will set up a board to oversee only the Wilmington kindergarten to eighth grade students in their city schools.
A project of Carney’s office and the Delaware Department of Education, the Collaborative will be charged with helping the schools involved finding the best ways to help Wilmington students learn to the best of their abilities.
Carney has pledged $7 million for the Collaborative to use in its programs, which are expected to rely heavily on suggestions from teachers and others already dealing with the children. It will also include programs that will reach into the community to help families and thereby help students.
“There is nothing more important than making sure our students get the education they need and deserve,” Carney said in a statement released after the meeting. “I want to thank members of the Christina, Brandywine, and Red Clay boards of education who unanimously voted to move forward with exploring the Wilmington Learning Collaborative – a partnership aimed at giving children, families and educators the support they need to be successful.
“Thank you to all who have come out to public meetings and other forums to discuss the Collaborative. We’ll only be successful if we continue to work together.”
James Simmons III, chief equity officer of the Delaware Department of Education, the next meetings have not been scheduled yet, and organizers now will turn their attention to finalizing the next steps.
“We will discuss who will make up teams to represent their respective districts,” he said via text.
The state already has an independent memorandum of understanding with the Colonial School District, and that one gives authority to the superintendent to set the teams.
“I’d imagine it may be a similar approach,” he texted.
The discussion will focus on how to set up the board, how it will operate and how the $7 million will be spent. The working plan is that the Collaborative board will have a small staff to implement programs, but will also report to all three district boards.
When the memorandum is hammered out, the superintendents must bring the document back to their school boards for formal approval to join. Agreeing to join the talks did not obligate them to join the Collaborative itself.
Red Clay, Christina and Brandywine are three of the four school districts who educate Wilmington children through a confusing decision made under desegregation rulings in the 1970s. Colonial also has city students, but they are bussed into the suburbs and don’t stay in the city schools for classes.
The three districts involved in the Collaborative are mostly suburban, but all have city children who make up less than 15% of the student body.
Organizers believe that means districts must make mainstream decisions that can’t focus on issues affecting city learners in much greater degree than suburban students. Among those are poverty, crime, trauma, food insecurity, transiency as families move, and more teachers leaving city schools.
The road to Wednesday night’s vote in Red Clay included more than 150 meetings and town halls, and Carney walking school neighborhoods on weekends to talk to residents about the plan and what he hopes it will do.
That included dealing with a lot of doubt on the part of residents and officials who fear the program is just another Band-Aid that will ultimately won’t amount to much.
Supporters see it as a chance to let the people who know the kids and the city take the reins and try to make a difference.
Carney has said repeatedly that his main focus is to raise all city third graders to reading at that grade level, at a minimum.
Red Clay Board member Kecia Nesmith thanked Carney for putting up with her many questions, particularly about how the money would be used. She said the program’s organization still isn’t making sense, but she was willing to explore it.
One of the sticking points during talking has been that people wanted to know specific details about who would be negotiating, who would be on the board and how the program would look.
But because the organizers want the program to be built by people dealing with the issues, they were reluctant to dictate any of those things except to say that each district superintendent would be involved, as well others with boots on the grounds.
Otherwise, Carney and others said, it will turn into another case of someone coming into the schools and dictating their plans to people, rather than helping the schools solve their own problems.
“I am committed to ensuring that whatever we decide, it happens with deliberate intentionality of ensuring the right people are trained in the right places and the money is flowing through to the children and staff,” Nesmith said.
She’d like to see more effort put into helping students with social and emotional growth.
“Not just learning as the buzzword, but actually understanding what the needs of each of the schools are because they may be different in terms of what our students are coming with in their backpacks,” she said, “and I’m talking about the proverbial backpacks and not just focusing on reading and state testing, but focusing on the whole child.”
The boards of the three districts all voted to allow their superintendents to join the discussions about the memorandums. The votes did not obligate the districts to join the Collaborative.
The original plans were for the memorandum to be finished and brought back to the District School Boards by spring. That would have allowed the program to start in July, when a new state fiscal year budget takes hold, and the Collaborative could begin with the start of the 2022-23 school year.
But feedback during meetings was that the program was going too fast.
So organizers agreed that once the memorandum is approved, the program would start in 2023 and the intervening time could be spent planning.
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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