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Redding Consortium continues its work on educational equity

Delaware Public Media

Education in the First State faced a number of issues before the coronavirus pandemic upended everything.

But those pre-COVID-19 issues have not disappeared.  And work to address some of them continues.

Contributor Larry Nagengast checks in on one - Redding Consortium for Educational Equity - this week.

In a pandemic-free world, the group charged with developing plans to achieve educational equity for schools in Wilmington and northern New Castle County would be meeting next week to chart a course toward realigning the school districts that serve the area.

Not surprisingly, given the current shutdowns required in the current state of emergency, that’s not going to happen.

But the work of the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, the group established last June by the General Assembly, while a bit behind schedule, has not ground to a halt.

The full consortium, comprised primarily of educators, legislators and community leaders, had been scheduled to meet on April 23, but that session has been pushed to May 7 and will be held virtually, according to state Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who is the consortium’s co-chair.

The consortium is the successor to the Wilmington Educational Advisory Committee and the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, units established in 2014 and 2015, respectively, whose recommendations to strengthen the education of low-income and minority children in Wilmington and, to some extent, throughout the state, drew wide attention but were adopted in only minor ways.

The consortium has been divided into two work groups – one focusing on redistricting and the other on issues related to teachers and school administrators. While the educator work group has developed a preliminary set of recommendations, the redistricting group hasn’t had a chance to meet since mid-February. Its three meetings scheduled for March were canceled. “The majority of members are district superintendents and they’ve been involved in plenty of other meetings,” Lockman said, referring to discussions about closing and reopening schools and establishing systems for distance learning.

“We’ll have to figure out a timeline and push that into summer or early fall,” she said.

For now, the consortium is not in danger of missing any major deadlines, but it will have to intensify its activity for the rest of the year. The big challenge facing the consortium is to develop a redistricting plan to present to the State Board of Education between next January 1 and April 1. The plan, if approved, would be implemented at some point between July 1, 2023 and July 1, 2025.

In December, the redistricting group did assemble a preliminary menu of options to use as a starting point for its discussions. Lockman characterizes them as “a review of proposals that have been made in the last 20 years,” but one option is for a single district to include Wilmington and all of its suburban areas, much like the arrangement in place for the first three years of school desegregation, from 1978 to 1981.

There is one common element to all the options on the menu: the Christina School District would no longer be responsible for education children who live in Wilmington. Christina is one of a handful of geographically disconnected districts in the nation and, the redistricting summary states, “nearly four decades of experience has demonstrated that this configuration has struggled to meet the educational needs of city of Wilmington students.”

In addition to the single-district option, the redistricting proposals under consideration are a mixed bag. They include:

  • A Wilmington-only district, as existed pre desegregation in 1978, and ringed by three suburban districts – Brandywine, Red Clay and Colonial.
  • A three-district option, in which the Wilmington students now in Christina’s territory would be assigned to other districts. In recent years, the most frequently mentioned proposal would shift these students into the Red Clay district.
  • A two-district option, which would remove both Christina and Colonial from responsibility for educating children who live in Wilmington. The city would be split between the Brandywine and Red Clay districts. Many options for a dividing line are possible. One suggestion made in the past would make Market Street the dividing line, with Brandywine being assigned the eastern section and Red Clay the western section. Christina and Colonial would remain, serving students outside Wilmington only.
  • Dividing northern New Castle County into two school districts. Two configurations have been placed on the table. In one option, the Brandywine and Red Clay districts, plus the entire city of Wilmington, would be merged into one district, and Colonial and the suburban portion of Christina would be merged into another. The second option envisions an east-west division, with the eastern district including Brandywine, all of Wilmington, and Colonial, and the western district including the suburban portions of Red Clay and Christina.

Also part of the discussion is the oversight of charter schools. Currently, the Red Clay district oversees the Charter School of Wilmington and the Delaware Military Academy; all other charters in New Castle County (and the state) are overseen by the state Department of Education. Oversight of some state-authorized charters could move to the newly configured districts in which these schools are located.
Currently, these options are purely conceptional, and different alignments could be developed. There are no draft plans that would show, for example, how many students might be assigned to a reconfigured district, what their demographics might be and what schools they would most likely attend. That sort of detail work won’t be done until the Consortium narrows its options and decides which ones it will present to the State Board of Education.

Also, Lockman points out that the fine details of any redistricting – like attendance zones within reconfigured districts – would most likely be left for newly organized school boards to determine. “We do not try to usurp local control,” she says.

Lockman notes that the consortium’s redistricting work is not limited to drawing new boundary lines. “There is more to governance than geographical boundaries, and redrawing lines isn’t going to solve the equity issues,” she says.

While achieving a measure of racial balance was a key element in the court-ordered redistricting that took effect in 1978, that is less likely to be a factor now, Lockman says.

Rather, options to be considered might strive for socioeconomic balance – making sure that new districts, however the boundaries are drawn, have comparable percentages of high-income and low-income families – or, if a district would have a larger population of low-income students, mandate additional funding to provide services these students typically require to help boost their academic achievement.

While the redistricting group has some catching up to do, the educator work group has nearly completed a major piece of its work. In February, it drafted a nine-page memo outlining four key recommendations. Some revisions were made when the group met virtually in March, and a final report may be presented to the full consortium in May, Lockman said.

The recommendations are:

Grow our own teachers and administrators. The draft memo notes that enrollment in teacher preparation programs in the state dropped by more than 40 percent from 2008 to 2017 and Delaware school districts hire new teachers at a later date than surrounding states. Also, average starting teacher salaries ($41,639 in 2016-17) and average teacher salaries ($60,214 in 2016-17) are lower than averages in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The memo recommends that the state develop and expand in-state programs to train teachers and administrators. It suggests building links between districts and teacher training programs, creating a pipeline from the “teacher academies” recently started at many high schools into college programs, followed by colleges developing residency programs for prospective teachers and administrators in high-need schools.

Develop economic assistance packages for educators in Wilmington schools. Increasing total compensation for teachers through salaries, housing and other incentives helps recruit and retain teacher in high-need schools. The memo suggests developing packages that might include creating a mixed-use housing and amenities zone for teachers in Wilmington so they could live in the community where they are working.

Expand professional learning for administrators in Wilmington schools. A study completed earlier this year by the state Department of Education found that nearly two-thirds of the teachers who left jobs in the city’s schools said school leadership was a major or moderate factor in their decision. The memo cited studies showing that teacher turnover is reduced when schools have leaders who create a respectful environment, communicate productively and support their staff. Developing and expanding leadership training for administrators – with emphasis on coaching, mentoring, collaborative leadership and improving school climate – would likely have a positive impact on reducing turnover rates.

Create a whole-school professional learning package for high-need schools in Wilmington.  The memo cites teachers’ dissatisfaction with school leadership, the need for principals who foster a collaborative and supportive school environment and the need for both principals and teachers to have the benefit of professional learning and coaching. The memo recommends developing multi-year partnerships between schools and higher education institutions to develop the training program. Special funding from the state would be required.

Following the consortium’s May 7 meeting, much work will remain, especially on the redistricting issue.

The plan, or plans, developed must result in “minimally disruptive reassignment” of affected students, and permit them to remain in their current school until they complete the highest grade level offered in that building. Plans must include, among other things, recommendations for funding, providing additional resources for high-need students, student transportation and improving options for secondary education for children living in Wilmington.

In the fall, the consortium plans to make presentations to area school boards and conduct both town hall meetings and public hearings before finalizing its proposal.

“We do want to get input from the community and the stakeholders,” Lockman says. “That’s very important.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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