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Gov. Carney proposes alternative to redistricting for Wilmington schools

Delaware Public Media

Gov. John Carney is trying to sell his plan to improve outcomes in Wilmington schools by touring school boards with districts that serve the city.

Improving Wilmington schools is an issue that’s plagued state and local leaders for years; including low student performance levels and high turnover rates for teachers.

Carney is visiting the school boards that have students in the state’s largest city.

He’s moving ahead with a plan to create a collaborative that, under the guidance of the districts and their school boards, will oversee all Wilmington schools

Carney argues the lack of coordination between the five school districts serving the city is to blame, and he has a solution that doesn’t involve creating a new school district or redrawing district lines.

“What’s the alternative? That’s where I end up — when I go to bed at night, that’s where I end up,” says Carney. “What are we doing for these children? These children are my neighbors. I live on 19th street right behind Warner school; children walk by my house every morning on their way to Warner. And I know you share the same commitment and passion for these children as well. We believe that this is an approach that can work.”

Carney says this plan allows the school districts to keep the same number of schools and students, but make room for more collaboration between districts, and improve the outcomes of Wilmington students.

He says this idea is gaining traction in the Redding Consortium as it discusses recommendations, but hasn’t seen enough follow through.

“We decided, let’s just lead,” Carney says. “Let’s lead with this idea; it sets up this framework, it sets up — well I think for anything else that redding might decide to do. And in the meantime, we’re making progress for our children.”

Carney spoke at the Christina School Board’s meeting Tuesday to sell the idea, and spoke of plans to get this off the ground quickly, aiming to launch the collaborative next school year. Carney says he doesn’t want to leave office without having accomplished more to help Wilmington students.

The collaborative would involve all elementary and middle schools in Wilmington, which would include schools from Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay school districts.

Participation by school districts is voluntary, hence the reason Carney is selling the idea to School Boards. Each school district would then contribute funds towards the Wilmington Learning Collaborative, which would act as a quasi-school board for the schools in the city.

The collaborative would have its own partnership board composed of superintendents, community leaders and experts focused solely on these schools.

Carney also envisions what he calls “community councils” at each school to advise the collaborative on community needs. Those councils would be made up of parents, school staff, current or former students and other community members.

Carney was joined by James Simmons, head of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at the Delaware Department of Education.

Simmons says a big part of this program is strengthening partnerships between schools, he says an example would be how nonprofits and community organizations interact with public schools.

“By creating this collaborative we give all of those community organizations a chance to partner with all of those schools that are in the collaborative,” Simmons says.

School board members were excited about the chance to improve outcomes for Wilmington students, but had concerns over the funding for this collaborative.

Members also seemed protective of their schools. Board member Clair O’Neal says she’s concerned the autonomy given to these schools under the collaborative could be damaging, using an example given by the governor of a school that decides to become a STEM academy after working with their community council.

“Any parent would be excited by the idea of being involved in a STEM academy — but for me that raises a little bit of a red flag,” O’Neal says. “That is, a school within the collaborative then could suddenly decide, with the blessing of that particular board of trustees or partnership, to become a charter. So then, how do we prevent this collaborative of traditional, public K-8 schools from becoming a new nest of charters?”

Carney says the intent is not to encourage schools to turn to the charter format, but to develop better programming and learning activities for students in the public school district. He also notes some companies, inducing the DuPont corporation, have recently made investments in public school STEM activities.

Carney as well as the board acknowledged the collaborative wouldn’t be running at its full potential in fall of 2022, and the process of evolving and growing the project will take years.

Simmons says the state is adapting similar programs used in other parts of the country, so figuring out what works best for Wilmington will be an ongoing process.

Throughout the rest of the year, Carney and the DOE team plan on continuing to engage with both the school boards involved and with the community. In January, he expects to begin the process of crafting and negotiating the various Memorandums of Understanding (or MOUs) with the districts.

Carney hopes to have those MOUs finalized by March, so the period leading up to July of 2022 can be spent designing and planning the collaborative before its launch.

The state also outlined a longer term plan, which involves continued re-evaluations of the collaborative and implementation of any recommendations that come from the Redding Consortium.

Carney will be presenting this plan at the Brandywine School District board meeting on Monday, November 15th at their regular meeting.

Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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