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Wilmington Learning Collaborative ponders next steps at its first meeting

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Members of the new Wilmington Learning Collaborative council had hoped to hit the ground running at their first meeting Friday but the session turned out to be more like an extended warmup.

The virtual meeting, scheduled to last 90 minutes, had to be extended by a half-hour to get through the agenda but the most significant vote of the afternoon was to set the time and date for the next two meetings: 6 p.m. on Thursdays, January 26 and February 9.

But discussion of three key items on the agenda – establishing bylaws and governance procedures, hiring an executive director and contracting with a project manager to handle essential tasks until the executive director is hired – ended with an agreement to set up three working groups of council members to bring back recommendations at the January 26 meeting.

The collaborative, established through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed on November 1, brings together superintendents, board members and parents from the Brandywine, Red Clay and Christina school districts, plus a pair of retired educators, to guide a transformation of nine Wilmington schools that serve kindergarten through eighth grade. The plan calls for school-based decision making and extensive community input to create new programs designed to improve student outcomes.

The new operating system is supposed to be implemented at the start of the 2023-24 school year. It had been hoped that planning for the new system would begin last July 1, but wrangling between the state and the school districts slowed approval of the MOU, and now only seven months remain in the “planning year.”

The 12-person governing council still lacks a chairperson and one member – a student representative. Gov. John Carney is responsible for designating the chair but has not done so yet. The only mention of the student representative Friday was a report that administrators from the three districts were working a procedure for making the selection. (Under the MOU, three high school students could be named – a senior with limited voting privileges and a sophomore and junior who would not have voting rights.)

Much of Friday’s session focused on two interconnected items – hiring an executive director and finding a project manager who could handle a limited number of administrative tasks before the executive director is hired.

“Time is of the essence. We need to move fast,” said Adriana Leela Bohm, the Red Clay board’s Wilmington representative on the council. “We have to be proactive in getting the executive director in place … but at the same time we need somebody onboarding us as a group.”

Alethea Smith-Tucker, the Christina board’s Wilmington representative, pushed for hiring Shelley Rouser, chair of Delaware State University’s education department, as project manager for up to four months. The project manager, Smith-Tucker said, would primarily handle communications and outreach matters, making sure school personnel, other stakeholders and the community at large know what the collaborative is up to.

Others suggested that the council consider contracting with Empower Schools, a nonprofit that has helped launch similar collaborative reform efforts in Springfield, Mass., and Fort Worth, Texas, for project management duties.

The decision was postponed for two weeks, however, because the three parent representatives and two other council members, Donald Patton and Janis McElrath, said they wanted to learn more about their options before taking action.

“Hearing from different sources will be beneficial as we make decisions,” Patton said.

The council also discussed how frequently it should meet. An initial suggestion of monthly meetings drew little support. If the council didn’t meet again until February, it might take until March or April before key decisions were made, Smith-Tucker said.

There appeared to be informal agreement that the council will hold public meetings every other week, with its committees meeting during the weeks when formal sessions are not scheduled, at least until the executive director is hired, but no scheduling decisions beyond the next two meetings were made.

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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