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Gov. Carney pitching new approach to Wilmington schools

Delaware Public Media

Gov. John Carney is making a renewed push to solve what ails Wilmington schools with a new approach.

Carney's “Wilmington Learning Collaborative” would bring together the main districts serving city students to make changes and manage Wilmington schools

Contributor Larry Nagengast dives into Carney’s new plan is – and what it could mean.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss Gov. Carney's 'Wilmington Learning Collaborative' plan.

The slide show describing Gov. John Carney’s plan to strengthen learning in Wilmington’s elementary and middle schools clearly lays out the issues: Fragmented governance, low achievement rates, high absenteeism, high staff turnover and aging buildings combine to create an environment in which it is difficult to sustain successful learning.

The slides point to a solution – a “Wilmington Learning Collaborative” led by a board with representatives from the three school districts now responsible for educating most of the K-8 students in the city that would oversee the day-to-day operations of Wilmington’s traditional public elementary and middle schools.

“We need to start doing something different today, and tomorrow,” Carney says. “We need to get going.”

James Dawson
Delaware Public Media
Gov. John Carney

Carney has gotten going on what he calls “my top priority” for the remaining three years of his second term. In the past month he has made presentations to the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity; the Christina, Brandywine and Red Clay boards of education, the state PTA and several other groups. He knocked on doors in Wilmington last Saturday to promote the proposal and has scheduled four meetings with Wilmington parents for later this month.

What’s missing from Carney’s plan – and he is quick to acknowledge this – are “the fine-print details,” in other words, how this reimagined school structure would work, day in and day out.

Here’s a look at the problem, the proposed solution, and the unknowns, based on statements by Carney, his aides and others who participated in the recent Redding Consortium and school board meetings.

“We need to start doing something different today, and tomorrow. We need to get going.”
Gov. John Carney on addressing Wilmington schools

The problem facing Wilmington schools

Wilmington students in grades K-8 may attend public schools run by four different districts, or any of four charter schools in the city or four others in nearby suburban areas. And they also have the option, through the state’s choice program, to attend district schools in the suburbs where seats area available. The curriculum isn’t consistent among districts, so when a family moves even a couple of blocks, the children could wind up in a different school system, having to adjust to new teachers and a whole new environment. City schools make up about a quarter of the buildings run by the districts, and most board members live in the suburbs, so school boards tend to put their focus on their suburban territory. Student achievement is typically lower in city schools than in the suburbs. Teacher turnover is high. The three-year retention rate at city schools ranges from 30 to 56%; the state average is 66.4%.

Gov. Carney's proposed solution

Carney’s “Wilmington Learning Collaborative” would expand on the model created three years ago when his office, the state Department of Education and the Christina School District negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to restructure operations of Christina schools located in the city. It would also incorporate elements of an “Empowerment Zone Partnership” developed in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2014 to reform poorly performing middle schools in that city.

The collaborative would be put in place through a series of MOUs signed by the school districts, state officials and teachers’ unions. Under the MOUs, the city schools in each of the three districts would officially remain as part of those districts but a new structure – representing those districts and Wilmington’s broader educational interests – would be set up to manage those schools.

“We’re not doing away with the districts,” Carney says, “[and] we’re not going to let bureaucratic obstacles get in the way…. We’re going to stay focused on what is necessary to engage parents [to improve outcomes for their children].”

At the heart of the collaborative’s structure would be a “trustee partnership board” whose members would include the superintendent of each participating district, the school board members elected to represent the Wilmington portion of those districts plus “trusted community leaders” and “education experts.”

The partnership board would choose and oversee an administrative staff led by an executive director, with other managers responsible for curriculum, staffing, operations and social-emotional learning and family engagement.

Decisions at the school level would be made by learning teams and community councils.

Warner Elementary School in Wilmington is among the schools that would be managed by the Wilmington Learning Collaborative
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
Warner Elementary School in Wilmington is among the schools that would be managed by the Wilmington Learning Collaborative

Changes likely to come from the collaborative

The Christina MOU from 2018 serves as a guideline, Carney says. Speaking to the Delaware PTA in a Facebook Live event Monday night, he said “we’d like to extend that to what we call the Wilmington Learning Collaborative.” It’s reasonable to expect the new MOUs to be similar, but not necessarily identical to the Christina document. Through the 2018 agreement, the state channeled additional funds to Christina to pay for school-based health centers, staff training, incentives to teachers, additional staff to lower class sizes. Christina agreed to establish a new calendar for its schools in Wilmington, with longer school hours, a longer school year and to make special programming available for students during normal vacation periods. It’s reasonable to expect a longer school day, longer school year, and more “wraparound services” – health centers, counseling and perhaps some programming for adults – to be part of the package. Carney is already talking about using some of “Opportunity Grants,” a supplemental funding program he launched three years ago, and some of the additional spending pledged during the settlement last year of a school finance suit to cover additional costs.

Unresolved details

Where do we start?

First, are any new laws needed? Carney and his staff think all the details can be handled through MOUs, but some who have heard his presentation say they think new state laws may be needed. If legislation is needed, the governor will get his legal team involved.

Next, who picks the members of the partnership board? Carney says the board would include district superintendents and at least one school board member from each district, and he has mentioned that he and Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki could have a role in selections. Local school boards might have a say too, and PTA groups are saying that parent representation is essential.

Then, what about curriculum? There’s talk of creating a uniform curriculum for all the schools in the partnership, and Carney says the state will pay to train teachers to learn the new curriculum. This is going to be a big decision for the partnership board – and there’s bound to be some controversy, or jealousy, in determining whether the curriculum in Brandywine, Red Clay or Christina is better than the others? While the framework refers to a common curriculum, it also says that there will be room for flexibility. For example, the board could designate schools that would have a special emphasis on the arts, or on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

What about teachers? This is a big challenge for the partnership board. The current poor retention rates mean that city schools are now staffed with less-experienced teachers, with many leaving the profession or jumping to fill presumably less stressful openings in the suburbs. The board will have to create school staffs that blend experience and enthusiasm, provide them with specialized training and offer incentives (not necessarily monetary ones) to encourage them to stay year after year.

How about the school calendar and daily schedule? Based on the Christina model – expect more than the traditional 180-day school year and something longer than a typical 9 to 3 day. Carney’s team expects the schedule to be the same in all schools in the partnership, but that’s something the board will have to decide.

Who goes to what school? Right now, the expectation is that students would attend the same school that they’re assigned to now, and there’s no indication that anyone wants to override selections made through the choice program – city students who are enrolled in suburban schools and vice versa, for example.

"We want these [neighborhood] schools to be the schools that parents want their children to go to.”
Gov. John Carney

A larger issue – one that’s not uncommon in the city – is what happens when a child moves to a new address during the school year. Moving just a few blocks can take a child across district lines. Currently, they have to transfer to the new school. Would that change? Or wouldn’t it matter as much if all the schools are using the same curriculum?

The key point here, as Carney has mentioned repeatedly, is that he has seen instances of students living in the same block going to four or five different schools, but not to the school in their own neighborhood. As he told the PTA session on Monday, “we want these [neighborhood] schools to be the schools that parents want their children to go to.”

The lingering high school question

The collaborative plan is limited to K-8 schools, and doesn’t address high schools because there is no traditional high school within city limits, Carney says.

That leaves open the question of what happens to Wilmington students when they reach ninth grade. Currently, city students seeking a traditional high school environment are bused to one of 11 traditional schools in the suburbs. But there is Howard High School of Technology, part of the county vocational-technical school district; a magnet school (Cab Calloway School of the Arts) and three charters (Charter School of Wilmington, Great Oaks, Freire) in the city. Wilmington residents may also attend any of two other charters and three vo-tech high schools in the suburbs. There is a concern that, once the partnership is in place, students will lose the benefit of whatever supports the partnership creates when they enter high school.

“Do we have to look at high school students? Absolutely,” Carney says. But he wants to make education from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade his priority: get children ready for kindergarten, have them reading at grade level by third grade and having them ready for high school by the time they finish eighth grade.

What happens if a district decides not to participate?

Don’t ask. Carney repeatedly uses a phrase commonly used to describe the U.S.-led multinational force during the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “a coalition of the willing.” He expects Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay to get on board. It’s not clear what would happen if one of the districts balks, but Carney’s proposal offers enough incentives to make the initiative appealing – provided that the devilish details can be resolved.

Where does the The Redding Consortium fit in?

State Sen. Tizzy Lockman
State of Delaware
State Sen. Tizzy Lockman

The consortium, created by the General Assembly in 2017, is the latest state entity assigned with the task of finding long-term solutions to provide equity in education for children who aren’t now provided with adequate resources to succeed. Some who have looked at Carney’s proposal think it may be a way of undercutting Redding’s big-picture goals. Carney disagrees. He calls the partnership “a first step,” and says it’s critical not to delay addressing classroom issues while Redding develops larger proposals on redrawing school district lines and changing the state’s school funding system.

State Sen. Tizzy Lockman (D-Wilmington) the Redding co-chair, generally agrees with Carney. Referring to the collaborative plan, she says “these are things we should be doing … while we’re waiting for the big important stuff that needs to happen.”

Redistricting – an issue that has confounded educators and legislators for at least a decade – may eventually occur, but changes in the classroom don’t have to wait.

The timeline

It’s tight. Carney and his team will be talking to school boards, community groups and parents this month. In January, he is asking the school boards to vote to move ahead with the proposal. The MOUs would be negotiated in January and February, then finalized in March. From April through June, goal-setting, design, planning and community engagement would continue. In July, the partnership board would be activated, with the new organizational structure for Wilmington schools becoming operational for the 2022-23 school year.

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