The new school year brings another effort to tackle an old problem - helping improve schools in Wilmington that serve a large number of low-income, minority and English language-learning students.
The new Redding Consortium for Educational Equity officially begins its work this month, and contributor Larry Nagengast examines how it plans to deliver solutions where similar efforts have come up short.
First there was WEAC. Then came WEIC. Now we have the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity.
Three study groups, created a little more than five years apart, each with a similar mission: to identify and to advocate for resolution of the inequities that make it more difficult for low-income, minority and English language learning children living in Wilmington to receive the same quality education as their more privileged peers.
The first two groups – the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee and the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission – shined a spotlight on the issues but their successes were limited. Next week, the new 25-member consortium, comprised of politicians, educators, business and civic leaders and parents, will try to carry the baton forward.
State Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat, has served on all three groups, and as co-chair of both WEIC and the new Redding Consortium, created by legislation she sponsored that was passed by the General Assembly in June and signed by Gov. John Carney a month later.
Serving as co-chair with Lockman on the consortium will be James J. Johnson, a veteran legislator who represented Wilmington’s Southbridge area and the Route 9 corridor south of the city before his retirement in 2018.
This history of economic and racial inequalities in Delaware’s public schools, especially in New Castle County, has often been chronicled. A lawsuit filed in 1971 led to a federal court order that resulted in a school district consolidation plan requiring busing of suburban students into Wilmington and city students into the suburbs from 1978 until the mid-1990s. Since the lifting of that court order, changes in state laws have contributed to what has amounted to the resegregation of schools in Wilmington and its suburbs – which has become a focal point in a suit pending in the state Court of Chancery that attacks the issue by focusing on inequities in the school finance system.
To Lockman, the Redding Consortium’s work is more about moving forward than looking at the past.
“Yes, in 1978, X, Y and Z happened. But we don’t want to spend any more time than is necessary to understand the context,” she says.“We should stand on the shoulders of WEAC and WEIC, and take further steps to follow through.”
In 2015, WEAC recommended that the Red Clay Consolidated School District take over responsibility for the Wilmington children and schools served by the Christina School District, and that a moratorium on charter school authorizations in New Castle County be implemented until the state developed a strategic plan for future charter schools. The charter school moratorium was enacted but the strategic plan was never written.
In 2016, WEIC outlined a plan for Red Clay to take over Christina’s city schools but it barely won approval from the State Board of Education and lapsed when the General Assembly did not appropriate the funds to implement the plan. WEIC also urged designating additional state funds for programs to benefit low-income students, English-language learners and special education students in the primary grades. Funding was eventually approved, but at levels below WEIC’s recommendations.
The start of the new school year did bring one substantive change: a collaboration among Christina, the state Department of Education and Carney’s office resulted in the consolidation of two of the district’s city schools into buildings serving first through eighth grades and the development of wraparound services to meet the special needs of urban students.
The aim of the Redding Consortium, named for Louis L. Redding, Delaware’s first black attorney and a longtime civil rights crusader, is to build on the smaller steps that have already been taken, Lockman says. “We have to lay out our vision: What do we man by equity? What are the challenges that we face?”
As with the earlier initiatives, there is broad recognition that the difficulties faced by students identified as low-income, English learners and primary grade special education exist statewide, Lockman says, but the greatest concentrations are in the Wilmington area. She anticipates that any improvements in Wilmington schools that result from the consortium’s efforts would eventually be replicated elsewhere in the state.
A major concern for the consortium will be continuation of the discussion of how to overcome the disjointed governance of schools within Wilmington. Since 1978, when the Wilmington school system was eliminated by court order, five school districts – Brandywine, Red Clay, Christina, Colonial and New Castle County Vo-Tech – have shared responsibility for educating city residents. Following passage of charter school legislation in 1995, these independently operated public schools have come and gone, but there are currently seven operating in Wilmington and five others, including two with high school programs, within 5 miles of the city limits.
Separate legislation passed this year, sponsored by State Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D-Wilmington) gives the consortium the responsibility previously designated to WEIC to develop a plan to change the boundaries of the school districts that serve Wilmington residents. Final approval for any plan would rest with the State Board of Education and would also require approval by the General Assembly and the governor.
“My sense is that there’s a strong consensus that something needs to be done to make things more consistent for the city of Wilmington,” Lockman says, adding that she is unsure how that might be done.
Many people think that “Christina would benefit and the city would benefit” if the Christina district was removed from responsibility for serving city residents, Lockman says.
There are some who are advocating for the return of a city-only school system, and there are others, including Chukwuocha, who think a county system, without mandated busing between city and suburbs, might make more sense.
“The four-district model hasn’t served the city very well. I’m a strong proponent of a countywide district,” says Chukwuocha, noting that Florida and Maryland are among the numerous states that organize school districts by county.
All options will be on the table, Lockman says. “Is a Wilmington school district a viable solution? Is a New Castle County school district a viable solution?”
While some New Castle County residents might yearn for a return to the pre-desegregation era when Wilmington had its own school system and 10 separate districts served suburban areas, Lockman doesn’t anticipate a recommendation along those lines coming from the consortium. “This is a consortium whose mission is educational equity, not educational separation,” she says.
“We’ll be looking for a redistricting proposal that we can advance, and take all the way,” Lockman says. “Redrawing lines alone isn’t necessarily going to solve things…. We have to look closely at our struggling schools and find ways to make them more successful.”
Another item on the consortium’s to-do list is a look at how charter schools operate in the city. Six of the seven schools are chartered by the state Department of Education. The Red Clay district is the authorizer of the Charter School of Wilmington.
Chukwuoucha notes that numerous schools chartered by the state have suffered from management, financial or educational woes, while Red Clay is the authorizer for both the Charter School of Wilmington and the Delaware Military Academy, located a mile or so outside the city. If local school districts had oversight over charter schools, there would be greater accountability and more incentives to have successful charter programs replicated in traditional public schools, he says.
An essential piece of any district realignment, Lockman and Chukwuocha say, will be re-establishing a traditional high school within Wilmington’s city limits. At the very least, they note, giving Christina’s portion of the city to another district would mean that city students now assigned to Newark, Glasgow and Christiana high schools would have to be assigned to elsewhere. There has not been a traditional high school in the city since the mid-1990s when Wilmington High was closed and the Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a magnet school, and the Charter School of Wilmington took over the building.
The consortium’s responsibilities also include monitoring the educational progress of students in Wilmington and of all low-income, English learners and other students at risk in northern New Castle County. Other duties include publishing reports, making recommendations to the General Assembly and fostering collaboration on educational best practices.
The University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration and Delaware State University’s School of Graduate Studies will provide staffing support for the consortium, which, according to the enabling legislation, “shall remain in operation until the Governor and General Assembly conclude that its mission has been fulfilled.”
The consortium will hold its first meeting on Thursday, Sept. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at the Office of Emergency Management, 22 S. Heald St., Wilmington. It will meet monthly through the end of the year and probably quarterly after that, with members breaking up into working groups that will meet as their needs dictate, Lockman says.
Members of the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity:
Co-chairs: state Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman (D-Wilmington), and former state Rep. James J. Johnson
Legislators: State Reps. Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D-Wilmington), and Michael Smith, (R-Pike Creek), and state Sen. Anthony Delcollo (R-Elsmere).
School district superintendents: Mark Holodick, Brandywine; Dorrell Green, Red Clay; Dusty Blakey, Colonial; Richard Gregg, Christina, and James Jones, New Castle County Vocational-Technical.
Wilmington Mayor Michael Purzycki; Eugene Young, Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League; Margie Lopez-Waite, Delaware Hispanic Commission; Stephanie Ingram, Delaware State Education Association president; Maria Matos, Advisory Council on English Learners; Ty Jones, Wilmington Community Advisory Council; Raye Jones Avery, Wilmington Center for Education Equity and Public Policy; Aaron Bass, head, Eastside Charter School; Danya Woods and Noelle Picara, teachers; Kathryn Bradley and James DeChene, business leaders; Tika Hartsock, parent, and Ted Blunt, community leader.