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Gov. Carney’s Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan faces questions

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

Last week, we delved into Gov. John Carney’s new proposal to solve what ails Wilmington schools – the Wilmington Learning Collaborative - with contributor Larry Nagengast outlining how it would bring together the main districts serving city students to make changes and manage Wilmington schools.

This week, he follows up with a look at how that plan is being received.

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

Education advocates and parents who have heard about Gov. John Carney’s plan to strengthen instruction in Wilmington schools say they want it to succeed, but they’re seeking more details and they’re wondering, somewhat paradoxically, whether it goes far enough or if it’s being rushed into implementation.

Since early November, Carney and his key education aides have been making the rounds of education groups and school boards in New Castle County, giving about 80 presentations as they try to build support for his Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan, which he hopes to have up and running for the 2022-23 school year.

The collaborative would create a new governance structure for traditional public elementary and middle schools in Wilmington, an arrangement that would have representatives of three school districts working together as members of a new partnership board of trustees. A key goal of the proposal would be to create a uniform curriculum for these schools. A longer school day and a longer school year are essential elements of the plan. Additional state funding to pay for the expanded calendar, and to expand services like counseling and health centers, as well as incentives to promote teacher retention is the primary carrot the state is offering to gain approval.

“I totally support the plan. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But this is a start, and we’ve waited too long."
Yvonne Johnson, past president of the state PTA.

“There are a lot of moving parts. I hope it comes together,” says Carey Lockman Corbin, a Wilmington parent and president of the Delaware PTA.

“I totally support the plan. Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” says Yvonne Johnson, past president of the state PTA. “But this is a start, and we’ve waited too long,” she adds, citing initiatives that have been discussed, and sometimes implemented and eventually discarded, over the past two decades.

“There have been a lot of plans [in the past] but there has never been a true collaborative process,” says Steve Fackenthall, a music teacher at Richey Elementary School and vice president of the Red Clay Education Association. “Wilmington schools have been steamrolled into these new situations.” He hopes that teachers will have the opportunity to offer significant input as planning moves forward in the next few months.

“My role is to be the pragmatic cheerleader,” says Laurisa Schutt, executive director of First State Educate, an advocacy group formed two years ago to inform and empower parents, especially those in under-resourced communities. “Even with our trepidation, let’s go forward.”

But feelings of hope and measured optimism are not universal.

Ayesha Ali, PTA president at Warner Elementary School, isn’t convinced that the proposal will benefit students in city schools in the Red Clay and Brandywine districts as much as it would students in the city schools that are part of the Christina School District. Carney, she says, “has to make parents see there’s a benefit for everybody.”

“Awareness is key. We need our parents to be aware,” Corbin says, adding that it’s also essential that parents be involved in planning and to have representation on the partnership board of trustees.

Gov. Carney listens to a question during a recent public meeting on his Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan
State of Delaware
Gov. Carney listens to a question during a recent public meeting on his Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan

Carney is now taking up that challenge. He has held two meetings in the past week at schools that would be impacted by his proposal and has two more scheduled for next week. His goal is to have the school boards in the three districts vote next month to participate in the plan and then to negotiate memorandums of understanding (MOU) with his office, the state Department of Education and teachers’ unions by the end of March. If all goes according to plan, K-8 schools in Wilmington would begin operating under the new governance structure next fall.

At school board meetings and other presentations by the governor and his key aides on the topic – education advisor Jon Sheehan and Jim Simmons, director of the Office of Equity and Innovation at the state Department of Education – three topics have gotten frequent mention: Carney’s decision to exclude high schools from the proposal; concerns over the interrelationships between the current district school boards and the proposed Trustee Partnership Board that would oversee new programming and day-to-day operations in Wilmington K-8 schools; and the vast amount of detail that the partnership board would have to resolve in a short time frame after the MOUs are negotiated.

The high school issue boils down to this: If Carney’s proposal succeeds in providing additional supports that benefits Wilmington students as they move through elementary and middle school, what happens to them when those supports disappear when the enter high school? A key reason behind the concern is that the three districts that would participate in the collaborative operate a total of 10 traditional high schools – all in the suburbs; the only public high schools within Wilmington are a vo-tech school, three charters (one operated by Red Clay) and a magnet arts school, also operated by Red Clay.

“They have to fix the high school thing. It’s so big,” Corbin says.

High school students who live in the city often face challenges seldom encountered by their suburban peers, she says. As one example, she cites teenagers living in Wilmington who may be responsible for getting their younger siblings off to school, sometimes at the price of missing their own bus to high school in the suburbs. They may wind up skipping school altogether because of the difficulty of making public transportation connections between home and their school.

“We can have a whole big discussion about the high school issue. This is something we have to deal with at the state level. We have choice, we have charters, we have vo-techs,”
Gov. John Carney

Given the way the city has been carved up among four school districts (the Colonial district serves a portion of the city’s East Side), a midyear change of residence – hardly uncommon in the city – can result in an unsettling transition to a new school. Simmons, a former principal at Brandywine’s Mount Pleasant High School, says he often had phone conversations with the principal at Red Clay’s Dickinson High School to learn more about students who were switching schools because they had moved a few blocks – just enough to cross a district line.

Carney acknowledges the difficulty. “We can have a whole big discussion about the high school issue. This is something we have to deal with at the state level. We have choice, we have charters, we have vo-techs,” he told the Red Clay Board of Education.

But he has chosen to focus the collaboration on the K-8 spectrum because most of the schools in Wilmington serve those grades and he believes strengthening the academic foundation at the elementary and middle school levels will better prepare students for high school.

The relationship between the district school boards and the proposed partnership board of trustees has raised numerous questions. Cathy Thompson, the Red Clay board president, brought up legal liabilities at her board’s November meeting. “There’s a disconnect in my mind,” she said, wondering who would be responsible if problems develop on matters under partnership control when it is using Red Clay teachers and Red Clay facilities. “Liability becomes a huge issue.”

While Carney has indicated to the school boards that he hopes that liability issues could be settled through the planned MOUs, he has said he will address this issue with the state’s lawyers and do what is needed to clarify the matter.

At the Brandywine Board of Education meeting last month, John Skrobot, the board president, told Carney he wants to be sure any plan has “tangible metrics for [measuring] success” and that the partnership and districts have the authority “to change course if something isn’t working.”

“The timeline seems rushed. Folks will be signing on to something before there’s a true structure in place.”
Steve Fackenthall, Richey Elementary School music teacher and vice president of the Red Clay Education Association.

Fackenthall, the Red Clay teacher union leader, has heard Carney’s presentation and spoken to members of the governor’s staff but admits that “I may not have my full bearings on it as well.” As he understands it, the plan is for each district to sign its own MOU with the state and the MOUs wouldn’t necessarily be identical – so the partnership trustees could conceivably be working under different arrangements with each district.

Then there’s the matter of what the collaboration will look like when the pieces eventually come together.

“The timeline seems rushed,” Fackenthall says, referring to Carney’s goal of having school boards commit to the proposal in January and negotiating the MOUs by the end of March. “Folks will be signing on to something before there’s a true structure in place.”

Fackenthall and others agree with Carney’s assessment that there is a genuine sense of urgency in addressing the academic and social-emotional needs of children attending schools in Wilmington, but they are nervous that the governor’s plan to use the partnership board to get three districts serving the city on the same page amounts to trying to do too much too quickly.

“We’re always so quick to point to the negatives. We’re not going to work it out if we walk into it with doubts.”
Laurisa Schutt, executive director of First State Educate

“It’s a very ambitious timeline,” says state Sen. Tizzy Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who is also co-chair of the Redding Consortium, a state-created unit that is developing larger long-range plans for redistricting and funding to resolve the state’s longstanding educational equity issues.

Schutt, from First State Educate, is urging the community not to dwell on the negative “what ifs.”

“We’re always so quick to point to the negatives,” she says. “We’re not going to work it out if we walk into it with doubts.”

At the Christina Board of Education’s November meeting, board member Fred Polaski endorsed Carney’s ideas but predicted the collaboration would become “an ongoing learning experience.”

There is also concern about the messaging the governor has been using in his presentations. Carney likes to speak of the districts invited into the partnership as “a coalition of the willing,” but the governor, not the districts, is driving the proposal. Similarly, Carney stresses that the proposal will increase decision-making capabilities at the school level, as opposed to top-down management, but some key components – such as a longer school day and longer school year – appear to have already been baked into his plan.

In a meeting Tuesday night at Pulaski Elementary School in Wilmington, Carney addressed the many uncertainties that remain and reemphasized that much of the decision-making will take place during the negotiations on the MOUs and later at the school level.

“The answer to a lot of things [about how the collaboration will work] is going to be, ‘I’m not going to decide that question,’” he said.

At Red Clay’s November board meeting, Carney said that the plan is being adjusted based on what his team is hearing at its presentations.

Even so, Johnson, the former state PTA president, says there are still trust issues for the governor to overcome.

Especially in Wilmington, she says, “a lot of people don’t trust the governor’s office, don’t trust the state.”

In addition, Johnson believes that Carney is not being “intentional enough about diversity, equity and inclusion.” Those may be themes in his plan but “in a community, you want to see people who look like yourself” and Carney’s pitch team is composed of three men, two of them White. “You have to think about who’s presenting. You need women of color,” she says.

With the plan’s focus on schools in Wilmington, one item that has received relatively little attention is the potential reaction of suburban residents, Johnson says. The governor’s team has been saying the proposal will not have any impact on schools in the suburbs, that upcoming increases in funding for low-income and special needs students will cover the additional costs. Suburban residents, she says, need reassurance that the state is “not borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” as well as answers to concerns that incentives offered to educators to work in Wilmington won’t draw large numbers of well-liked teachers from suburban schools.

Overall, current PTA head Corbin says, a prime concern is that community awareness is relatively low – below the levels she noticed in the past 20 months as schools developed plans for opening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She hopes Carney schedules even more meetings with parent and community groups.

Fackenthall, the teacher leader, would like Carney to visit schools during the day to meet with teachers, rather than holding evening meetings.

“Everyone has that urgency for the schools and communities,” he says, “but I’m not sure that we’ve done all we can to make it a true collaboration.”

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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.