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Creating a roadmap for the Wilmington Learning Collaborative

Delaware Public Media

The next step toward bringing Gov. John Carney’s Wilmington Learning Collaborative to life is being taken.

The three school districts involved are working on the memorandum of understanding that will guide the effort to transform the city’s underperforming elementary and middle schools.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast explains who’s involved in the process and the issues that need to be addressed.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss work on the Wilmington Learning Collaborative MOU

Representatives of three school districts, the governor’s office and the state Department of Education have begun meeting to craft a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to determine how elementary and middle schools in the city of Wilmington will operate, starting in the fall of 2023.

Drafting the MOU is the next step in advancing the Wilmington Learning Collaborative concept promoted by Gov. John Carney. The school boards of the Brandywine, Red Clay and Christina districts – each of which operates two or more schools in the city – voted in February to begin discussing terms of the MOU.

At least six negotiation sessions will be held, running through the first two weeks of April, says James Simmons, director of the Office of Equity and Innovation in the state Department of Education. Simmons is a participant in the talks and has been overseeing the department’s efforts to improve educational programming in Wilmington for nearly two years.

The group preparing the draft “is not an official organization. It’s a group of individuals who are working together to draft the proposed MOU,” said Jonathan Starkey, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications. It has no power or authority of its own; it’s just a group of people authorized by the three school boards to draft a document for the boards to approve, he explained.

According to Simmons and Starkey, the drafting group includes the superintendents and some school board members from the three districts, as well as representatives of the teachers’ union in each district. Jon Sheehan, Carney’s special assistant for education, is the governor’s primary representative in the group. Secretary of Education Mark Holodick is also participating.

The drafting panel does not have a designated leader and participants may bring other members of their staffs to the meetings, Starkey said.

The governor’s current timeline anticipates that the three school boards would vote to approve the memorandum at their May meetings – and definitely by June – so the proposed new governing board for city schools could begin its work on July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, or as soon as possible thereafter, Simmons says. The governing board would hire an executive director and a small staff to manage day-to-day operations of the city schools. The governing board and staff would spend a year developing new educational programming and support systems before beginning new school operations in the 2023 fall semester.

“What is unique to this process is that the state doesn’t have the authority to tell the districts what to do.”
Jonathan Starkey, Gov. Carney's deputy chief of staff for communications

For many years, students in Wilmington schools have performed significantly below state norms on standardized assessments. Subpar performance has been attributed to those schools having high percentages of low-income and minority students and higher rates of teacher turnover than in most other areas of the state. Also, since the creation of the current alignment of school districts in 1981, governance of Wilmington schools has been fractured, with four traditional districts, a vocational-technical district and, since 1995, numerous charter schools sharing responsibility for educating city students but seldom collaborating in their efforts.

Carney’s hope is that the collaborative, with a new governance structure, will produce better student outcomes.

“What we’re doing today is not working,” says Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, echoing Carney’s theme. “We have to do better, do something different.”

Through the fall and winter, in more than 100 presentations, Carney and his aides have offered a broad outline of how the collaborative would work, but they have emphasized that the details will be developed by the group writing the memorandum of understanding and implemented by the new governing board.

One of the key issues confronting the MOU drafting team is just who would sit on that board. In their earlier presentations, Carney’s team strongly suggested that the governing board would have two representatives from each school district – the superintendent and a school board member who lives in the Wilmington portion of the district. Left to the drafters was the recommendation of how large that governing board should be – specifically, whether school representatives would comprise a majority – and how the community representatives to the board would be appointed.

“Some civic representation is healthy, but it should be governed by people who have a good sense of education, These offices tend to be political by nature, but the farther we can separate education from politics the better.”
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki

Purzycki suggested that the education officials should hold the majority. “Some civic representation is healthy, but it should be governed by people who have a good sense of education,” the mayor says. “These offices tend to be political by nature, but the farther we can separate education from politics the better.”

Simmons, from the Department of Education, makes the case for civic representatives to outnumber the educators. “We don’t know what number we will land on, but it’s likely the majority will come from the community,” he says.

A key reason Carney has proposed the collaborative is to give Wilmington residents greater control over the schools their children attend. If community representatives do not hold a majority of the seats, “we would be sending a message that the community could be outvoted by the districts every time,” Simmons says.

Two related questions concern how these community representatives would be chosen. Might the appointments be made by the governor, the mayor, the city council, the Department of Education, or some combination of those entities? And what procedures should be followed to ensure that significant constituencies within the city – the Latino community, low-income families – are included? Likewise, should there be one or more seats on the board for partnering nonprofit organizations – the United Way and community centers, for example – who would likely provide support services for the city schools?

Simmons anticipates an arrangement that would have the governor making these board appointments, but only after receiving nominations from entities like the mayor, city council, parent and community organizations. “What’s really important is not that the governor makes the appointment, but where the nominations are coming from,” he says.

Reform programs in other cities, like the Springfield (Mass.) Empowerment Zone often touted as a model by Carney and his aides, have a variety of governance arrangements, but they tend to keep local school officials in a minority role. In Springfield, the board of directors consists of the city’s mayor, school superintendent, a school board representative and four persons named by the state commissioner of education.

“What’s really important is not that the governor makes the appointment, but where the nominations are coming from.”
James Simmons, Dept. of Ed. director of the Office of Equity and Innovation

The MOU drafting team will also have to put more flesh on the skeleton plan that Carney has proposed. For example, should there be a longer school day and a longer school year? What types of wraparound services – such as health clinics, mental health counseling, tutoring, programming for adults – should be incorporated into school operations?

The drafters will also have some discussions about structuring curriculum for city schools. Last fall, Carney’s presentations suggested creating a uniform curriculum, but Simmons says that is no longer considered essential. Rather, he says, it is more likely that the drafters reach an agreement on how to set goals for educational performance, leaving more flexibility at the school level for how to create lessons that help students achieve those goals.

Steering clear of a uniform curriculum would also avoid a potentially messy debate among the representatives of the three districts over whose current curriculum is the most effective.

Recalling his days as an administrator in the Brandywine School District, Simmons noted that “curriculum adoption took us three years. We don’t have three years this time.” Also, he noted, creating a uniform curriculum could lead to unintended consequences, possibly impacting programs at Red Clay’s Lewis Elementary School, which offers the only dual-language Spanish-English curriculum in the city.

For now, Simmons says, the MOU drafters are not concerned with the presence of charter schools or the lack of a traditional public high school in the city. While greater collaboration between traditional public schools and the charters is desirable and city residents have cited the need for a high school, action on those ideas is currently beyond the scope of the collaborative, he says.

Although representatives of the governor’s office and the state Department of Education are participating in the drafting process, the final wording of the MOU will be determined by the school boards of the three districts that serve Wilmington students.

“What is unique to this process,” Starkey says, “is that the state doesn’t have the authority to tell the districts what to do.”

While the drafting of the MOU is occurring outside public view – much like the way most legislation is drafted in the General Assembly, Starkey notes, there are still opportunities for public participation in the process.

Carney’s office continues to hold public meetings to solicit ideas from city residents. (Three are scheduled for next week; times, locations and registration details are available here.)

“We’re seeking engagement from families and students. We do want to elevate the student voice, but we don’t know at what level,” Simmons says.

These meetings will include updates on the drafting team’s progress, and feedback from the sessions will be shared with the drafting team, Starkey says. In addition, school boards will likely give updates on drafting progress during their upcoming meetings.

Copies of the draft MOU will be available for public review before the school boards vote on whether to approve it, Starkey says.

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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 four decades.