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Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan continue to take shape

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Delaware Public Media
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School may be out for summer, but there’s no break for the Carney administration’s effort to bring the governor’s Wilmington Learning Collaborative to life.

A draft of the memorandum of understanding that will guide the three school districts that serve city schools as they seek to transform the Wilmington’s underperforming elementary and middle schools is making the rounds.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at the draft MOU and if work to get everyone on board is on track.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss the draft plan for the Wilmington Learning Collaborative

Gov. John Carney and his education reform team are making another round of presentations to school boards and community members this month as he continues seeking to build support for his Wilmington Learning Collaborative.

The timing of the governor’s roadshow means that approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would create a new governing body for kindergarten through eighth grade schools in the city of Wilmington will be delayed until July or August.

The most recent timeline called for the Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay school boards to approve the MOU at their May or June meetings. However, Carney did not send a final draft of the MOU to the three school boards until June 2.

“As we worked through the agreement with districts, educators, and community leaders, it became clear we needed to do a little more engagement to make sure the document reflects the needs of schools and communities. We decided it made more sense to take a little more time to do engagement and have the votes this summer,” said Emily David, Carney’s director of communications.

That engagement has included repeat appearances at school board meetings over the last two weeks and three community meetings, one virtual and two in person. (The last community meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 21, at Warner Elementary School. Registration is required.)

If approved by the three school boards, the MOU would establish the Wilmington Learning Collaborative (WLC) as a nonprofit organization to manage K-8 schools in the city. The WLC, to be led by a 12-member governing council, would hire an executive director and a small staff that would use the 2022-23 school year to develop reform plans that would take effect with the start of the 2023-24 school year. The school districts would retain ultimate authority over the participating schools but they would delegate responsibility for day-to-day educational functions at those schools to the collaborative.

“By signing this agreement, we as a state, and you as school board members, would be committing to grant city schools broad flexibility and autonomy to make building-level decisions tailored to the specific needs of their students, staff and families,” Carney wrote in the cover letter sent with the MOU draft. The letter was also signed by Secretary of Education Mark Holodick and James Simmons, the Department of Education’s chief equity officer.

Those needs, according to the MOU, go beyond academics and include “wraparound services” to help meet the physical and behavioral health needs of students and the broader community. Possible services include before- and after-school programs, tutoring, counseling and childcare.

A central goal of the collaborative, Carney wrote, is “to ensure that city schools will be true community hubs.”

Speaking at the start of a virtual community meeting last week, Carney described the situation succinctly. “This is where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

The 16-page MOU creates a structural framework for school reform but leaves most of the details to be worked out by the new WLC Council.

The MOU includes these key points:

The WLC Council will have 12 members: the superintendent (or designee) from each district; the city school board member from each district; a parent or grandparent of a child in a WLC school from each district; a former Wilmington educator, appointed by the secretary of education; a city of Wilmington representative, nominated by the mayor and approved by the city council; and one high school student. After council members are selected, the governor will appoint a chairperson and council members select a vice-chair.

The greater possibility of tie votes occurring on a board with an even number of members was not a major concern, David said. “It was more important to get the right mix of members on the council than the specific number.” The MOU states that a “majority of the full body,” or seven members, would be required for passage of all items requiring a vote.

The WLC Team will be led by an executive director, hired by the council, who will build a small staff of professionals to oversee talent management, teaching and learning, and financial and operational support. Also, each district one staff member to work exclusively with the WLC team for at least two years.

Based on the current timeline, the management team would likely be in place sometime this fall. “The first year is a planning year with additional supports, so we feel this schedule is right,” David said.

Flexibility and shared decision-making will be at the core of school operations. An “educator leader team,” including teaching and non-teaching staff, and a “community council,” including parents, educators, community stakeholders and students, will share decision-making responsibilities with the principal on matters including school culture and identity, school schedules and calendars, staff deployment and priorities, enrichment opportunities for students, certain working conditions and customized mentoring practices. Through this structure, each school will create its own “school plan,” to be submitted to the WLC Council for approval.

While the MOU’s references to flexibility suggest that individual schools within the collaborative may have differing needs, its paragraph on curriculum states that “it may be determined that a common, culturally relevant, high quality, flexible curriculum be used across all WLC schools” in the future.

Enrollment procedures will not change. Students will be assigned to schools based on their district’s current feeder patterns but may use the state’s choice program to enroll in another school, including those in the suburbs. Students who reside in the suburbs may enroll in city schools through the choice program.

Funding would generally follow current state formulas for school spending. Districts would allocate funds to their schools in the collaborative based on the state’s unit count system and process all financial transactions. The Department of Education would review and approve spending allocations. The collaborative, and participating schools, would develop their own budget and spending plan based on the allocations made through the state formulas. On top of that, Carney has proposed appropriating $7 million to the collaborative for special needs at participating schools. In addition, much of the $7.2 million included in the proposed budget for initiatives by the state’s Redding Consortium on Educational Equity would be spent at WLC schools.

Through about 200 meetings and conversations with interest groups and community members over the last 10 months, Carney’s team gathered extensive feedback on the direction the collaborative should take and compiled those comments in a 34-page report. Some of those recommendations are incorporated directly into the MOU, while others are topics that the collaborative’s board and staff, as well as individual school leadership teams, are likely to address.

One topic frequently mentioned at those meetings that was not included in Carney’s initial description of the MOU was the importance of considering the needs of high school students who live in Wilmington since there is no traditional public high school within the city limits. As a result, many of these students are assigned to high schools west of the city and as far south as Newark and Glasgow. That issue made its way into the current MOU draft, as the first of three “other important educational components.”

The MOU tasks the WLC council with connecting with the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District about using extra space in vo-tech’s Howard High School, on the city’s East Side, and working with its member districts on improving high school choice options for city students.

Not mentioned in the MOU itself but included in Carney’s cover letter was a reference to the state’s colleges and universities. The governor wrote that the institutions of higher education “would provide expertise and an ongoing commitment to the success of the schools.”

The MOU has an expiration date of June 30, 2027, but districts may withdraw from the collaborative if it fails to meet agreed-upon goals for two consecutive years. Starting in 2027, the MOU would automatically renew for two years if no school board votes to terminate the arrangement. If one school district decides to withdraw, the WLC could continue to operate for the two remaining districts.

The MOU could also be terminated before the expiration date if the Redding Consortium develops a school district reorganization plan that is approved by the General Assembly and would take effect before June 30, 2027.

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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.
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