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Pushback complicates Wilmington Learning Collaborative approval

Delaware Public School
Delaware school graphic

Gov. Carney’s effort to bring his Wilmington Learning Collaborative to life seemed to be on its way to gaining the backing it needed to launch.

But a review of the memorandum of understanding that will guide the three school districts serving city schools as they seek to transform Wilmington’s underperforming elementary and middle schools is seeing pushback from district school boards.

Contributor Larry Nagengast examines the issues that have emerged and if they could delay or derail the collaborative.

Contributor Larry Nagengast explains the pushback over the Wilmington Learning Collaborative

Concerns that Delaware’s secretary of education labels as “adult issues” are now threatening to delay, or even derail, the initiative Gov. John Carney and his key education aides have worked on for nearly two years to improve educational programming and support for public elementary and middle school students who live in Wilmington.

The concerns, associated primarily with financial, governance, legal and liability topics, drew significant attention throughout July as the school boards in the Christina, Brandywine and Red Clay districts began their line-by-line review of the latest revision to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would create the Wilmington Learning Collaborative (WLC), a new nonprofit entity that would become the primary overseer of kindergarten through eighth-grade education in most of the city’s traditional public schools. If approved in its current form, the WLC would be activated on September 15 and use the upcoming school year for planning before putting school reforms into effect in the fall of 2023.

The collaborative’s ultimate goal is to reverse decades of underachievement by students in public schools in the state’s largest city.

Carney and his aides have spent thousands of hours knocking on doors, organizing meetings with stakeholders and community groups, studying initiatives attempted in other states, making multiple presentations to school boards, soliciting feedback and engaging in three months of negotiations over the MOU. Such meticulous preparation would seem to make approval of the governor’s plan a near certainty when the three school boards vote on the proposal at their August meetings.

But it’s not.

Secretary of Education Mark Holodick and Jim Simmons, chief equity officer at the state Department of Education, heard the concerns of local school board members as they watched the boards’ July meetings online.

Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Holodick

Holodick, in an interview with Delaware Public Media this week, says he doesn’t see the objections raised as translating into “no” votes, even when several board members said they opposed the MOU as currently written. But, he added, “I’m not going to say that I don’t have concerns.”

Some school board members feel the same way. “There is no guarantee that the WLC will be passed,” says Adriana Leela Bohm of Red Clay, who has some concerns but supports the plan because it should give Wilmington residents more control over schools in the city.

If it takes more time to resolve issues raised by the local school boards, Holodick said the boards’ votes on the MOU could be postponed until September.

“I’d rather have an informed and thoughtful vote on behalf of the kids than a vote that is rushed,” he said.

“Change is hard … and this is a drastic change,” Simmons said. “This model has never been done before.”

What would the collaborative do?

The WLC, if implemented, would be responsible for managing educational programming and supports for students in kindergarten through eighth grade at the participating districts’ schools in the city of Wilmington. The WLC would have a 12-person council with three representatives from each participating district (the superintendent, a school board member and a parent or grandparent) plus a retired teacher, an appointee named by the Wilmington mayor, and one to three high school students (although only one of those students would have voting privileges).

The council would hire an executive director, who would then build a small administrative team. However, the WLC would put a premium on shared decision-making at the school level – a collaborative approach relying on the shared input from the school’s head, an Educator Leader Team and a Community Council comprised of parents, educators, community stakeholders and students. School-based teams would create their own plans and set goals for each year, subject to approval by the WLC Council.

In addition to having a flexible curriculum that addresses children’s needs and lived experiences, the schools are expected to provide a variety of wraparound social and health services and could feature longer school days and years as well as special programming for evenings and during vacation periods.

According to the latest version of the MOU, the WLC would involve eight schools: Harlan Elementary, from Brandywine; Shortlidge Academy, and Warner, Lewis and Johnson elementary schools, from Red Clay; and Bancroft, Bayard and Stubbs Early Education Center, from Christina. Harlan and the Red Clay schools serve kindergarten through fifth grade. Bancroft and Bayard serve grades 1-8 while Stubbs is a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten center. Brandywine did not include its P.S. du Pont Middle School in the collaborative, a spokesperson said, because the district administration favored having WLC begin as a program focusing on elementary grades.

The structure described in the MOU closely resembles one used in Springfield, Massachusetts, which Carney has touted as a model worth emulating.

The big difference – what makes this the “drastic change” that Simmons mentioned – is that the WLC would be a partnership among the state and three school districts, while Springfield involved only one district.

“Adult issues” raise concerns

Also significant – and this is where the “adult issues” come in – is that participating schools remain part of their current districts. This means that the WLC and the schools themselves will be making decisions on curriculum and various support services, but the districts will be responsible for paying staff members, channeling funds to the schools, maintaining the buildings, providing technology infrastructure and support, handling student transportation and lunch programs.

School board members’ concerns center on these issues. For example, one Brandywine board member wondered whether districts would be held responsible if there wasn’t enough money allocated to WLC schools to cover their expenses. Another worried that students in suburban schools might be shortchanged as additional services were provided to children in city schools. In Red Clay, board member Kathy Thompson pointed out that the WLC is supposed to continue functioning until at least 2027, but additional state funding has only been pledged until 2025. And, she said,

“Those who are vested in the collaborative [Wilmington residents] are supporting it. But, ultimately, the fate of the WLC rests in the hands of those who don’t live in the city.”
Adriana Leela Bohm of the Red Clay School Board in Wilmington

While these concerns require resolution, none of them “relate to what the plan is all about – which is kids,” Holodick said.

“We all want to do something for Wilmington,” said Keeley Powell, president of the Christina Board of Education, “but the questions being raised are mostly legal and financial.” Most of the concerns relate to “where the lines of responsibility are drawn between the districts and the collaborative,” she said.

Kathy Thompson, whose four years as Red Clay’s board president ended this month, agreed with Powell about the importance of clarifying lines of authority. But she also wonders whether the direction taken through the MOU will lead to the desired outcome. The issues that threaten agreement to the MOU are these “adult issues” that pervade the document, and that’s because Carney’s plan creates a new layer of authority – the WLC – rather than directly addressing the needs of Wilmington students, she said.

While Thompson questions the merits of adding another layer of educational bureaucracy, Bohm, her colleague on the Red Clay board, notes that most of the board members raising concerns about the MU are residents of the suburban portions of their districts.

One of the reasons for the collaborative, Carney has stated repeatedly, is to give Wilmington residents a greater say in the operation of their schools since the existing school boards, by state law, are dominated by suburban residents.

“Those who are vested in the collaborative [Wilmington residents] are supporting it,” Bohm said. “But, ultimately, the fate of the WLC rests in the hands of those who don’t live in the city.”

What happens next

Over the next two weeks, Carney and his aides will continue to refine the MOU while members of the three school boards ponder how they will vote.

“We have to continue to address their concerns, compartmentalize their concerns,” Simmons said. “It’s a heavy lift. [The question is] how can we take some of that.”

Board members expect to hear more from Carney’s office, Holodick and Simmons in the next two weeks, and some say they anticipate another updated version of the MOU to appear before any votes are taken.

Also, both Holodick and Powell said it was possible that a joint meeting of all three boards could be convened so Carney and state education leaders could address all pending questions in a single session.

“Everyone seems to be saying we support this, but we want to talk to the other boards,” Powell said.

“I think folks want to vote yes, but they want to be comfortable,” Holodick said.

Both Holodick and Simmons say the MOU will provide the flexibility for the WLC council and the districts to work out unresolved issues, as well as any new ones that might arise during the planning year.

Warner Elementary School in Wilmington
Delaware Public Media

But Thompson believes it’s important that there be a clear delineation of the areas of responsibility and decision-making that will be delegated to the WLC council and which ones will remain with the school boards. These boundaries must be clarified before the MOU is signed to prevent misunderstandings later, she said.

In this unique arrangement, Holodick said, it is essential to have faith in both WLC and school district leadership. “We have to trust in the fact that we’re going to work together. Each of the districts have to work together,” he said.

“I get the concept of collaboration,” Thompson said, “but in the world I live in, examples of collaboration seem to be few and far between.”

As the school boards continue to discuss the details of the MOU, Holodick returned to themes that have been expressed repeatedly in the past two years – and for many years before that.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t working. The kids don’t have time [to lose],” he said. “We need to take action.”

Bohm rephrases Holodick’s view with a pair of questions – and answers – addressed to her school board peers in the three districts.

“Is there an alternative strategy or plan?” she asks. “The answer is no.”

“Even if we introduce the collaborative and it doesn’t pan out exactly as hoped, is it going to reduce the level of success in Wilmington schools? Again, the answer is probably no.”

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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.