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Wilmington Learning Collaborative gets to work tackling an ambitious agenda

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

Gov. Carney’s signature education initiative – the Wilmington Learning Collaborative – begins its work this month, trying to put efforts to improve city schools served by Brandywine, Christina and Red Clay schools districts on the fast track to implementation. But can it meet the ambitious aspirations to have changes ready to roll out this fall?

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on the start of the Wilmington Learning Collaborative's work

Two months after the formal establishment of the Wilmington Learning Collaborative, the governing body of the education reform group is set to have its first official meeting on Friday.

The meeting will launch an seven-month campaign to create a new operational structure for nine Wilmington public schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade that are now run by three different districts. The new structure will emphasize school-level decision making, with advisory councils at each school whose members will include parents and community leaders.

Among the goals of the collaborative are building trust and overcoming lack of engagement by Wilmington residents in their schools and minimizing the fragmentation of resources and supports that has occurred with multiple entities responsible for education in the city for more than 40 years.

Six of the WLC council’s members have met periodically since the collaborative was formed, but they could not take any official actions because their numbers did not constitute a quorum, according to Adrianna Leela Bohm, a council member, and Mark Holodick, the state secretary of education.

Adriana Leela Bohm of the Red Clay School Board in Wilmington
Adriana Leela Bohm of the Red Clay School Board

With much talk but little action, those unofficial meetings have been “frustrating,” Bohm said, adding that she and the other Wilmington school board representatives on the council feel that the movement has been “exceptionally slow.”

In October, just before the collaborative was officially formed, Bohm said she hoped that all council members could be named in November and an executive director for the organization could be selected in December.

“That timeline would have been impossible,” Holodick said this week. “The process takes time,” he said, referring specifically to the work the three participating school districts – Brandywine, Red Clay and Christina – had to do in selecting their parent representatives for the collaborative’s council. Those representatives were chosen in December and council members selected by Holodick and Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki were announced earlier this month.

On the agenda for Friday’s meeting are the selection of the council’s 12th member, a student representative, and a discussion of the job description for the executive director, the first step in the hiring process.

Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Holodick
Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Holodick

“The narrative that it started more slowly [is an indication that] some don’t know how systems work,” Holodick said.

“We couldn’t do much until the districts, the mayor and the secretary of education selected the council members…. Now we’re bringing everyone up to speed,” said Alethea Smith-Tucker, the council’s school board representative from the Christina School District.

The two months needed to get the collaborative board organized followed a tedious process that preceded the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to create the collaborative on November 1.

Gov. John Carney, who had spent more than a year promoting the collaborative, had initially hoped to have it up and running by the fall of 2022. When that goal couldn’t be met, the 2022-23 school year became a “planning year.” As school boards haggled over the terms of the MOU, last spring passed without the approvals needed to launch the collaborative by July 1. Discussions continued through the summer and into the fall, until the school boards finally approved the MOU in October.

First priorities

Following Friday’s meeting, the collaborative council will begin attacking a significant to-do list. Key items include:

  • Completing an “open and honest needs assessment,” with the aim of documenting what is working – and what isn’t – at each school to provide a basis for determining how to address key needs at each site.
  • Meeting a March 31 deadline for reaching agreements with each of the school districts on performance goals for improving student outcomes.
  • Establishing Educator Leader Teams (ELT) and Community Councils at each participating schools. The ELT, consisting of teachers and support professionals, would work with the school’s principal to make decisions related to school culture, schedules and calendars, staff deployment, training programs and enrichment opportunities for students. The community councils, consisting of parents, students, educators and community stakeholders, would help with development of school plans, offer advice on community and family needs, develop initiatives to keep families engaged with the school, and monitor the effectiveness of wraparound services offered at the school.
  • Approving plans developed by the ELTs at each school.

The council will eventually have a small staff to manage these activities, but it must first hire an executive director. The first steps in this process are approving a job description – an agenda item for Friday’s meeting – and beginning a search for candidates.
In the interim, one administrator from each district, designated as a liaison to the collaborative, will help get these tasks moving forward, Holodick said.

Brandywine, Christina, and Red Clay superintendents and Secretary of Education Mark Holodick officially signed the Wilmington Learning Collaborative Agreement Tuesday.
Rachel Sawicki
Delaware Public Media
Brandywine, Christina, and Red Clay superintendents and Secretary of Education Mark Holodick officially signed the Wilmington Learning Collaborative Agreement Tuesday.

Optimism, with a dash of caution

While some may feel that the entire process of establishing the collaborative has been moving slowly, those closest to the action believe the new council is capable of completing its essential tasks on time.

Bohm, Smith-Tucker and Holodick agree that the calendar – specifically Thanksgiving and the December holiday season – proved a distraction.

“With the kids back in school and the General Assembly back in session, people will be more focused,” Bohm said. (The state legislature began its new session on Tuesday.)

With the governing board assembled and the district liaisons providing support, “we can have a couple of trains on multiple tracks at the same time,” Smith-Tucker said. And, she added, “once we hire the executive director, you’ll see a lot of traction.”

Christina School District board member Donald Patton
Christina School District
Christina School District board member Donald Patton

Equally confident is Donald Patton, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki’s appointee to the council. Patton is not a Wilmington resident (he lives in Newark) but he grew up in the city, living on the West Side, in the Wilmington Housing Authority’s Eastlake and Riverside projects and near 25th and Market streets. Currently a member of the Christina Board of Education and formerly an administrator in the district, Patton spent several years as principal of Bayard Middle School, in the Bayard Square neighborhood.

“There’s an awful lot of work to be done, but once we get past the executive director, I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “I think the personalities [on the WLC council] will blend.”

A prime reason for his optimism, Patton said, is what he observed when Carney was knocking on doors throughout the city and conducting multiple community meetings to promote the collaborative proposal.

First out of curiosity, Patton started attending those meetings and came away impressed with what he heard and saw. “People would say what was important to them and [the governor’s team] would come back to the next meeting with a change [in the proposal]…. The more I saw of that, the more I saw that kind of commitment, I said I could get on board with this,” he said.

Bohm and Smith-Tucker both said the appointments made to the council – the three parent representatives, Patton and Holodick’s choice of retired Christina teacher Janis McElrath, who served in faculty and union leadership roles at several schools – have created a strong governing body.

“The parent representative are phenomenal,” Bohm said.

“They’re all respected community advocates and leaders. We have a dream team, we really do,” Smith-Tucker said.

It may take some time for the council members to mesh, Holodick cautioned. “Building a professional and collegial board is essential. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Council members won’t always agree, he added. “The push and pull of ideas is normal, to be expected. What’s important is to reach common ground focused on the children.”

“There’s an awful lot of work to be done,” Patton said. “Considering where our kids are it, it’s going to take a heavy lift, but it’s more than worth it.”

More on the Wilmington Learning Collaborative structure:

Who’s on the council?

The Wilmington Learning Collaborative Council consists of 12 members. One seat remains unfilled – a high school senior to serve as the student representative, to be chosen by the other 11 council members. Gov. John Carney will choose the council’s first chairperson from among the 11 members, and the council will then select its vice-chair.

Council members are:

School district superintendents Lincoln Hohler (Brandywine), Dorrell Green (Red Clay) and Daniel Shelton (Christina)

School board members Shanika Perry (Brandywine), Adrianna Leela Bohm (Red Clay) and Alethea Smith-Tucker (Christina)

Parent representatives Starr Wilson (Brandywine), Jenny Yeow (Red Clay) and Shanette Graham (Christina)

Retired Wilmington educator Janis McElrath, chosen by Secretary of Education Mark Holodick, and Donald Patton, a retired Christina administrator and current school board member, chosen by Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki.

Participating schools

The MOU identifies nine schools from the three districts as participants in the collaborative. They are:

Harlan Elementary (Brandywine); Bayard, Bancroft, Pulaski and Stubbs Early Education Center (Christina) and Shortlidge Academy, Warner Elementary, Johnson Elementary (formerly Highlands) and Lewis Dual Language Elementary (Red Clay).

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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.