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Wilmington Learning Collaborative faces delays, seeks more prep time

 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 is managed by the Wilmington Learning Collaborative.

Gov. Carney’s signature education initiative, the Wilmington Learning Collaborative, hoped to get off the ground this spring and perhaps implement some changes in struggling city schools this fall.

But nearly four months after the Collaborative Council’s first meeting in January, progress has seemingly stalled.

Contributor Larry Nagengast explores what’s bogging things down and where things stand moving forward.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on the Wilmington Learning Collaborative's delays

Late start. More work than we thought. Too little time to get it all done.

Nearly four months after their first meeting, members of the Wilmington Learning Collaborative Council decided to ask the school boards that signed the Memorandum of Understanding that created the council to give them more time to complete the tasks identified in the MOU.

The council, composed primarily of superintendents, school board members and parents from the Brandywine, Red Clay and Christina school districts, is charged with developing and overseeing innovations to transform education in most of the Wilmington schools in those districts that serve kindergarten through eighth grade.

It took nearly two years for a campaign led by Gov. John Carney to produce the MOU that was signed by the three districts in November and two more months to complete the selection of the WLC Council’s voting members. Since its first meeting in January, seven months later than its anticipated start, the council has spent most of its time on what some have called “adult issues” – getting organized, drafting bylaws and policies, trying to pull staff together – without getting around to attacking the school reform topics central to its mission. The council’s target had been to launch a variety of improvements in city schools at the start of the next school year, but it is apparent now that it will not achieve that goal.

Following a lengthy discussion at its May 4 meeting, the council voted to have its legal counsel draft a request to the three school boards to ask for more time to meet the MOU requirements.

The specifics of the request were not detailed at the meeting other than that it would involve stretching some deadlines by six or seven months beyond the original timeline. For example, the WLC council has not completed several key tasks that had a March 31 deadline, including completing a needs assessment for each participating city school, reaching an agreement with the districts on performance goals for improving student outcomes, and establishing educator leadership teams and community councils at each of those schools.

This process for extending the deadlines will also take time. The council plans to review the draft request at its June meeting, then get it to the school boards in time for them to approve the request in July.

“[You’re saying] we’re going to change our outlook. We’re not where the community would want us to be. We’re not able to effectively make change. We’re not in a position to do certain things right now because we don’t have a foundation."
Sophia Hughes, the Wilmington Learning Collaborative Council's student representative from Red Clay

Near the conclusion of that discussion, Sophia Hughes, the council’s student representative from Red Clay, neatly summarized much of what had gone before.

“[You’re saying] we’re going to change our outlook. We’re not where the community would want us to be. We’re not able to effectively make change. We’re not in a position to do certain things right now because we don’t have a foundation,” she said.

Donald Patton, the council’s vice chairman, who presided at the meeting, praised Hughes’ encapsulation of the situation, adding, “we’re behind where we should be.”

The discussion actually began as the meeting opened, in its public comment section, when a parent and two teachers cited a need for more communication from the council and more details about the work it was doing on school-related issues.

“What are the next steps? … I heard there are a lot of gaps,” asked Chantae Vinson, who identified herself as a Red Clay parent and community advocate.

Jennie Clark, a third-grade math teacher at Warner Elementary School, cited a need for more communication and transparency and requested that school district liaisons working with the council give regular reports on their meetings with school staff and parents.

Julie Noonan, a teacher at Bancroft School, pointed to staffing shortages during the current school year and two sections of the MOU that give the council responsibility for identifying and recruiting staff. “I’m hoping you are moving along in this process…. I hope you can give us information,” she said.

Council members acknowledged community concerns about the lack of action and communication. “People have expectations … but we’re not there as a council …. A lot of our parents, families, are wanting answers,” said council member Dorrell Green, the Red Clay superintendent.

They also stated that they have been hamstrung by a shortage of administrative support and the lack of an executive director to build and lead the management team.

“We can’t do it with this shell,” said Starr Wilson, the Brandywine district’s parent representative on the council. “Please bear with us,” she urged parents and community members.

Planning is going to take more than a year, added Lincoln Hohler, the Brandywine superintendent. “We only get one shot at this and we have to do it right.”

Some of the collaborative’s early shortcomings have resulted from the state not making it a high enough priority, said Adriana Bohm, the Red Clay school board’s representative on the council. “The building of this ship has not been prioritized by the state. We were not provided with the resources to build that boat in the beginning,” she said.

Patton, who ran the meeting in the absence of Chairman Shanika Perry, reported that he and Perry had recently met with Carney and Secretary of Education Mark Holodick and had been promised interim administrative support.

"When we started, we thought we were much further along than we were. We’re in a better place now than we were three months ago.”
Donald Patton, Vice Chairman of the Wilmington Learning Collaborative Council

“The governor and the DOE [Department of Education] have heard the need and addressed it,” he said. The council anticipates having two administrative assistants temporarily assigned from the Department of Education, one to handle communications issues and the other to provide management support.

Patton also stated that the council has been reluctant to make decisions or participate in meetings with other organizations that would normally fall under an executive director’s purview. “We don’t want to make any decisions that we would force on an executive director,” he said.

Later in the meeting, the council did manage to establish a timeline for interviewing executive director candidates this month and making a hiring decision by the end of June. The hiring committee reported receiving more than 100 applications and trimming down to 46 for scheduled phone interviews between May 15-26. Up to 11 candidates will be offered in-person interviews. Finalists will have an opportunity to engage with city residents in early June, with dates to be set to avoid conflicts with end-of-school-year activities.

Resetting the timelines in the MOU will give the executive director an opportunity to get settled. “We have to allow the executive director to engage in a very authentic way, to learn the community, to learn the schools,” Green said. Having the executive director on board will enable the council to “build a higher level of communication and transparency,” he said.

Patton acknowledged that council members may have underestimated the tasks that confronted them in January. “When we started, we thought we were much further along than we were,” he said. But, he added, “We’re in a better place now than we were three months ago.”

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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.