“This is going to really support teachers.” Talking Affinity Groups with Local Teacher Alena Warner-Chisolm

Alena Warner-Chisolm, a 14-year veteran of Delaware schools (with stops in Christina, Red Clay, and Lake Forest districts) is an English language arts teacher at Stanton Middle School—and one of the first participants in the district’s affinity group for teachers of color.

The groups—which Rodel helped catalyze in Red Clay and Colonial districts—are not unlike professional support groups. Current classroom teachers, who facilitate conversations with their peers to learn, share, and grow in their practice, lead them. In recognition of their leadership, these teachers receive additional pay from their districts for the extra time spent preparing and leading these groups.

By giving educators of color space to come together and support one another, the aim is to improve school-wide culture and, eventually, boost teacher retention.

Rodel caught up with Warner-Chisolm to learn more about what’s happening at Red Clay’s affinity group.

. . .

Do you remember how you first heard about this affinity group that was forming with your district?

The first time I heard about the Red Clay affinity groups was through a flyer emailed by Dr. Bond, Kim Lopez, and Mark Baxter to interested teachers.  My initial interest is due to two factors that I experienced before coming to Red Clay. The first factor is my teaching background. Throughout my entire career, I worked with very dynamic students and I noticed that there was a pattern of high turnover rate, high stress, and low morale climates.  So, to combat those feelings I would socially de-stress through sharing stories, affirming my purpose, and providing and receiving practical support from my colleagues. Those social times brought me joy and moral support and kept me invested in my career.

The second factor is my role as an educator. As an educator you have so many roles; which can be mentally and physically time-consuming, which leads to more stress. So, I started being intentional about creating social activities where we can build camaraderie through emotional, mental, and educational support. I noticed was that our social groups really helped with teacher retention, lowering stress, and higher morale.

And so, when I first saw affinity groups here at Red Clay, I immediately recognized the importance of creating an intentional space for educators to bond and support each other, especially with both the pre-Covid and post-Covid challenges that educators face daily.  

How can something like this affinity group—where you’re creating a space for teachers of color—make a larger impact?

A lot of times as a teacher, I feel like I’m on my island. I often think I’m the only one that has to juggle the mental health of my students, my mental health, and serious social issues because of the gaps of service in the community.  Teaching is a job of service, so I’m constantly trying to figure out, how do I teach the whole child? And if I’m doing that in a silo, it’s extremely draining.

This is why affinity groups are so necessary because educators come together in a specific time, space, and format to be heard and supported to create equitable policies.

What does it mean to be a teacher of color and have this space where you can come together with fellow teachers of color, and what does that do to the culture at a school?

Well for me, teachers of color are on a spectrum of differences even though we may or may not “present” as teachers of color. For example, I have a duality of presenting as an African American but being raised within Trinidadian culture. So, I wasn’t taught both in school or at home about the historical systematic implications of race but I’ve experienced it throughout my life. So, to be a teacher of color, is to be part of a large community that is very diverse and not a monolith of experiences or background but, who share many commonalities.

In terms of having the affinity spaces, one of the first a-ha moments I had when we were brainstorming for affinity groups was when created our mission statement: to create a safe space for educators to feel heard, connected, supported to be their authentic selves to enhance their personal and professional responsibilities. That spoke to what I was trying to do years before I came to Red Clay: create a space where I can be myself and not feel like I have to tiptoe around issues of race and inequity of opportunity for both educators and students.  Ultimately, when my students and I show up authentically it creates a culture of bonding, equitable policies, and environments that allow all to thrive.  

In converse, I noticed disparities from questioning the status quo like Who has the privilege in my school? Who has the opportunities in my school? Who are in my honors program? My AP programs? Who is being heard and influencing administrators’ decision-making? In inequitable environments, I didn’t stay at those schools long, but in the schools that prioritized equity in practice, I flourished.

Take us inside what the initial affinity group meetings have been like.

Participants seem most excited to speak their truth.  At first, we get to know each other through social conversations and an overview of our interests, this is the Welcoming time. Afterward, we create mutually- agreed norms to allow all voices to participate meaningfully. Then, we use a data-based structure from an anonymous survey to discuss the why behind the responses which leads to reflection, discussion, and sharing. Finally, we have a closing that utilizes the Courageous conversations compass to reflect further on each participant.

By our second meeting, it was refreshing to know that the participants could speak their truth and feel heard. As an educator of color, I am either fighting for equity or leaving for somewhere I’m accepted. And now I don’t feel like I’m alone.

In addition, during the meeting, the participants and facilitators shared resources to provide opportunities that were not known before, which was great as well.

How will the affinity group evolve over time?

I definitely know that we want this to be sustainable. We want to create policy changes through an equity lens of our strategic plan that supports the retention and the enticement of educators of color and educators that are allies in supporting our diverse students.

We will continue to partner with leaders of equity to provide training for affinity leaders so that our work is done with fidelity. In addition, we are currently in our recruitment phase for both more affinity participants and leaders.

 What is the basic structure of an affinity group meeting?

The structure comes from the Center for Black Educator Development and the Courageous Conversations frameworks. The CBED provided facilitators with multiple days of training to design the structure of our groups and the Courageous Conversations training provided us with the tools to facilitate discussions within our groups.  

How can educators get engaged with the affinity group today?

So right now, with the pilot year, the participants are set in stone. However, we are currently in recruitment for facilitators to begin the training and also new participants! We are all excited to see the group expand as many who have participated this year are interested in facilitating their groups for the upcoming school year. 

And it sounds like really positive feedback from participants so far?

Absolutely. At the end of each session, we do a check-in with participants using the Courageous Compass in terms of their beliefs and feelings about the session. And a lot of people are sharing, I believe that this is going to really support teachers.

Meet the Local Students Helping Delaware “Reimagine Middle Grades”

Click here to explore the full “Am I High School Ready?” poster. 

ARiyah Nocks, a junior at Sussex Technical High School and Yelitza Ortiz-Uscanga, a senior at Sussex Central High School—are studying art and design in school. Last fall, the pair collaborated on a special project—designing a poster for the burgeoning “Reimagining Middle Grades” project.

The pair helped design a profile of a high school-ready student—an important message for future middle grades students as they work to identify their strengths and interests heading into ninth grade.

Rodel caught up with ARiyah and Yelitza and talked about their experiences working collaboratively with a steering committee of adults on a work-based learning project, thinking back to middle school, and where they’ll go from here.

 

Rodel: Tell us what you do in the career pathway that you’re involved in?

Nocks: In class, we do a lot of bookwork and lessons to learn about just all types of design. It’s not really based on one certain thing. And then, if we’re able to, our teacher tries to help us get certain opportunities. So with this one, she felt like I was able to work on making a poster for the middle grades project. It gave us more experience actually working with an organization and just seeing what they expect from a designer.

What struck you in terms of inspiration when you got the project? What was the main message you were trying to get across?

I thought about the message they wanted me to show on it, and then I just thought of possible ideas. But probably the first week after I started the project, I had no idea. So I tried to work with my partner, trying to think of some way we could make a poster engaging for middle schoolers while also trying to give them important information.

So we decided to go for a childish but not childish look. Just like something to give them a fun look while they’re reading something that will most definitely benefit them later on.

 

How do you think it went?

I mean, I’ve learned a lot. I think I did pretty well actually for this to be my first big project like this. Actually, I loved it , which is why I might stick with this career path. As stressed as I was, I actually like this.

What are other skills that you learned during this process that you think could help transfer over to the workforce when you get to that point?

Honestly, I’ve learned how to more better collaborate with other people. We do teamwork stuff a lot in class, but it’s not often. Actually working with somebody from a whole different school, Rodel of course, and then people from the department education … it put into perspective for me how I have to just put my social anxiety aside and work together and talk to other people and not just wait till they come to me to talk because I’m not a person to actually talk first.

 

What has been the best part of your whole pathway experience?

Just seeing the finished product. I enjoyed actually sharing it with everybody. I did enjoy the feedback. I enjoyed this actually, getting the whole interview. I’ve gotten actually another interview too, through my teacher, with a local newspaper. I feel famous!

. . .

Rodel: Was this a difficult assignment to wrap your head around?

Ortiz-Uscanga: Oh my god, very. Because we didn’t want to make it too childish. I’m the oldest sibling of three, so it’s hard not to make things childish when I have siblings who I think of as babies. So it was just finding that balance between okay, we got to push them more into their teenage years. So keeping that balanced definitely, I think was the hardest part of everything.

 

How do you feel about letting kids in middle school explore more career pathways?

I think it’s an amazing idea. Because I’m going to be honest, when I was doing my college application stuff, and this is college stuff, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be for the longest time. Because as a kid you always get asked, “Oh, what do you want to do? What do you want to be?” And it was so hard answering that question. I don’t think until senior year I really knew what I wanted to do. All I knew was art and that’s it. And I feel like because in high school you have all these pathways, but in middle school you have nothing.

You can’t be just thrown into high school like that and be like, “Okay, you have all these choices now.” Because you’re going to middle school with everything being decided for you and limited classes and no kind of choice. And it’s like, “Well I don’t know what I want to do because I don’t know anything about anything. I don’t know anything about this.”

So I think definitely middle school is where it starts. You have to start there. Because I know high school is all about careers. Even though it’s just the beginning, but it does count.

Do you feel like this project helped crystallize what you do want to do career-wise?

It really did. Because I want to be an art therapist, so more definitely art because I am not leaving it. But also therapist because I’m really into psychology. That’s always the study of the mind and human behavior has always been so interesting to me. This is my first big opportunity and has been so fun and just amazing overall.

How did you like navigating the professional business side of it and sort of dealing with the client, getting feedback?

It really helped that I had an amazing partner. I really liked working with ARiyah. She’s literally the best. We definitely did have moments where it’s like, “Okay,” because I know one person suggested a duller background or colors, like more earthy tones. And then me and her were both like, “Hmm, that’s not going to catch anyone’s attention. I’m Sorry, but no.” But we’re both really proud of what we came up with in the end. But we definitely had moments where it’s like, “I see where you’re coming from, but respectfully, I’m going to have to decline.”

Besides having challenges in getting the older people to get on your page, what were some other challenges that you faced during the project?

I guess really coming up with the final design because we had a Google doc and it was like a brainstorming doc where it was just all ideas. But really making it into one final product is… I guess that’s the crazy part. Because it really is just a process because you go from sketches, to thumbnails, to rough drafts. And then you think about color, and shapes, and fonts, and then symbols and stuff, and text, and that’s all really important. So it’s just a lot to take in, a lot to account for I would say.

Nowadays I sit in at the “Reimagining Middle Grades” meetings a lot and I just have a lot to say. Because I feel really close to this project overall because middle school, I strongly believe that’s where it starts.

Parent Advocacy Leads to New, More Accessible Online Kindergarten Registration System

It was no secret that Delaware’s old kindergarten registration process was inaccessible to many families, but the new online kindergarten registration system aims to change that. Gov. John Carney, First Lady Tracey Quillen Carney, the Delaware Department of Education, and the Delaware Readiness Teams, in early October launched the new, uniform, online kindergarten registration system. 

First Lady Carney hosted three demonstrations of the new online system across three of Delaware’s libraries: Seaford Library, Harrington Library, and Wilmington Library.  

“I’ve been the honorary chair of the Kindergarten Registration Campaign for the past six years for two reasons,” said First Lady Carney in a release. “One, it makes sense for everyone — the families, the schools, and, most important, the students. And two, 25 years ago, I flunked kindergarten registration—I couldn’t figure out our system here in Delaware. The new universal, online system is so much more family-friendly; it’s more equitable; and it’s more likely to get kids signed up early, which helps the students, families, and schools prepare more effectively for the coming year.” 

Check out Gov. Carney’s official release from the event. 

The Delaware Readiness Teams had long sowed the seeds of a new and more accessible online kindergarten registration system. Since 2018, they collected survey feedback from parents of all backgrounds about the challenges they face registering their children for school. Their survey found that that 76 percent of English-speaking parents described the kindergarten registration process as hard or extremely hard to navigate, while 98 percent of Spanish speaking families reported the process was hard or extremely hard. Their advocacy efforts lead to Delaware Department of Education to creating the online system thanks to Senate Bill 82, which passed last year.  

“The Delaware Readiness Teams are committed to supporting families through the registration process,” said Delaware Readiness Teams program manager Diane Frentzel, “we have created Kindergarten Registration Information Packets to support families as they register for school. Packets are available at all libraries throughout the state. Transitioning into Kindergarten is a big milestone for children and their families. This universal registration system will make the registration process easier so we can focus on connecting families to resources that will prepare children for the transition.” 

Prior to this, kindergarten registration was unorganized and difficult. Each district and charter had a different process and criteria for collecting data, so all had different sources of information, varying timelines, and different forms that were burdensome and confusing to many families. If families wanted to participate in choice, they had to sort through all of Delaware’s districts’ and schools’ different registration deadlines. Children’s learning was often affected because schools didn’t have accurate Intel on their incoming students, so teachers and students alike would struggle to adjust to their school’s settings. Kindergartners who registered late would miss valuable learning time, and one in ten kindergarten students would miss nearly a month of school each year.  

The new registration system aims to:  

  • Simplify the process for families year after year through an auto-saving feature that saves all their personal information 
  • Be a consistent and accessible process throughout libraries and schools 24/7, enable public schools to engage with families and plan for the school year 
  • Allow for a more inclusive registration process by offering the registration forms in multiple languages.  

 

Secretary of Education Dr. Mark Holodick affirmed, “We’re excited this site will make it easier by providing a consistent statewide process. We also hope it will remove barriers some may have, such as transportation and/or getting to a school office during a week day.” 

Meet Alejandra Villamares

Hi! My name is Alejandra Villamares and I am excited to join the Rodel team as the communications and media specialist. 

My interest in bettering the education system in Delaware started in high school. I decided I wanted to be the first in my family to get my bachelor’s degree, and thankfully TeenSHARP and Delaware College Scholars came to my aid in my mission. Due to my immigration status as a “DACA-mented” person, community college was out of the question because at the time, community colleges, various states, and the federal government considered people like me undocumented. This made me ineligible for federal aid and state aid, and left me with the burden of paying my entire tuition if I attended a community college. I was unable to apply for FAFSA, so my only other option was to apply to private colleges that were “need-blind” and considered me a domestic student. My list of potential schools became extremely narrow and had very low acceptance rates. I knew becoming admitted would be a difficult task since the vo-tech high school I attended didn’t have access to AP courses, and I didn’t have access to the same resources as my wealthier peer applicants. Nonetheless, TeenSHARP and DCS helped me put together a strong student profile that granted me early admission into Wesleyan University. 

The fact that I had to overcome so many challenges to merely further my education propelled me to help other students overcome these hurdles as well. In my sophomore and senior year of high school I joined Delaware Goes to College Academy as Program Coordinator where I instructed hundreds of other high schoolers how to apply to FAFSA, write their college essays, look for schools that would fit their needs, and make plans to make their student profiles more competitive. 

During my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, I immersed myself in my creative side, and majored in film studies. This granted me opportunities to further my skillset in production, planning, and storytelling. I worked with various other students on their film thesis productions as a producer, lighting and gaffer, sound recordist, and editor. I also worked for three years at Wesleyan’s communication team as a video intern, where I created/produced video content for their social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. During my summers I interned with two different documentary centers in New York where I expanded my production and storytelling skills. 

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in film studies in 2021. Now as a Digital Media and Communications Specialist role at Rodel I look forward to combining my passions for education, communications, and content creation for the betterment of Delaware’s educational system.