It is time to act for Wilmington’s schools

November 19th, 2014

Category: News

This was originally published in “The News Journal” as an op-ed.

In the swirl of controversy over the state’s six priority schools, there’s a lot of discussion about why on most reasonable measures of performance less than half of the children in these schools are on track for a meaningful career after high school. Often this discussion becomes a search for someone to blame. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to understand why we are where we are and how, by working together, we can move forward.

A mix of historical and structural decisions over the past 120 years have systematically set us on this path. In the 1890s, Delaware built into its constitution two systems of public education, one for whites and one for blacks. Not surprisingly, the “colored” schools had less resources. The systems were meant to merge in the 1950s with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit, but nothing really happened until the ’70s when there were efforts to desegregate our schools through court-ordered busing. In the ’80s, the old Wilmington district was split into four pie slices so that the children in the city could be integrated with their suburban peers. The thought was that integration alone would improve educational achievement for inner-city black children and a growing Hispanic population. It did not happen.

A lot has changed since the ’80s. Charter schools were created in the 1990s and then in 2000, the courts ended forced integration, prompting the return of “neighborhood schools.” While the formal divides among schools no longer exist, the residual impact of that disparate set of supports has contributed to the creation of deep pockets of generational poverty. These neighborhoods are challenged by the same things that confront poor urban families across America: high dropout and incarceration rates coupled with low employment and college-going rates.

This is unfair on its face, but as the baby boomers like me get grayer and the next generations become increasingly diverse, this is simply not sustainable.

Over the past 15 years, there have been several commissions on Wilmington’s schools, three of which I participated in, all saying some version of the same four big ideas:

1) Our governance system needs to reflect a new reality. The initial intent behind the break up the Wilmington district may have been well-intentioned, but today, five districts and 10 charter schools serve a city with 12,000 school-age residents, and there is virtually no coordination across health, academic, human resource, transportation or food services. In a time of scarce resources, this makes no sense. A new governance structure needs to be created that is simpler and allows for greater coordination, and it needs to take both district and charter schools into account in that charters serve more children in Wilmington than any of the districts.

2) Our funding system needs to change to reflect the needs of individual students. Our funding system, developed in the ’40s, suggests that all children, regardless of language or cognitive ability, regardless of whether one was from a low-income community or academically gifted, should receive largely the same level of funding. Three quarters of the states and most high-performing countries have long since moved to a system that reflects the fact that different children need different supports to succeed. These additional dollars could be used to provide targeted tutoring, more time and/or additional health and social services as needed.

3) The connections from early childhood to kindergarten and high school to careers need to be stronger and seamless. There is some good work going on to improve our early childhood centers and to make stronger connections to kindergarten, but there is more work to do. And with less than 20 percent black and Hispanic Delaware ninth-graders progressing through their second year of college, we know the connections from high school to college and/or the job market need to be stronger. These challenges present huge opportunities for greater integration of technology and for business and nonprofit partners to step up.

4) The educators serving the children in these schools should receive specialized training and be compensated to reflect the fact that this is simply a more complex job. Our foundation has attempted to contribute to this effort by helping fund programs like Teach for America and the Delaware Leadership Project that recruit and train teachers and principals, respectively, into high-need schools, but much more needs to be done. If we want to find and keep great educators we need to get creative around loan forgiveness and compensation. And strong leadership teams should be held accountable for results but be given real autonomy over their team and resources.

At the end of the day, to build a vibrant downtown and to give all of our children a real shot at the American dream, we need to seize this opportunity and act.

Paul Herdman



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