Waiting Is No Longer an Option

Reprinted from the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee’s final report, Strengthening Wilmington Education: An Action Agenda.

Another Report

We have now published another report on Wilmington education. It’s good. The historical framing, the acknowledgment of race, class, and geography as compounding forces, the impact on children, the costs of continued inertia, the recommendations for immediate action, the call for comprehensive planning—it’s all here. This report addresses what is now three generations of a largely failed experiment for children who could least afford it.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision centered on achieving equity for a young Delaware girl, Shirley Bulah of Hockessin, Delaware. The Bulah family knew that Shirley deserved better than the education she was receiving at Hockessin Colored School 107 (c), a one-room schoolhouse with outdated, hand-me-down books that had an inferior curriculum compared to schools that her white peers attended; no transportation support; and a teacher who could rely on very little professional supports other than what he or she had learned in what was likely an equally segregated and under-resourced college. In cases brought by the Bulah family and the Belton family of Claymont, Attorney Louis L. Redding and Delaware Chancery Court Judge Collins Seitz challenged the segregation that sustained this inequity. The Delaware cases were the only ones included in the historic Brown decision where the lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and as such, set the precedent for the court’s actions. While the segregation of schools was struck down in public law 60 years ago, the inequality of educational opportunity has persisted for three generations of students who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of these historic rulings.

This is not what Chancellor Seitz, Attorney Redding, or the U.S. Supreme Court intended.

A Window into More of the Same

In chairing the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, I have learned a great deal about public education reform in Delaware and have been humbled by its profound and troubled history—and its equally troubled present. Indeed, the last eight months are a window into the last 60 years. It has been a period of vigorous disagreement over how best to serve children who—because of where they come from, what they look like, and/or the financial and social circumstances of their families—need more support in the way of resources to learn effectively in school, and by extension, to succeed in life.

The adults who teach these students generally believe strongly in their potential. They exhibit a passion and personal devotion that compels them to do their very best in the classroom and also to spend their own time and money to do much more than is required. I have heard countless stories from teachers who wash their students’ clothes, feed them when they are hungry, provide their parents with advice, and connect both parents and children to services that help them deal with the very real trauma they face at home and in their neighborhoods.

Many of these educators believe that being held accountable for the performance of these students on standardized tests is unfair. They argue that the tests are flawed and focus on factors that do not address the developmental needs of these children or the actual learning of content and life skills. They point to the many challenges these students face: hunger, homelessness, institutionalized racism, violence, “broken” family structures, poverty, lack of access to quality health care, and the intergenerational effects of parents who themselves are under-educated and under-prepared to role model “achievement” for their children. A great many teachers have said to me that for students who live with these challenges, the very fact that they can get to school every day is—in many cases—a sheer miracle. Given what I have heard and seen, those miracles are regular occurrences. Even so, they should never be used to justify low expectations of student achievement and thereby cast a very long shadow over the prospects of poor children and the communities they come from. High expectations for all our children still has to be the standard and teachers must be given the tools and support to help all their students succeed.

With parents, we commonly mistake intergenerational poverty for parental neglect, suggesting that poor parents are ill-equipped to be educational advocates and “first teachers” for their kids. I don’t doubt that there are cases where this argument holds, and in those cases it is difficult for educators to do their jobs and for children to learn. But this is not typical. Low-income parents certainly have barriers to success, some of which are systemic while others are of their own doing, but like any other parents, their priority is giving their children the best possible educational options they can afford. For many parents, the schools they attended and where they often were deemed unteachable are the very same schools their children now attend. The stigma attached to this kind of scenario cannot be overstated, but it does not make parents indifferent or make student failure a foregone conclusion. Virtually all agree that parent engagement is critical to student success.

Politicians and civic leaders often center their views on education around which constituencies speak with the loudest voices. Business leaders often propose that change can be accomplished by applying simple, logical business practices backed by a stronger resolve by education leaders who focus on measuring success. They want results, but many don’t know what goes on in our schools or in the lives of our students. Preaching best business practices and a focus on data to a beleaguered inner-city teacher is hardly a recipe for success.

For all the contending views and stakeholders, few disagree with the guiding principle of putting students at the center of everything we do and giving teachers the resources and support to meet student needs. Acting on this principle is quite a different matter. There is never enough money—incremental or reallocated. Some think we already spend too much, while others can’t conceive of making improvements without a great deal more. There are so many competing interests and priorities within the existing system that getting agreement is never easy. There is rarely enough political will to actually sustain changes that might have a lasting, positive impact. After 60 years of failed reforms, innovations, and experiments, there is fatigue among many within the public education system and an embedded and growing public skepticism about most proposals for improvement.

This state of affairs gave Delaware a 20-year pass on implementing any part of Brown, despite its clear role in the ruling, and led to 40 years of failed reforms that continue to favor inertia over change.

A Way Forward

The members of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee believe the action agenda in our report offers a way forward. We propose a comprehensive package of changes that builds upon the recommendations of previous task forces addressing the challenges of improving Wilmington education. Implementing the recommended changes will clear away 60 years of institutional and policy underbrush that currently limits improvements in student learning outcomes. Our recommendations are not a panacea, but they are necessary steps on a more positive path for public education in Wilmington. We are convinced that the proposed path will better serve our students by supporting the continuous improvement of our schools and will lead to much higher levels of quality across the entire Wilmington public education system.

The starting point is to repair the governance of Wilmington public education that has evolved into an arrangement that is simply irrational and indefensible. As of fall 2015, there will be 19 separate governing units responsible for delivering public education to approximately 11,000 Wilmington children with no unified plan, few efforts at collaboration, and virtually no requirements to function as a coordinated public education system. It is irrational to have responsibilities for Wilmington public education fragmented to the extent that there is one district with fewer than 200 students and literally no schools in the city, and another district that is one of only four discontinuous districts in the nation (out of 14,000 school districts) that has 20 miles of interstate highway separating one part from the other. We believe that a rational solution is for the Colonial and Christina Schools Districts to no longer serve Wilmington students. We propose that the Red Clay Consolidated School District should take responsibility for those Wilmington schools and students. This transition should begin immediately, recognizing that it will take a few years for the process to be completed in an effective and non-disruptive manner for the students, their families, and their educators.

Changing district lines will not automatically translate to higher student achievement, but it will remove obstacles that limit our capacity to focus our full capacity and efforts on student success. It will give greater responsibility to a single district for improving the education of the vast majority of Wilmington children. To fulfill that responsibility, Red Clay will need the will, the money, and an improved approach to addressing the challenges of schools with high concentrations of low-income children.

Equally irrational is the notion that the state with the nation’s third-highest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools, most concentrated in Wilmington, had approved a growth in charter enrollment of 90 percent over the next five years with no plan for its charter schools or for how they should connect with the other parts of the public education system. [1]

We cannot continue to operate and fund at taxpayer expense two largely disconnected and often competing public education systems (three, if we consider the separately governed vo-tech schools). This arrangement will not support educational improvement for all of our students. We need a statewide strategic plan for the development of public education that includes the desired number, type, and mix of charter, district, and vo-tech schools, and also a charter consortium that supports the sharing of best practices among charters and between charters and district schools.

Our report also calls upon the state to activate its existing infrastructure and reallocate its resources to better address the needs of low-income students in Wilmington and across Delaware. To be clear, this is more than a Wilmington problem. According to the Southern Education Foundation, in 2013, 51 percent of Delaware children qualified as low income based on their eligibility for the Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program. Addressing the needs of these children and their families and providing the needed supports for schools with high concentrations of low-income students is a statewide challenge and needs to be met in a comprehensive manner.

Delaware needs to develop and implement a comprehensive plan that can mobilize existing statewide institutions, policies, and resources toward the common objective of addressing the needs of children in poverty and supporting the schools in which those children are educated. Today, existing state programs and agencies are largely dormant and disconnected. By way of example, the council on higher education presidents, a forum in which one would think the university and college presidents throughout Delaware could come together and put their collective resources toward support for a statewide Pre-K-to-college plan, has not met in years. This is one of many examples where we simply are not optimizing the systems and resources we have in place.

We also believe that the system for funding public schools is antiquated and no longer effectively serves student needs. We propose changes that will ensure that the most challenged schools are well-resourced and adequately support the needs of their students. This includes attracting and supporting the best teachers in the toughest classrooms. We need to change the state’s funding formula to better address the needs of all Delaware schools with large concentrations of low-income students and English language learners. We also are proposing a close review of the revenue base that supports Delaware in general and its public education system in particular. It is a well-known fact that the foundations of public education funding are weak at both the state and local levels. It is a grave concern that property reassessment has not been done in New Castle County since 1983, Kent County since 1986, and in Sussex County sometime between 1972 and 1974.

Finally, let us not forget the voices of the people whose children are most affected. Throughout our review process, we have heard calls for a re-imagined Wilmington School District. In my view, this is a largely nostalgic reaction to a time that once was, where Wilmington communities were still racially segregated but were also multi-income and made up of professionals of color living in close proximity to the working poor. Today, those communities are different. Suburban flight among all races has left most Wilmington communities with significantly fewer resources than existed 40 years ago and, equally problematic, with many fewer role-models of achievement. You couldn’t build a Wilmington School District today without recognizing its immediate economic peril and the concentrated challenges that such a school district would face. We don’t surmise any more success in that construct than what exists today. Instead, we believe that the Wilmington city government should mobilize representative voices for their community’s children, and that the proposed City Office of Education and Public Policy should bring those voices to the forefront, particularly for those parents who otherwise simply cannot navigate the complexities of the current ill-constructed system.

The Time to Act Is Now

What gives us even greater optimism is the community support we have received for the recommendations in our interim report. In our public comment period, we received input from thousands of Wilmington and Delaware citizens through meetings, public events, and social media. We met with politicians and decision-makers at every level of government, education leaders from districts and charters, and a host of community partners, parents, and students.

No one has told us that the path of the last 60 years is sustainable, appropriate, or fair.

To change that path, we need a broad-based, cross-sector coalition to act boldly and without equivocation, right now, on the recommendations of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee. The time to act is now.

Tony Allen, Ph.D.

Chair, Wilmington Education Advisory Committee


[1]As of the end of 2014, the state had authorized a 90 percent increase in Wilmington charter enrollment over the next five years; subsequently, the state approved the relocation of one charter school outside the city and the reduction of projected enrollments requested by charter schools. As a result, charter enrollment is now projected to increase by 60 percent, from 3,868 to 6,167 over the next five years.

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