How Delaware's Dual School Program Is Empowering Students

The initiative aims to help high schoolers solve problems, develop important skills and, ultimately, improve society.


Ask most any educator, and they’ll tell you that students go to school to learn the skills they’ll need to transform their communities after graduation.

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Today, some Delaware educators, on the cutting edge of their profession, are giving high school students a head start—an opportunity to find solutions to the problems that concern them most while they’re developing skills essential for their future success—and making valuable contacts at the same time.

They’re the people behind Dual School, an initiative modeled on the innovative High Tech High in Chula Vista, California, and currently operating at two locations—1313 Innovation, the education-oriented coworking space in Hercules Plaza in downtown Wilmington, and William Penn High School in New Castle.

“It’s fundamentally transforming, an extremely powerful tool that districts and schools can use to bring their curriculum and student experiences into the 21st century,” says co-founder Catherine Lindroth, who has already made a name for herself by building the Summer Learning Collaborative, an award-winning program designed to combat summer learning loss among Delaware’s low-income elementary and middle school students.

RELATEDThis Local Program Combats Summer Learning Loss. Could It Be Replicated Nationwide?

“Bottom line, it’s a great leadership opportunity for kids. You take a complicated problem, you brainstorm, you figure out a solution, and then you present it,” says Brian Erskine, William Penn principal. “That’s certainly a good fit for what we’re trying to do here.”

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It’s such a good fit that, after giving Dual School a trial run in the spring semester, William Penn will award academic credit to students who participate in the program this year.

And it’s also so appealing that creative students with entrepreneurial visions jump at the opportunity to participate—even if it takes them away from their regular classes and they aren’t earning any academic credit.

“It really gives us the opportunity to step up and take charge,” says Ursuline Academy junior Katie Carrig, a member of last fall’s initial Dual School cohort. “I have learned how to do proper research and how to reach out to people who know more than me for help.”

“It helped me become more independent and feel empowered. It showed me that I had a voice in society,” adds Diamine Roberts, who participated in the program at William Penn in the spring.

Dual School participants are tackling issues that rouse their passions—in their schools, in their communities, and sometimes with potential impact throughout broader society. They are “trying to solve what I would call ‘the adults’ problems,’” says Wilmington real estate entrepreneur and education advocate Paul McConnell, who has bankrolled much of the project for its first year. While many schools are failing to meet students’ needs, “they’re trying to solve our problems. I find that fascinating,” he says.

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A couple of examples:

Michael Wiciak of Salesianum School read about a toddler who lost an eye in November 2015 when his retina was sliced by a drone’s propeller blades. He spent the fall semester of his senior year trying to build a rotorless drone that uses indirect propulsion, hiding the motors and propellers inside the frame to create a device that is safer for its users.

William Penn students Valentina Maza, a native of Venezuela, and Tatiana Romero, a native of El Salvador, experienced personally the difficulties immigrant students face in adapting to a new school and learning a new language in a nation thousands of miles from their homes. During the spring semester, they collaborated on a project called Education in Times of Immigration (ETI) that attempts to address the problems these students encounter. During the semester, they met with immigration advocates and participated in entrepreneurial competitions, earning $1,900 in grants and prizes.

Another team from William Penn—Roberts, Tynaesia Benson and Anerryah Lewis—found that girls at their school needed a safe space outside the classroom where they could discuss social relationships as well as family, job and career issues. They attracted 27 students to an introductory meeting and developed a project called Inspire, Impact and Empower that will begin meeting regularly at the school this year.


Tynaesia Benson (left) and Adé Robertson of William Penn have benefited from the Dual School program held at 1313 Innovation in Wilmington.//Photo by Joe del Tufo



Matt Gray, from St. Elizabeth High School, has immersed himself in an effort to revitalize Wilmington’s Canby Park, located across the street from the school. Early plans hint at improving the park’s athletic facilities, which are used by the school for some sporting events, and to making a better gathering and recreational space for residents. Gray graduated in June, but plans to continue engaging neighborhood groups in the planning process.

And Miracle Olatunji, from the Charter School of Wilmington, was profiled earlier this year on Forbes magazine’s website as she created OpportuniMe, which identifies meaningful summer experiences, scholarships and internships for high school students. She hopes to build it from a newsletter into a website, and from one focused on Wilmington, or Delaware, into something with a regional or national reach. “I started small. Now I’m able to think bigger,” she says.

The idea of starting small and thinking bigger applies to Dual School itself.

The project started with McConnell, who firmly believes a strong education system is essential to successful economic development. “Cities and states where education and economic development are connected are the ones that are flourishing,” but it’s not happening yet in Delaware, he says.

But he saw the success of the Horn Entrepreneurship program at the University of Delaware and its Diamond Challenge, a high school entrepreneurship project he helped launch through funding from the Paul and Linda McConnell Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative. Recognizing that students from lower-income communities might not have easy access to programs on the UD campus, McConnell began exploring ways to bring a similar program to Wilmington.

He linked up with Lindroth, who was already running the Summer Learning Collaborative, and Meghan Wallace, once an education adviser to former Gov. Jack Markell who was now partnering with Lindroth in a business they call Social Contract LLC. The business’s goal is to design and manage social change projects.

McConnell, Lindroth and Wallace then brought some of the Horn team into the planning process, and then they reached out to High Tech High in California, which provided a couple of staff members as consultants in the summer and fall of 2017. Then they recruited Zack Jones, a recent graduate of the Horn program, as the project director.

What they came up with is a semester-long program that they like to refer to as a “plug-in,” a model that can be used either at a school or off campus as students, under the guidance of mentors, develop entrepreneurial skills while exploring issues that stir their passions.

To jump-start the project last fall, they brought the first cohort of 13 students from seven high schools to 1313 Innovation in Hercules Plaza, a building that McConnell’s business manages. Because they had little time to recruit, organizers reached out to schools where they had contacts, pulling in students from Salesianum, Ursuline, Newark Charter School and Charter School of Wilmington—not exactly the low-income demographic they had in mind—in addition to Friere Charter School, William Penn and Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

While the mix wasn’t ideal, it worked out well. Kids with vastly different backgrounds and perspectives spent three hours together one afternoon a week, sharing ideas, critiquing each other’s work and stretching the boundaries of their environments in a way they couldn’t do within a high school classroom.

The participants weren’t getting any academic credit for their work. In fact, most were missing two class periods at their home schools, and they had to make arrangements with their teachers to make up that work. But having the opportunity to work and learn in a different environment was genuinely appreciated.

“At school everything is regulated, dreary, and just a place where my mind is tired and unwilling. When I enter the Dual School workspace, everything is all about motivation, open dialogue and pursuing initiatives in an informal atmosphere of passion and individuality,” says Charter School of Wilmington student Nabiha Syed.

Dual School’s “secret sauce,” Jones says, consists of three ingredients: students work on projects they really care about; students make connections with professionals who are experts in their project areas; and students learn how to rapidly make prototypes, and revise them on the fly, as they move forward with their projects.

The students engage in what educators call “project-based learning” and seek to solve problems through the “design thinking” process, which is essentially the way engineers reach conclusions. First, they discover, examining the issue to ensure they are attempting to solve the right problem. Then they visualize, considering all the possible solutions. Next comes the prototype, testing the most promising solutions and making revisions until they think they’ve got it right. Then they present, describing their idea or solution in a clear and compelling way to their teacher and the rest of the class‚ much like the presenters at TED talks or entrepreneurial hopefuls on the “Shark Tank” television series.

As the first Dual School cohort worked on their projects last fall, Katie Strouss, a Spanish teacher at William Penn, accepted an invitation from Lindroth to come over and take a look.

“I was really amazed by how self-motivated the students were, asking intelligent questions, coming up with beautiful responses,” she says.

That made such a strong impression that she went to Erskine, the William Penn principal, and suggested that the program be incorporated into the school’s curriculum. Erskine agreed to give it a trial run, Strouss recruited nine students, and she partnered with Jones in leading the group on Monday mornings in the school’s new Innovation Center for the spring semester.

Starting this fall, Dual School will be an elective for William Penn students, meeting every other day for 90 minutes, Jones says. Strouss has moved on to another assignment, so English teacher Stephanie Diggins, who spent last year helping start a new Teacher Academy career pathway at the school, will take over her role.

To prepare for the assignment, Diggins participated in training this summer in design thinking and project-based learning. As Dual School takes hold at William Penn, Jones says, the goal is for him to ease out of the class and have Diggins run it entirely on her own.

In addition, groups of students from other area schools will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons at 1313 Innovation. Running the program for two afternoons a week not only makes Dual School available to more students, but it also gives students more flexibility to work around class requirements at their home schools, Jones says.

During the summer, Dual School staff and participants continued efforts to expand and refine their model.

Delaware Design Lab High School, a charter school located near Christiana Mall, contracted with Dual School to have Jones conduct training sessions for its teachers and to run a “summer camp” for the school’s administrators, teachers and some parents to work on solutions for several issues at the school.

Securing the contract is a significant milestone for Dual School because its leaders recognize that they cannot count on McConnell’s largesse indefinitely. Training teachers in Dual School principles not only expands its reach but also creates a revenue stream to make the program sustainable for the long term.

In addition, Lindroth and Wallace say they have been completing paperwork to establish Dual School as a nonprofit organization, which will place it in a better position to secure corporate and foundation grants in the future.

Also this summer, five of last year’s Dual School participants and three adults who worked as mentors in the program were hired to help develop programming for The Warehouse, a youth-focused innovation space being planned for the site of the former Prestige Academy charter school on Wilmington’s East Side.

Jones says they were guiding a team of 21 teenagers as they tried to develop model programs based on key themes proposed for The Warehouse, including recreation, education, the arts, career planning and healthcare.

Wallace says it will be interesting to review how the collaboration with The Warehouse worked out because, for the first time, Dual School personnel have been working on projects conceived by others rather than on their own passions.

Through its first year, Dual School has gotten largely positive reviews from those who have watched it grow.

“I learned about a part of me that I didn’t know existed,” says Noah Rossi, a Newark Charter School student who developed a computer software coding class that could be offered to students after school or at libraries or community centers.

“At the first parent meeting—the only parent meeting—we had, it was really nebulous. It seemed like it was not very well designed,” recalls Tammy Rossi, Noah’s mother. As Noah’s project developed, she recognized the value of his participation. “It was an amazing experience, something he wouldn’t have gotten in school.”

Ryan Mitchell, Newark Charter’s guidance director, admits to having initial qualms about how students would make up regular classwork, but soon realized that Dual School’s benefits outweighed any disadvantages.

“They connect to visionary thinkers and gain new levels of insight. They learn how to get big-time projects off the ground,” he says. And, as it turned out, the students were responsible enough to make up missed classwork with no negative impact on their grades.

Erskine, the William Penn principal, appreciates how the program blends research, leadership and entrepreneurial opportunities. “It’s a pre-college opportunity, collaborating with other students, diving into a complicated problem and coming up with possible solutions. That, to me, is just the definition of a great student,” he says.

Even with positive reviews from its initial year in downtown Wilmington and at William Penn, Dual School must do more to prove its worth and ensure its sustainability.

Its founders have demonstrated that its off-campus model is viable and the William Penn experience has shown how the “plug-in” concept can work, but there are questions about how to scale up the program to reach more students, and there are no plans to add a second “plug-in” site for this year.

Long-term funding is definitely an issue. Lindroth, Wallace and Jones say that, once nonprofit status is secured, they will begin applying for corporate and foundation grants. Lindroth, by now well accustomed to out-of-the-box thinking, also sees the possibility of adapting the Dual School model into a training program for businesses and nonprofits, thus creating another revenue stream.

How the program might fit within the schools is another concern. Logistically, it might fit more easily into a smaller private or charter school, but many of those schools don’t enroll much of the low-income demographic that McConnell sees as its target. And traditional public schools have limited resources—both personnel and financial—so adding Dual School to the course catalog might require principals to eliminate another elective to make it fit.

Addressing these issues, while continuing to challenge the students who sign up, will keep the program’s leaders busy for the coming year, Jones says.

As the project moves forward, Wallace pledges that Dual School will remain true to its “central pillar” of serving the underserved. “We want to ensure we provide access to the kids who need this sort of learning the most.”

And, McConnell notes, these students can be found in every type of school on Delaware’s educational landscape. That’s why he likes the way Dual School has started. “It’s public, private, Catholic, charter,” he says. “Everyone is in the same room. We want to be a solution that’s available to everyone.”

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