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One Size Does Not Fit All in Education

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I attended UD’s annual Louis L. Redding Lecture on Civil Rights and Social Justice last month, interested to hear educator Geoffrey Canada. The former CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada spoke about the barriers we must overcome to educate all children well, and the price society pays for not doing so. HCZ has proven that large numbers of poor children can achieve the American dream of selfsufficiency. Our cover story this month is about the effort by the Longwood Foundation, with the help of Bank of America, to transform a former Wilmington bank building into the Community Education Building, which will house four charter schools. The CEO hired to run the building, Aretha Miller, has worked with Geoffrey Canada and is setting the bar high for students to succeed.

Here’s how Canada opened: “So this is why I’m excited, but I’m angry. This year, there are going to be millions of our children that we’re going to needlessly lose, that we could—right now—we could save them all. Those of us in education have held on to a business plan that we don’t care how many millions of young people fail, we’re going to continue to do the same thing that didn’t work, and nobody is getting crazy about it, right? Enough is enough. So here’s a business plan that simply does not make any sense. I mean, every single year, it’s still the same approach, right? One size fits all. If you get it, fine, and if you don’t, tough luck. Just tough luck. Why haven’t we allowed innovation to happen? Do not tell me we can’t do better than this.” His talk should remind us that recent efforts at school reform, especially in Wilmington, must go further—and soon.

An interim report by the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee states that Wilmington schools are stymied in part by 40 years of stale policies and practices, and by a lack of cooperation—indeed, a culture of blame—among stakeholders. It also makes many good recommendations. Yet, the advisory committee, in some areas, seems to be clinging to the outdated plan Canada talks about. Isn’t enough enough? Though the advisory committee correctly points out that Wilmington is served by too many school districts, it argues that we should simply move Wilmington’s failing schools from the Christina district to the Red Clay district. In addition, the report calls for a moratorium on allowing new charter schools, even as Wilmington’s East Side Charter and others demonstrate their great benefit. Nearly 85 percent of East Side students come from low-income households, yet, in three years, the school has increased the number of students proficient in reading from 28 percent to 58 percent. And math proficiency increased from 37 percent to 63 percent, significantly narrowing the achievement gap. Three years.

Isn’t that what Vision 2015, in cooperation with all the stakeholders and millions in Race to the Top funding, wasn’t able to accomplish these past 10 years? The advisory committee should consider the innovative and successful models from across the country and here in Delaware. They are committed to an extremely powerful idea: Empowered educators (principals and teachers), not bureaucrats, should decide, and they should be held accountable for results. Government should regulate and monitor schools, not operate them; great schools should be allowed to replicate; failing schools should close or be transformed by new operators; and families should have diverse school choices. Empowering principals and teachers to create a culture of success and holding them accountable would allow us to consolidate our 19 school districts, saving administrative costs that could be spent on resources for schools. Our leaders need to act on the WEAC’s recommendations quickly—and with serious consideration for changing the governance model.

Robert Martinelli

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