It’s Time … for Wilmington’s Schools

Photo of Paul Heardman, a white older man in a dark colored suit.

#ItsTimeWilmDE Stories series is a collection of submitted stories written by individuals like you. Below is a submission from Paul Herdman, President of Rodel.

 

When I was moving here from Bethesda with my family 15 years ago, the not-so-subtle recommendation from my new neighbors was that my three kids would be better off going to private school or perhaps “living across the line” in Pennsylvania.

At the time, about 20 percent of Delaware’s children were attending our private schools, which is roughly twice the national average.

 

Today, that percentage has been cut in half. That is, one in 10 attend private school, and about 90 percent of Delaware’s children now attend public school, about on par with the nation. The question is, “why?”

The shift in our schools parallels the evolution of Wilmington. When I first moved to the city, folks told me that there was nothing to do here. They consoled me by saying we were only 30 minutes from Philly and 90 from D.C. or New York. I love those cities, but I soon found that I didn’t need to drive half an hour to get great food or music. I could walk to downtown, and I love it. Yet, despite the fact that the music and arts venues grew stronger and new restaurants and residential properties started to emerge, some of those same neighbors are still hesitant to go to Market Street. Deep perceptions die hard.

Before changing perceptions of our public schools, we need to understand why those perceptions came to be. For more than 20 years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Delaware resisted various court orders to desegregate New Castle County schools. Many families—black and white—became disillusioned with the new busing plan that took city kids into suburban schools for most grades. Over the years, the majority of students at traditional public schools in the city lived in poverty. Today still many live in neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates, high rates of violent crime, and incarceration.

We should not be able to predict how a child’s life will turn out based on their zip code. We have a moral obligation to square up to the deep policy issues informed by historical inequities of race and class in our city. We need to confront and address how we fund and govern our schools, and we need to build more cross-sector partnerships like Reach Riverside, that is holistically working to improve housing, health, and education.

Couple this history and reality with a social media engine that thrives on clickbait and sensationalism, and it’s easy to see how a negative perception might be hard to shake.

So why then, despite this negative perception, are over 13,000 more Delaware children now choosing to attend Delaware’s public schools today than they were just a decade ago?
I believe there are three reasons: cost, quality, and choice.
The economic downturn in 2008 likely caused many families, particularly middle- and lower-income families, to take a second look at a public school option when it might save them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the span of 13 years; a sum that could go a long way toward college down the road.

On quality, while there are still serious inequities we need to address in our schools, there have been some big positive shifts in our schools over the last decade.

We are now providing over 10,000 of our earliest learners with strong early childhood experience, nearly a 50% increase from a decade ago, and systems are now in place to continue improving quality year over year.

Our high school graduation rates and college-going rates are at historic highs; many more are taking college-level courses while still in high school, and through state-funded scholarship programs, they can attend the first two years of college for free.

12,000 students are now in exciting, new, career pathways that give them a taste of meaningful work experience, access to college credits and national certifications. This initiative is on track to grow to 20,000 or half of all high schoolers by 2020. And youth unemployment has dropped over 40 percent in the last decade.

 

And finally, I believe more people are coming back to our public schools because they have more great options. These take the form of exciting new approaches, magnet schools within districts, and two dozen new charter schools. The last two decades of innovation have given our public school students everything from International Baccalaureate programs, Montessori approaches, language immersion options from Mandarin to Spanish, outstanding arts programs from dance to the visual arts, deep focus on STEM to design thinking, and pathways to great careers in everything from agriculture and healthcare to engineering and the culinary arts. In many cases, these schools are not only full but have hundreds on waiting lists.

We still have work to do, but just like downtown Wilmington, our schools have changed. The early adopters across the state in the tens of thousands have already started making that choice. I encourage those that are looking to move to Delaware, and those realtors and human resource directors who may be informing those decisions, to take another look at our public schools. For those looking to work downtown and live in northern New Castle County, we have more great public school options than we’ve ever had.

And just like downtown itself, our schools aren’t all going to change overnight, but the tide is shifting. It’s time.

Paul Herdman is the President of Rodel, a nonprofit committed to helping Delaware become a global leader in education. He and his wife live in Wilmington and they have three kids who have had a great experience in our public schools.

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