Interview with Daniel Walker

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee is joined by DelawareCAN’s new Executive Director Daniel Walker, who shares his vision for Delaware’s schools, the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the importance of getting in “good trouble.”


Marc Porter Magee: Well, we are back and I’m so excited to be able to talk with Daniel Walker today. Daniel is the new ED of DelawareCAN, although a longtime force for change within Delaware and at DelawareCAN. So I’m excited to dig in and talk all things Delaware. So welcome, Daniel.

Thanks, Marc. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to share about myself and what we’re doing here and where DelawareCAN is going to go. I’m excited to step into this role and continue fighting for the voices of families and students.

Awesome. So I thought we could start by just talking a little bit about your background. I think people are always interested, like where do advocates come from, what’s the experience they’re bringing to this work? So let us in a little bit on what brought you to this point of being an advocacy leader within Delaware?

Well I’m from Delaware. I’m a native Delawarean. Born and raised in Kent County. I’ve been able to live across the state in Sussex, Kent, and New Castle throughout my childhood and– post-college is when I moved to New Castle, but what really got me into advocacy is my experience. My childhood. What I saw happening around me and the conversations I had with people who, quite frankly, look like me. And I determined that we all sort of felt the same way. I got into advocacy or politics, I guess, for the first time volunteering on a city council race in Dover for my former Sunday School teacher. And she was running for city council and she said, “I need someone to help put out yard signs.” And anyone who remembers my mother in Dover knows she was the one that– the Walker kids would volunteer to do anything. So we volunteered to put out yard signs and as we were putting out yard signs, people were coming up to her and talking about issues they were facing in the community and what they wanted her to change and that was my first sort of segue into what can politics be. And it can be a force for good. It can be a force to change the lives of people and that always stuck in the back of my mind. And as I got older and I progressed, I ended up going to Campus Community Charter School, where were supposed to do a community-facing project. And I chose to do drunk driving around prom year. That really solidified my bond with the community because I got to go and present at different areas. How did I end up in education advocacy? It wasn’t a straight trajectory. I started doing criminal justice advocacy at first. I worked for the Delaware House of Representatives for some time, where I got involved with education and labor policy. But primarily I got involved with education advocacy because I saw the conversations that us adults were having about what we thought best for children and families weren’t the things that I was hearing on the weekend or from my friends who had kids and what they thought was best for their student to learn. And so when DelawareCAN started, I found this as the perfect opportunity to put my passion for education, my passion for the community and service, and my passion for just building Delaware to be better and sort of put it all in one and take that and run with it. So that’s why I came on board in January of 2017 when we launched and why I continue to serve at DelawareCAN, is to fulfill that mission of uplifting family voices in our education policy discussions.

So help us understand Delaware. I think people have different understandings of what Delaware is all about. You and I have talked about the Delaware way, there’s a certain small town-ness to the state, but it’s also a diverse state with a lot of different elements into it. Kind of a microcosm of the US. So help us understand, what’s Delaware all about? Why does it need education advocacy right now?

Yeah, so Delaware was deemed the Small Wonder State. Now we’re the State of Endless Discoveries. But the Delaware way is real. And it’s good and it has bad to it. We do expect, and we were joking about this before, but we do expect for our governor or lieutenant governor or United States senator to say hi when we see them in our local Wawa. We have less than a million people here, so it’s pretty– I’m pretty confident that most people know their neighbors and certainly I did when I was growing up. But the Delaware way is– it has good and bad, as I stated. The good is, we have the ability to get everyone in the room and have hard-hitting conversations. We have the ability to get all of our superintendents, most of our school principals in a room. We have the ability to get business leaders and grassroots leaders to come together and have conversations. And to get our elected officials to partake in those conversations. And if I’m being honest, Marc, they expect to be in those conversations. They expect to be included because of the way we position ourselves. The bad, however, in my opinion, is Delaware, we’re sometimes slow to change. And a part of that is because we are a state of neighbors. And so we don’t want– people often don’t want to step on toes, if you will. They don’t want to upset the pastor’s daughter who may happen to be the teacher and they don’t want to hear about it on Sunday, right? They don’t want to upset the business owner who makes their coffee in the morning and things like that. So sometimes we are a little slow to change, which is definitely not good for students and gets into the way of progress. And more recently, we have seen people in Delaware call out the Delaware way for those downsides and in some cases, rightly so, in my personal opinion. But just like in other places, our political parties are fracturing here. And the politics of not just education but of everything are beginning to splinter and if you don’t pay close attention to it, you’re not sure how to engage in one process or another, then you’ll catch yourself, as my mom likes to say, on the outside looking in, in many ways. And it’s our job and what we strive to do at DelawareCAN, is to make sure that as many families and what we call everyday Delawareans are included in those conversations that are happening. Because we know the vital importance of community voice on the front end and not just on the back end. And that’s where our focus is. So sometimes we have to go up against the Delaware way. Sometimes we have to push buttons and be agitators but it’s all for the good of progress and for the sake of our students.

And it seems like that’s been one of the hallmark of your leadership and the DelawareCAN model is bringing people into the conversation and figuring out ways to make this whole process more democratic, more transparent, as we talk about education policy. I imagine that’s been particularly important but also particularly challenging in this era of COVID-19. When the schools shut down, trying to bring parent voices in at a time when it’s really difficult to gather people together. I wonder if you could talk about that.

Yeah. We think difficulty, certainly. And we’ve had to adjust how we do our own work at DelawareCAN when COVID-19 first started, as I’m sure a lot of people did. As our schools did, right? We quickly shifted everything to online. We quickly started offering support calls for parents and students and advocates across the state. Understanding we have an education focus, but what we saw around COVID-19 was that people were hyper-focused on the issues of today. And one can assume when you’re home and you can’t go anywhere, you have more time to pay attention and to be aware. And I think that played a role in it, most definitely. But I think the other part that was important is the fact that parents are now immersed, in a good way, in their child’s learning. And they see, in many cases, from the parents I talked to, they see the inequities in the school system or they see the gaps in their expectation versus what was actually happening at the school. Perfect example is, I have a couple friends who never even talked to their child’s teacher, all of COVID, one on one over the phone. They’ve asked for phone meetings, they didn’t happen. Right? I’m not sure why, but this is just one story of many that I have seen. We also know that Delaware’s grappling, like many states, with reopening. And what does that look like? We have 19 school districts in Delaware, so we don’t have a lot. We have 22 charter schools in Delaware. And it’s a very small state. And we have the ability, if we want it, to innovate and to do great things. But in Delaware, we are starting to see this status quo mentality that has always been around trying rise up again in this new normal. Where we have been pushing people to go to us to say that school’s not going to look the same in any form when we return. I think we were one of the first to sort of sound the alarm on that. Certainly optimistic that we would be able to return to school. But what we know as a reality is, it’s not going to look the same. And if we still approach it as if it is going to look the same, the only people that are going to be not served well are our students. And we have to, in Delaware, think about the advantage of our small size and the advantage of our history to say, “How can we do this different but how can we also do this better?” And that’s where we’re trying to push people now. That’s where our parents and students are trying to push people now. And it’s not just on conversations of reopening, Marc. I’m sure you’re aware there’s a lot of heightened racial tension right now and there’s conversations around what does equity and diversity and inclusion really look like in our schools and that falls into reopening. If we’re going to reopen, we have to be open from a lens of equity, which could require us to do things differently than we’ve done before.

Absolutely. And I know you and the team have been at the forefront of raising the issue of equity in education in Delaware, which is only been exacerbated by the school shutdown. So what do you think it’s going to take for Delaware to emerge as that model of overcoming these difficulties and pointing the way forward? And what are a couple things you are planning to take on as you look towards the upcoming school year?

Yeah, well, I definitely think Delaware can be the model. I think we– we’re the first state and we like to own that. We are the first state and we tell them, let’s not be first to follow, let’s be first to lead. And so I think we can do it. When we look at what Delaware can and should be doing, one is we should– and they’ve already made a step in this direction, but we have to make equity the cornerstone of how we approach education. They just launched a new office at the Department of Education. We’ve been pretty critical that it just can’t be a title change but they have to have resources and explicit authority to do their job and to do it well. We have to move away from this idea that accountability isn’t important. That it doesn’t matter. And that our state agency, our department of ed, in my opinion, really has one job and that is to make sure that everyone throughout the state, school boards and individual schools, are doing their jobs well while also being there to help support and get them to be better, right? I’m not saying that their only function is accountability, but I’m saying that they can be doing more. They position themselves as a support agency, which supports are necessary, but if you’re not holding anyone accountable and helping them see where they could be going and what’s possible, then you’re not unlocking your full potential as a department, right? Or as a state agency who has access to best knowledge and all these resources. Delaware has to think differently. When you talk about equity, and I really want to talk about equity in school reopening here is, if we know school’s not going to look the same, then our models can’t look the same. And I don’t have all the answers yet, but when we talk about equity, we need to talk about flexibility and personnel and what that looks like. And staffing. We need to talk about flexibility in funding, something that we’ve been fighting for at DelawareCAN for a long time. That the dollars actually follow the students and that they’re allocated in a way that go to students with most need. You need to talk about the ability to innovate and try new things. If we know that not every student is going to be able return to school, how do we unearth those students who may need the more intensive support, the more one-on-one support, and how do we get them in front of expert educators? The sad reality is, there are studies out here suggesting that kids of color are losing between 7 to 10 months of learning because of this. And when you think about the fact that many of these students have already been behind in their achievement. You start to realize that if we want to even catch them up to grade level or make sure we mitigate any learning loss, that we need that intensive support for a lot of students. Quality matters. Talent matters. And the training of our educators matters. And most of all, I tell folks, we’re going to be remote some way or another. We need to close the digital divide in Delaware. We need to make sure that all of our students are online and have technology to be successful and to participate in their schooling. And if not, we can’t wait because our students can’t wait. We have to be willing to make some drastic decisions.

It’s a lot of work. It’s a full plate, but I’m so glad that we have you in the role leading the way forward. So thank you, Daniel, for making a little time in your first couple weeks as the new ED of DelawareCAN to let us in on your world and maybe just to close, I’d love to know how we can follow along as you’re doing this work.

Yeah. So you can always sign up for those of you who are watching, sign up for our DelawareCAN newsletter, follow us on Facebook at DelawareCAN, the Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, but most of all for people here in Delaware, we want you to share your opinions and your thoughts with us. We want to know how are your schools engaging you, if at all? How are you engaging with your schools? What do you believe makes a great education system? I don’t make policies in a bubble. I tell folks and I’ll end on this, DelawareCAN started with 150 conversations across the state of Delaware. Since we’ve launched, I’ve averaged over 200 conversations a year with parents, students, and educators, and we hope to continue and my plan is to continue doing that. To unearth what families and community residents are thinking about our education system and help them fight for the changes they want to see. As congressman John Lewis said, “We have to get in some good trouble” and I’m prepared to get in good trouble.

Very good. Thank you, Daniel. Thanks for making time.

Thanks, Marc.

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