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Building Bridges: New DelawareCAN executive director aims to reshape education system

DOVER — Daniel Walker has always had an interest in education policy and has long believed that education is the great equalizer — if done well.

It was that interest that drew him to the Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now and its goal of giving voices to students and parents when policymakers come to decisions.

“I just saw a gap between what my community was telling me they needed and what our decision-makers were saying was best, particularly for communities of color, for low-income communities,” he said.

Before he became involved with DelawareCAN in January 2017, Mr. Walker worked in the state’s House of Representatives for the vice chairperson of the Education Committee, Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport.

“There was no way I could work for her and not get some of her passion,” he noted.

He also worked for the chairperson of the Labor Committee, now-retired Rep. Mike Mulrooney, and saw how labor policy influenced Delaware’s education system.

Dan Walker

The real impetus for him joining DelawareCAN, however, was his Delaware roots and his experience in the education system as a student.

“I was mainly educated in the Capital School District. But my family experienced extreme bursts of homelessness, which led to me transferring to Smyrna High School and then again transferring to Campus Community Charter School,” he said. “I am unique in the sense that I went to three different high schools, so that gave me a lot of perspective when I was younger in seeing the gaps and inequities in the system from one district to another, from one school to another.”

Beginning this week, Mr. Walker, 28, stepped into the role of executive director for DelawareCAN. In his earlier time with the nonprofit, much of his work has been leading legislative engagement and interaction.

He pointed to the organization’s Youth Advocacy Council, which developed “Represented” — a report card aimed at increasing teacher diversity in the state in 2018. Through the report, the group found where aspiring educators of color were having difficulty getting into the field and identified recommendations to challenge those obstacles.

DelawareCAN also pushed for Senate Bill 172 — signed in 2018 — to increase transparency of education funding.

“From that lens, we were trying to expose the inequities in our funding. We inherently believe that our funding system in Delaware — and this is a very strong word, but rightfully so — our funding system in Delaware is extremely racist,” he said.

He noted that schools with the larger gaps in proficiencies and performance need not necessarily more resources, but an “equitable distribution of resources,” he said.

“We need to know where the money is going first and foremost, so we pushed for that narrative to ensure that the community has insight into how our schools are funded,” he said.

There are the other initiatives that DelawareCAN advocated that weren’t necessarily successful — like an educator loan forgiveness program specifically for teachers of color.

“We’ve pushed on a number of fronts, some of them successfully, some of them not successfully, but still firmly believe that equity has to be at the core of our education system, and equity is not removed from academic outcomes,” he said. “We cannot believe one subgroup of students inherently performed better than another subgroup of students. In order to look at equity, we have to make sure equity in outcome is also at the forefront.”

The whole staff at DelawareCAN, Mr. Walker said, are people of color.

“This is all personal to us. These are things that we have lived,” he said, recalling marching in Dover as a young boy when his cousin, Reginald Hannah, died while in police custody in 2001.

As the tension between Black people and the police is not new, he added, educational equity for Black people is also not a recent issue.

“And we have been proactive in many of the discussions about proposing policy that may not even see the light of day, unfortunately, from a legislative perspective,” he said.

Through its initiatives, the group keeps students involved because, simply put, they know what’s working and what’s not working, he said.

“I inherently believe the student voice is a valuable but missing key from a lot of our discussion across the state,” he said.

He noted that, while people may not like to use business terminology for education, education makes up one-third of the budget and students act as a consumer for what is being produced, from school calendars and policies to “anything you can think of when you think of education,” he said.

And the students are aware of the inequalities.

“The only people who take time to catch up to these inequities are the adults,” he said. “So, if we involve students on the front end, we won’t have this massive delay in correcting systems that aren’t working for everybody.”

The work continues, in the midst of the protests nationwide and the inequities exemplified by remote learning during COVID-19 closures. With the state Department of Education rolling out a new name for one of its offices — what was once the Office of Innovation and Improvement is now called the Office of Equity and Innovation — Mr. Walker wants it to be more than a “cosmetic change.”

“What we find is that without a demand and without increased pressure, then the status quo remains. … We need to make sure that everyone has an understanding of what equity means in education,” he said.

“I tell people all the time, one of my favorite Malcolm X quotes, is ‘If you want something, you’ve got to make some noise.’ And what we see is that they have reacted to very loud and appropriate calls. But I implore people to keep that same energy, because if you let go, then things will remain the same.”

This article has been updated to reflect the correct senate bill number.