If there was a theme that reverberated in the 150 interviews Atnre Alleyne conducted last year about Delaware's education system, it was the perception that only the insiders have their thumb "heavy on the scales of decisions."
"So I wanted to know, how do we make sure that parent or small business owner that cares about education "¦ how do we amplify their voices?" said Alleyne.
In January, under the national organization 50CAN (Campaign for Achievement Now), Alleyne launched DelawareCAN, a Wilmington-based nonprofit that works to empower, mobilize and collaborate with everyday Delawareans to advocate for excellent education for all kids, according to Alleyne.
Delaware is the 10th state to launch within the 50CAN advocacy network.
"We engage anyone and everyone," said Alleyne, from the organization's office at 1313 Innovation. "Our work is: How do we make sure the Delaware public school system is getting where it needs to be."
The answer, according to the DelawareCAN mission, begins with outreach, education, and grassroots engagement of Delaware residents, business leaders and educators on matters of policy and legislation.
Here's the thinking behind that action: Educate them and they'll engage. Recruit them by explaining the issues. Then encourage them to advocate as a unified voice.
One of their first opportunities was to weigh in on the Department of Education's proposed 5-star rating system that is part of the Department of Education's new plan to meet federal guidelines of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
"I heard many people say we need more transparent information about schools when
I did my listening tour," said Alleyne.
"That's why it became one of DelawareCAN's priorities this year. There are also some national reports that suggest Delaware isn't providing the right information."
To help engage others, the DelawareCAN team conducted workshops for parents on assessing school quality.
"During the workshop we did a scavenger hunt for Delaware's official school report cards. Most struggled to find and make sense of the report cards. This confirmed the need for our advocacy and we engaged many of those parents in our letter writing campaign to the Department of Education," said Alleyne, who supports the rating system as a transparent tool for parents. "It can't be what it is now. It's not meaningful to them - it's a dump of information."
The organization mobilized more than 50 Delawareans -- including top business leaders, parents, community leaders, and others "“ to send letters to the DOE, and brought people to the legislature so they could speak with their legislators.
"For some, it was their first time down to the legislature," said Alleyne.
Former state representative Darryl Scott joined DelawareCAN's board last year. A former chair of the Education Committee and member of the Capital School District Board of Education, Scott said advocating on behalf of students and parents is key, and he's seen how effective a few organized voices can be.
"We want to educate parents and students about change that they should be aware of and engaged in and help mobilize their voice," said Ward. "Believe me, it doesn't take a thousand. I've seen a dozen people influence an make and impact."
But ensuring that Delawareans have a handle on the issues, the players, and the numbers, is no small task. Visitors to the website can test their knowledge through a quiz: "How much do you know about Delaware Education," or scroll through Alleyne's many blog posts about issues that range from the five-star rating system, to a charge to Delawareans to stop "adulting" and start acting. They can also find out how to contact their legislators.
Alleyne is no stranger to education, or policy. A native of Camden, New Jersey, he attended parochial school, then boarding school in Ghana. A confessed "data nerd," he is founder of college prep organization TeenSHARP which helps prepare low-income and minority students for top colleges.
He came to Delaware in 2012 as a research for the Delaware DOE and worked there for four years leading policy and research efforts related to college access, before leaving to be a fellow with 50Can. Having shaped policy as a state worker, he said he grew familiar and frustrated with the process.
"I was often the only person of color in the room," said Alleyne, who added that the voices of low-income families were not well represented. "A lot of times I felt the policies didn't get us to a place that was community- and student-centered."
Other DelawareCAN board members include Rod Ward, president of Corporation Services Company, and former Delaware State Education Association President Diane Donahue.
With existing organizations like The Rodel Foundation of Delaware, the non-profit focused on policy and seed funding toward better schools, Alleyne said there's room at the table for everyone, although DelawareCAN is a "full stack shop."
"Yes, we're lean on the ground here but we have national support for policy and research. I can do research and communications and we have a state outreach manager talking to people every day."
"We need parents, communities and students to have a voice in the process and that's what he's trying to do," said Rodel President and CEO Paul Herdman. "It's great - oftentimes parents don't know how to have a voice in the process. They don't feel like they understand the issues but Alleyne is committed to putting the time in creating that grass-roots connection."
"There have been a lot of efforts but they don't all have the research strength," said Alleyne. "We come unapologetically student-centered, knowing that there are complicated policy nuances but we are deeply embedded in the community."