Remarks by Paul Herdman, President & CEO, Rodel Foundation of Delaware
Good evening everyone. My name is Paul Herdman and I’m the president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. I also serve on the board of directors for The Partnership.
I’m up here tonight to present the John H. Taylor, Jr. Education Leadership Award—named after someone who I knew and respected ever since I came to Delaware—to another longtime friend and mentor, John Hollis.
John Taylor’s wife, Maria, and his son, John, are here with us today and helped us make this choice in partnership with the leadership of the Chamber and the Partnership, Inc board. In making this decision, we thought hard about the core attributes that John Taylor brought to his work. Two that stand out to me are, one, a deep and unwavering passion for kids, particularly those most in need, and two, integrity and universal respect from those on the front lines to the leaders of business and government.
As our group began reviewing the amazing candidates for this award, John Hollis fit these attributes to a tee.
For those of you in the audience who aren’t familiar with John Hollis’ body of work...
In 1974, John was approached by some leaders at the Seaford Dupont nylon plant, which was the world’s first and largest (at the time) nylon plant.
The bigwigs at Dupont wanted to tap into a national movement called the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering group, and the folks at the Seaford plant wanted to participate. John at the time was coaching and teaching science for the sons and daughters of the Dupont engineers, who all thought they needed an educator to advise and motivate these students.
So from relatively humble beginnings, MERIT was born, essentially as a science club aimed at local African American, Native American, and Latino children. MERIT stood for Minority Educational Regional Incentive Training. Their charge was clear: to help address the wide disparity between a roughly 25-percent local minority population, and the less than 1 percent of whom were matriculating into higher education in science and technical fields.
Now, John knew from his years as a coach, counselor, and teacher that if we wanted to inspire these children to higher education and beyond, he needed to develop the whole child, not just host them in a science club.
So John got to work utilizing his knowledge in motivational science to morph this science club into a total youth development program, helping countless young people with not only academic chops, but with motivation, goal-setting, time management, and more.
John understood that all students have the potential for greatness. And that sometimes, what they needed most was a picture of what that greatness could look like. Hence the importance of setting goals, and understanding the steps needed to reach those goals.
He did all this with an unflinching approach to STEM education (back before STEM was the buzzword it is now). MERIT kids were engaging in rigorous instruction met with fun activities that made science and engineering come alive. Stuff like engineering competitions with fighting robots or wind turbine design contests—often in partnerships with local employers.
John once told us that he thinks about MERIT as a place where the rubber meets the road. In other words, he doesn’t operate in theoreticals, but in action. He preaches family involvement, community activation, mentorship.
Not that he needs validation, but MERIT’s track record does just that. To date, 370 MERIT alumni have gone on to achieve a college degree, accounting for approximately 97% of its participants. Many return to volunteer, creating a strong alumni base, which has helped shape the evolution of the program. 14 MERIT students have gone onto Ivy League degrees. Around 30 have doctorates.
In addition to all his work with MERIT, John’s been deeply involved with DelTech, the Delaware Community Foundation, the Western Sussex Boys and Girls Club, and Nemours.
John has overseen MERIT for 42 years. And he’s done so through a lens of servant leadership and I know his faith has been foundational to how he approaches the work. Thanks to his guidance, hundreds of young people who needed a leg up have been inspired by his passion for engineering and math, and more. He has given his heart to the community and never asked for acknowledgement. I have every confidence that the namesake of this award, John H. Taylor, would have been honored to give him some of that recognition.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my honor to present the John H. Taylor, Jr. Education Leadership Award—to John Hollis!
by Matt Amis, Senior Communications Officer, Rodel Foundation
Ernie Dianastasis—perhaps more than ever—is eager to go back to school this fall.
The longtime business leader and education advocate serves as chairman of the Vision Coalition Leadership Team, a cadre of local influencers who work collaboratively and cooperatively to improve Delaware schools.
This month, the coalition releases Student Success 2025. Like its well-known predecessor, Vision 2015, Student Success 2025 is an ambitious 10-year plan designed to boost Delaware’s public education system to world-class status.
Delaware Business caught up with Dianastasis—who, when he’s not leading his CAI (Computer Aid, Inc.) global IT firm, also leads the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee—to talk about the plan and the vision for the future of Delaware schools.
Tell us about a little about Student Success 2025.
This is a 10-year vision for public education in Delaware. We started back in 2014 by asking a question: What are the skills and attributes that an educated Delawarean needs to have by the year 2025?—and worked backward from there to develop the strategies to achieve that vision. And we’re not just jumping straight to 2025—these are issues we can begin working on today.
The plan itself deals primarily with six core areas: quality early learning, personalized learning, postsecondary and career attainment, educator support, school funding, and governance. The thinking is, by aligning those six areas better, Delaware can build a more modern and seamless education system, and our kids can take advantage of that in numerous ways.
So whose vision is this, exactly?
The ideas in this report don’t come from me. They don’t come from the Department of Education. Over the last few years, our group talked and collaborated with more than 4,000 Delawareans—including 1,300 students. They reached out online, in surveys, at community meetings, cups of coffee—you name it. The people of Delaware told us where they think we need to go as a state. They told us their hopes for providing more social and emotional support for kids, and for more collaboration between families and schools. And the kids themselves said they wanted more real-life career experiences and flexibility in their school experience. We took the student input very seriously. They’re at the center of this whole thing.
We also called upon leading experts in Delaware, across the country, and around the world—to help inform our thinking.
This is a follow-up to Vision 2015. Did that plan work? Is this the sequel?
Vision 2015 came out in 2006, and since its release around 75 percent of its recommendations have been acted upon in Delaware. That includes higher academic standards overall, new investments in teacher prep programs, and huge increases in the number of children enrolled in high-quality early learning environments. We have more kids than ever taking and passing AP courses, taking foreign language immersion classes, applying to college, and participating in career pathways.
So, I’d say it has worked, but to be candid some things simply haven’t—like improvements to our funding system, and big shifts that we didn’t anticipate a decade ago, like the explosion of technology in our daily lives. When the community sees Student Success 2025, they will see that we looked to address those gaps and build on the foundation we started. There’s still so much more we can do to support our schools and our kids. We also need to remember that transforming a multi-century old system does not happen overnight. It is a multi-year journey with many phases. There is no finish line where we declare victory. Rather, it is a life-long commitment to excellence that we must all embrace.
What happens next? How do you transition the plan into action?
Well, we’ll officially release the report on September 16 at a special event at the Del Tech Dover campus, and from there, we’ll follow up with our Annual Conference on October 28, where we’ll try to reenergize Delawareans around these issues and keep the momentum going. From there, we’ll establish some dedicated implementation teams to dig in on putting these recommendations into practice. Some will be easier than others, and some of them are already underway. That said, at the end of the day, this is about results, so we are going to hold ourselves accountable by producing a report card on the progress we make every fall. We hope the Chamber and the community as a whole keeps the pressure on to make sure we collectively deliver on what we’ve promised. We all need to own this.
We haven’t seen a whole lot of harmony when it comes to education policy in Delaware lately. What makes this any different?
I think it goes back to the collaborative nature of the plan. At the end of the day, of course we will need political and legislative action to enact some of these recommendations. And we know the state is facing some major revenue issues. But the truth is, we aren’t all going to agree on everything. As a group, the coalition is committed to working on the 80 percent or more that we all agree on, and keep the work moving forward. We accept that there will be real disagreements on the margins, but we can’t let that slow us down.
And in fact, everyone in Delaware can play a part. You already have members of the business community energized around career pathways for students; you have all these wonderful family and community organizations providing support; you have school districts collaborating on things like personalized learning. There are already so many great things happening in pockets throughout Delaware, so our biggest challenge right now is connecting them all together across the state, and doing more of what works. Let’s focus on the things we already agree on, and work toward this vision for the future. It’s closer than we think.
For more info on Student Success 2025, visit www.visioncoalitionde.org.
James DeChene is the Chamber's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.