Dr. Vilicia Cade returned to Delaware in July 2021 as the Capital School District’s new superintendent in the middle of its most ambitious and visionary project: a $100 million-plus, two-building middle school consolidation. As Delaware’s only Black female superintendent and one of just three female superintendents in the state (along with Charity Phillips in Delmar and Dr. Amelia Hodges at Polytech), Cade had the opportunity to offer a new standard for leadership in the Capital School District. And that is exactly what she has done.
Through all that, she’s implementing an ambitious agenda. By the end of December 2022, Cade aims to have her “Senators Grow” leadership and community outreach program up and running; her leadership team stabilized; planning for the new interconnected middle schools (the centerpiece of a planned restructuring of the district) finalized; and a strategic planning process launched.
Cade is finding a delicate balance between the day-to-day responsibilities of the job and sharing her vision for what can be with staff, parents and the community.
“The district needs to galvanize the community to start hearing the voices of what people want to see, including how the new middle schools are going to operate, what it’s going to look like, and who the leaders are going to be when we’re done reconfiguring the district,” she says.
She also hopes to address a problem that emerged in school districts across the country during the pandemic: bus driver shortages.
“I am looking at allowing my custodians, my food nutritional people, and some of the other staff to get their CDL licenses at Del Tech’s Georgetown campus so they can drive buses,” she says. “We could stagger their schedules and, allow some to supplement their income. This would require collective bargaining agreements with those respective unions, and we’ve started to have those discussions.”
This is Cade’s second go-round in Delaware. She’s a self-described New York City transplant who moved here in 2009 to be closer to family and friends living up and down the East Coast. She started her career in 1989 in the New York City Schools as a teacher, curriculum writer and administrator. She also served as director of high school curriculum and standards-based instruction for the Chicago Public Schools and as an elementary-school principal in a Chicago suburb.
“The stars got aligned, so it was very natural for me to come back,” she says, noting that the 6,300-student Capital district was significantly larger than the 3,700-student she was about to lead in Ohio.
She made a smooth transition in developing a statewide lifestyle.
“I found a great restaurant in Milford called Benvenuto’s. You walk in there and you feel like you’re in Italy,” she says with a broad smile. “I like to walk along the waterfront in Wilmington. And I love Rehoboth Beach – the shopping, the beach, the great food. Rehoboth reminds me a lot of Soho Manhattan. I also love coming down North State Street in Dover to that water area by Silver Lake. It’s just so beautiful and calming. And sometimes if I just want to grab some wings and get a good look at the water, I’ll go to McGlynn’s.”
Cade believes the most important thing that districts do in K-12 education is help young people – and their families – secure their post-secondary plans, whether it’s helping them be successful in college or in the workforce, such as with the Dover area’s manufacturing and advanced manufacturing businesses.
“We can help our students understand the intersection of technology and its evolving role in our world and how we do business,” she says. “I want to develop more internships, more work-based experience opportunities for our students. It is a big deal to live in the capital of your state. I see opportunities with workforce development, but I believe our young people also need to learn more about legislation and what legislators do.”
At the heart of her vision are five priorities – care, communications, community, continuous improvement, capacity – and three cornerstones to the district’s adopted 2022 core values. These are “Excellence Through Equity,” “Unity Through Love” and “Leadership Through Inclusiveness.”
The district will have a new look once the new $111 million two-building middle school opens in August 2023 with 1,600 students. The interconnected facilities are being built on the site of the old Dover High School. Officials didn’t want to have a school on one side of the district with one set of programs and another school elsewhere in the district with a different set of programs.
The two schools will share spaces like the auditorium, cafeteria, gyms and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. As part of the plan, the district will reconfigure grade levels so it has true middle schools for Grades 6-8.
“In education, how we organize learning is critical to improving student outcomes,” Cade says. “With the reconfiguration, we’ll have more time to work with middle school students at their social-emotional level and their academic level. It’s very hard to impact student achievement when kids are changing schools every two years. The research says middle school models that yield the best academic outcomes include sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Under the current structure, we’re only starting to know them, and then they leave.”
Cade believes the changes will help the district realize its potential and make it more attractive for companies and families that want to live in Central Delaware.
“People buy homes based on the quality of the school district, and higher education institutions are looking for us to send them students who are ready to meet the demands of college,” she says. “If a company is thinking about moving to Delaware – or even moving out of Delaware – the conversations could be different if we have kids able to do internships or parent programs that enable them to get entry-level positions.
“Kent County business leaders like Shelly Cecchett and Linda Parkowski have a vision for Central Delaware, and everybody’s there. I’m very fortunate to have a seat at the table with the other districts. We’re developing a holistic vision for understanding how to fit the puzzle pieces together to yield the best outcomes for the people we serve here in Central Delaware.”
Beyond the attraction of returning to Delaware, Cade says she’s been humbled by the support she’s received from people across Central Delaware, including her fellow Kent County superintendents, who meet every Friday. This support, she says, has solidified her belief that she’s “supposed to be here for this time, for this season, to do this work.”
Cade already is launching initiatives like the Superintendent’s Ladies Network, which is a mentorship program. She has reached out to her female staff and proposed starting with the high school girls and then looking at the middle school and the elementary schools.
“We can talk about women in leadership and lean in on what executive leadership looks like,” she says. “We can help them aspire to that. Because we understand what it’s like to be a 16-year-old girl.”
Cade says being the state’s only female superintendent of color carries great responsibility.
“When the kids see me, their facial expressions change,” she says. “I’ve had two students email through Schoology and say, ‘I’m just so proud to see you as a Black woman. You remind me of my mother, you remind me of my grandmother.’ It does make a difference when the little girls’ eyes light up when they see me.”