October 24, 2001

Enrollment at P.S. du Pont school will consist of more than 90% black students under the two more conventional of three Neighborhood Schools Act plans being considered by the Brandywine school board. Harlan will come close to that proportion and white students will account for similar shares of enrollments at Brandywood, Carrcroft, Forwood and Lombardy.

Although racially identifiable schools have been cited since before its enactment as one expected result of the law, specific racial composition projections in the Brandywine district were disclosed and discussed in public for the first time on Oct. 23 as more than 200 residents turned out and used a public hearing on the pending plans to voice strong objections to the controversial law and call for its modification or repeal. No one spoke in support of the law and several of those who opposed it drew applause with their remarks.

One woman attender -- those who spoke were not asked to identify themselves and most did not -- called for a show of hands indicating those in the audience who were related to children attending Brandywine schools. Most hands were raised. She then asked who favored the neighborhood school concept as expressed in the law. No hands went up.

With reference to racial diversity, Concord High School student Jessica Blum said, "It took a generation to get where we are now. You don't want to take us back." Classmate Kate Bradley, who identified by name several school friends of different racial, ethnic and religion backgrounds whom she said she would not have met were the school's population not diverse and said she wanted her one-year-old sister to have the same experience, wore a teeshirt with the slogan '2-4-6-8 We don't want to segregate'.

The girls said that 175 Concord seniors voted 96% in favor of keeping the status quo with regard to district attendance zones and school assignments.

That position was advocated by a newly formed group which greeted people arriving at the hearing with a display of posters. Lynn Kielhorn, a parent who acted as spokesperson for what she described as an ad hoc grassroots organization, said its purpose is to use a second question on the ballot when the public votes on the plans on Oct. 30 as "a way to send a message to our legislators" about dissatisfaction with the law.

She said the group has arranged media coverage and will otherwise campaign to get a large number of voters out to the polls. The Brandywine board has said it will accept the results and forward the favored plan to the state Board of Education if the preference among the plans is clear and if 10,000 or more people vote.

Kielhorn said it is questionable whether a 16-page tabloid newspaper-size flyer published and distributed by the district will be effective in enabling voters to fully understand the plans. "All the information is there. Those who read it will understand, but I wonder how many will take the time to read and study it," she said. All residents age 18 and older are eligible to vote whether or not they are property owners or registered to vote in general elections.

The more conventional plans call for attendance zones based either on postal zip codes or the geometric midpoints of the areas between pairs of schools. The third plan is to establish an academically intense 'magnet' school on a city campus combining P.S. and Harlan with a high school component at Mount Pleasant High. The latter would have a more diverse student population if district assumptions that half the children who live in the city and about 50 from each suburban school zone elect to go there. Assistant superintendent Donald Fantine told the hearing, however, that estimate  is "simply a guess on our part."

It was clear from the posters and comments by participants in the demonstration that the group's focus is on the second question on the ballot -- whether the voter prefers the plan he or she selects or would like to see the present student assignment scheme and grade configuration kept. Board members and district officials have acknowledged that the board has no power to keep things as they are so long as the law mandating change is on the books. There is a disclaimer on the ballot to that effect. There is no provision for plebiscites in Delaware law or constitution.

But, board president Nancy Doorey told the hearing, "it is important that we know how the community feels" while planning for whatever the future holds.  "If 80% favor neighborhood schools, we have to know that," she said.

State Representative Wayne Smith, who was primary sponsor of the law and the driving force behind its enactment and who attended the hearing but did not speak, said afterwards that he considers it obvious that the board and district are "doing everything they can to try to steer results of the referendum to a negative assessment regarding neighborhood schools." He added that he still believes that "80% of the community wants neighborhood schools."

Smith said the district's flyer was, in parts, "incomplete and misleading." He objected specifically to a page in it quoting outside 'experts' on the ill effects of 'high poverty' schools. Smith said his own interviews with current officials of Norfolk, Va., public schools, the first system in the country to move from court-ordered busing to achieve racial integration to neighborhood schools, directly contradicted claims by a former Norfolk school official, now associate superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., district, that education went down hill from there. Smith said three such schools in Norfolk, two of which draw students only from public housing projects, achieved state accreditation well ahead of schedule and that the district as a whole has shown greater academic improvement than any other district in the state.

Several other Brandywine Hundred legislators were present, but they did not participate in the hearing either.

One elected official who did participate was Theodore Blunt, president of Wilmington City Council. He carried a poster and stood in the greeting line, explaining that he was doing so as the grandparent of three Brandywine district students. "We need to focus more on educating kids. That should be our biggest effort," he said.

Fantine also told the hearing that, had the plan been implemented in September, 2000, half of the district's 10,820 students then enrolled would have been displaced. The district is using enrollment data from that date -- the latest that official figures were available when work on the plans began -- to determine attendance zones in relation to school capacities with the proviso that there will likely have to be some adjustments when the plan that is adopted goes into effect on or after September, 2003.Fantine said, however, that those adjustments will not be major.

He also said the district is moving ahead with plans to renovate the Harlan as the first project in its approved building renovation and modernization program.

Racial implications of realigning attendance zones came through strongly at the hearing." The [state] law cannot be contrary to the law of the land," said one attendee, a black man who identified himself as a lawyer and suburban resident.

Also reference was the number of nominally Brandywine students who attend charter and private schools. "You don't see those people worrying about how they get [their children] there," a woman remarked, indicating she felt building conditions and the quality of education are more significant than busing.

A Concord student who said he chose to attend a Brandywine district school although he lives in the Red Clay school district, said he felt district schools are "a lot better" than what he had experienced previously in Maine and elsewhere.

Asked if the district has the resources to provide for the needs of high concentrations of economically poor students in some schools, Fantine replied that it "has to work with finite resources [and] if you spend it in one place you have to take it from another place." The attender who raised the point said he regards it as apparent that the district "will either have to cut back on education or raise taxes."

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Ante for neighborhood schools upped
Read the  Brandywine School District's projections on schools' racial composition
Go to the Brandywine School District Web site.





get this gear!