November 6, 2001

The Brandywine school board selected a Neighborhood Schools Act plan to submit to the state Board of Education, but asked that it be rejected because it will cause "substantial hardship" to the district, its schools and families.

That convoluted approach, discussion at a special meeting of the board on Nov. 5 indicated, enabled the district to comply with a law which board members, district administrators, most of its teachers and staff and, apparently 68.5% of its residents think is a bad deal while, at the same time, making a strong bid to maintain the stats quo on school configuration and student assignments.

All seven board members denounced the law during comments before the vote, but only two of them voted against forwarding a student assignment plan based largely on postal zip codes.

"We are required to submit a plan. If we do not submit a plan, we are in violation of the law. We have no right to violate the law and subject this district to litigation," said Janice Tunell. In a side comment, board president Nancy Doorey remarked, "We will have litigation if we implement [the plan]."

"We are going against the will of our community. Let Dover come in and impose a plan if they will. ... We should tell them we want to concentrate on education and not rearranging the deck chairs," said Ralph Ackerman, who was joined by Thomas Lapinski in opposing placing the zip code proposal before state officials.

Ackerman said that, although he originally supported the idea of returning to traditional kindergarten-through-fifth or -sixth grade elementary schools as the law requires, he now favors keeping the present Brandywine intermediate schools and perhaps adding a fourth one. That would enable it to continue to mingle students living in the city of Wilmington and those living in the suburbs in an arrangement comparable to what prevailed during the years the district was under federal court supervision in the racial desegregation case.

While superintendent Bruce Harter and the majority of the board were allied with Tunell's position -- albeit reluctantly -- they made it clear that their preference lies with rejecting the controversial law. Its most outspoken critic since before passage by the General Assembly in 2000, the district was supported in that position by an intense media campaign and more than two-thirds of the some 6,000 voters who turned out for an unprecedented-in-Delaware -- and therefore nonbinding -- plebiscite on the issue on Oct. 30.

What will happen next is uncertain. The four northern New Castle County school districts are required to send plans to the state board on or before Nov. 15. Harter is scheduled to appear at a special meeting of that board on Nov. 27 to make Brandywine's presentation. Red Clay's plan also will be presented that day. Ann Case, policy analyst for the state board, told Delaforum that a timetable beyond that is not yet in place. Earlier she had said that a final decision on the plans could come as soon as the end of the year, but with some legislators publicly wavering on whether they continue to support the law as it now stands, there are indications a politically savvy state board might delay until after the Assembly reconvenes in January.

Although the Brandywine board did not vote -- as a few observers thought it might --  to submit its present arrangement as its proposed plan, its counterparts in the Colonial and Red Clay districts have done just that. The difference is that, unlike those other districts, Brandywine would thus totally ignore the law's closest-to-home provision for student assignments. Red Clay would continue using the public school choice system to make assignments while assigning students who did not make a choice to the school closest to their homes which has available space after the choices are granted. Colonial has had in place a student assignment plan based on closest schools.  The issue is totally up in the air in the Christina district where the board is at odds with its Neighborhood Schools Act committee and the vocal parents organization which in large measure provided the impetus for enacting the law in the first place. Alone among the four districts, Christina is not contiguous with Wilmington.

The law provides that districts which have their plan rejected come up with a new plan within 60 days. After that the matter is to be referred to the attorney general who is empowered to seek a remedy, presumably civil, in court.

Harter recommended that, in addition to submitting the zip code plan, that Brandywine also present its current attendance zones and feeder patterns "as the plan that best meets the criteria in [the law] that the plan be 'fair and equitable'." The present arrangement also would avoid creating a 'substantial hardship' which the law provides would be a reason for not assigning students to the schools closest to their homes, he said.

Unfairness, he said, lies in the fact that educational research shows that students in schools with concentrations of children with 'high poverty' backgrounds do not perform as well academically as students in other schools. Brandywine has said the zip code plan will result in creation of three 'high poverty' schools, which are defined as those in which more than half of the students qualify under U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations for free or reduced-price lunches.

Doorey took issue with state Representative Wayne Smith, sponsor of the law, who claimed that there have been several instances of notable academic achievements  in such schools. "All the studies show that the gains are transient; nobody has been able to sustain them," she said.

Harter further said that 5,000 Brandywine students -- nearly half its total enrollment -- would have to change schools if the district is required to implement its zip code plan in a single school year, the one extending from September, 2003, to June, 2004. Moreover, he said, it would cost district taxpayers $5 million the first year and about $2.5 million in each of the subsequent years to implement and continue.

Doorey and board member Mark Huxsoll said they favored the zip code plan the least of the three presented to the board and district voters by Brandywine's Neighborhood Schools Act committee. But they said they would go along with it because a 40% plurality of voters on Oct. 30 selected it. The other choices -- student assignment based on the geometric midpoints between schools and establishment of an academic 'magnet' school in the city -- split the rest of the vote evenly. Huxsoll said he favored the 'magnet' school plan and thinks that establishing such a school is an option for the district "if we have the money" no matter how neighborhood schools plays out. Doorey did not indicate her preference.

Harter recommended that the zip code plan be modified so that Talley Middle School does not end up outside its attendance zone. It otherwise would draw students from the 19703 and 19809 areas while it is located in 19810. Actually, the plan as drawn overreaches zip code boundaries to adjust for disparate populations in middle and high schools and one elementary school. It had not been made clear why that could not also have been done in Talley's case.

The board vote was on a motion to accept Harter's recommendations. He was assigned the task of preparing the actual plan submission to the state board. Board members agreed to meet again in special session to formally approve it before Nov. 15, which happens the date of their next regular business meeting.

In another matter before it, the board agreed to have the district administration come up with a revision of existing policy to establish a procedure for determining class rank by giving additional weight to grades earned in advanced courses for present high school freshmen and sophomores and produce a new policy by May, 2002, for later classes. Present seniors and juniors will have their ranking determined by present policy. Class rank is considered a major factor in securing college admission, particularly to prestigious institutions.

Tanya Marcinkewicz, a Harlan Intermediate School teacher who was designated Delaware's 'teacher of the year' told the board that the key to better teaching in the district would be "a professional development model which research shows actually helps in the classroom." She said that a method has to be devised to induce more parents to take an active role in their children's education and that students have to be motivated to accept a position which shows "we're tired of mediocrity."

"Only when parents, educators and students accept their responsibilities will be not only meet [state] standards but we'll exceed them," she said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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