November 28, 2001

Asked to approve two widely different plans for implementing the Neighborhood Schools Act and likely to get two more dissimilar ones, the state Board of Education gave scant indication how it is likely to deal with the thorny issue. 

"Beyond Dec. 10, nothing has been determined. There is no time frame. We're working through this," board president Joseph Pika replied when asked about the process to be followed. He did say that, whatever course is followed, it will be done in public. He added, however, that a  published report to the effect that the board had decided to hold a public hearing on the matter was not correct.

 During nearly four hours of listening to and questioning officials of the Brandywine and Red Clay districts at a special board meeting on Nov. 27, there were only a few vague hints about how members of the board may be leaning. The Christina and Colonial districts get their turns on Dec. 10.

Pika asked both delegations for their views on whether having up to four different student assignment arrangements would be "fair and equitable" to children living in the city of Wilmington and whether they would be open to "a collaborative cross-district arrangement" to mitigate that.

Brandywine's school board president Nancy Doorey said it is commonplace throughout the nation to have "districts that are contiguous run very differently." 

"There are many different ways to build a house. I can see multiple plans being effective as long as we hold to the bottom line," Red Clay superintendent Robert Andrzejewski said.

Neither rejected the idea of working together, but Pika did not pursue the point beyond his initial question.

Board members Claibourne Smith, Mary Graham and Robert Gilsdorf separately pressed retired Red Clay administrator Gail Ames, who wrote that district's plan, to quantify the extent to which a literal application of the law's requirement that students be assigned to schools closest to their homes would impose a hardship on the district.

And Smith at one point reacted to allegations of extensive adverse consequences of doing so by remarking, "I'm trying to figure out who our legislators were listening to." In another context, he praised the extent to which Brandywine involved the public in the formulation of its plan as "a lighthouse for others to emulate."

Except that the special board meeting attracted only about a dozen people, there were no surprises at the session as both delegations gave 'Power Point' presentations that did not differ significantly from previous public presentations.

Brandywine asked to retain its present four-tier class alignment, instead of reverting, as the law specifies, to the three-tier one which used to be considered traditional, and to continue to assign most suburban students to city schools for the intermediate grades and all city students to suburban ones for the other grades.

That, superintendent Bruce Harter testified, would comply with the expressed wishes of parents and other district residents; avoid the hardships, inequities and costs associated with creating schools at which more than half the students come from poverty backgrounds; and prevent extensive disruption of an established educational process.

Red Clay wants to be allowed to continue to move toward having all its students and their parents choose which schools they want to attend with only those who do not avail themselves of the opportunity to do so under the state's public school choice law assigned to schools closest to home with the capacity to accommodate them. "We are not proposing to assign a house or an address to a school; we will assign children," Ames said.

She said that 42% of Red Clay's 1,500 students are now attending schools of choice, up from 39% last year, and that proximity to child care providers and places of parents' employment is as significant a factor in those choices as nearness to home.

Doorey testified that concentrating children from poverty backgrounds in the same school "compounds the effects of poverty." She said that teachers in such schools spend 40% of their time disciplining children, as opposed to the 12% of their time in other schools.

Brandywine has developed what it calls a 'challenge index' which purports to measure the impact of various elements associated with socio-economic background. "Our best and brightest teachers are going to want to move from where the challenge index is high to where the challenge is low," Doorey said.

While not directly responding to that assertion, Ames later testified that in Red Clay "teachers are not deserting high-poverty schools." She said that the faculty at Shortlidge Elementary in Wilmington a third of the teachers have 22 to 35 years of experience, a third between 13 and 22 and other third less than 13. "That is an ideal mix," she said.

Andrzejewski said he personally and Red Clay as a district are committed to providing quality education to the portion of its population defined as poor. "We're applying extra resources in our high-poverty schools and we're trying to find ways and the money to do even more," he said. "I refuse to use poverty as an excuse and it's starting to pay off."

He denied an assertion by board member Jean Allen that extensive application of state's choice process would discriminate against families with limited means. The state does not provide free transportation to schools selected under the choice program, but Andrzejewski said Red Clay is using local money to pay for 20 'choice transportation' bus routes. He added that the district and others will again attempt to get the General Assembly to correct what is considered ambiguity in that regard in that it does pay for transportation to charter schools.

Joan Spiegelman, who served on the committee which devised a schools plan for the city of Wilmington, urged the state board to follow a course that does not "impose cruel and unusual punishment" on city children as the result of a law that was enacted "with little understanding or [consideration] of what its impact would be."

She noted that the General Assembly totally ignored the work of her committee and subsequent action by Wilmington City Council and asked, "What has happened to local control that Delaware has always prided itself on?"

Speaking with specific reference to the Brandywine plan, State Senator Dallas Winslow told the state board  that "the school district has determined the facts and you should accept them in the absence of any conclusive evidence that  they have made a mistake."

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Brandywine goes with status quo
Read previous story: Red Clay adopts neighborhood schools plant
Read the Neighborhood Schools Act plans posted by the Delaware Department of Education
Read the applicable section of the Delaware Code





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