June 5, 2001

Declaring, in effect, that an academically-gifted education is a right, rather than a privilege, the Brandywine Board of Education decided at a special meeting to accommodate all students who qualify and whose parents wish to avail themselves of the opportunity.

In another matter at the session on June 4, it was disclosed that property owners in the district can look for an increase equivalent to 4.1¢ for each $100 of assessed property value in the tax bills that will be due on Sept. 30. That is about 4.4% higher than the current rate.

The issue concerning academically-gifted students had to do primarily with accommodating an apparent increase in their number, especially at Claymont Intermediate School which already is said to be at or over rated capacity. Also, there was a split in opinion among board members about whether such students who live outside the district should be accepted under the state's public school choice law.

The Brandywine district currently has 208 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students in a largely self-contained program at Claymont and another 146 in kindergarten through third grade at Mount Pleasant Elementary School. The board was told that initial screening of some 900 candidates this spring found 62 older children and 118 younger ones eligible for inclusion next year. Sixty-six sixth-graders will be headed for middle school and 65 will be eligible to move up from Mount Pleasant to Claymont in September.

Greatly oversimplified, an academically gifted child is one whose intelligence and related traits indicate an aptitude for higher-level academic work and challengers in the younger grades. They are roughly the same youngsters who go on to honors classes in secondary school and take courses that are considered college-level.

In selecting children the program, "we look at how a child processes information, not what he or she has already learned," according to Joan England, a consultant involved with Brandywine's selection process. "A gifted child is not one who answers questions but who questions answers."

Beyond the initial screening, she explained, the process, which uses seven criteria to evaluate applicants, offers a second step involving direct evaluation of those who fall just shy of scoring in the requisite 97th percentile on the test. About one in seven of those so evaluated end up being found eligible, she said.

Brandywine has yet to do that evaluation for the coming year.

While that would increase the number of acceptances even more, English told the board there is an offsetting factor. Not all those found eligible and invited to enter the program do so. Reasons vary, she said, but include such things as not wanting to transfer from private school, not wanting to make a change in fifth or sixth grade.

The five members of the seven-member school board present for the meeting deadlocked 3-2 after a long discussion on two possible courses of action. The law requires four votes, a majority of the full board, to take any action. Superintendent Victoria Gehrt recommended that all initially qualified applicants be accepted but that the followup not be done. Board president Nancy Doorey proposed that out-of-district 'choice' students not be accepted.

During further discussion, assistant superintendent Donald Fantine said that public school districts must treat academically gifted students in the same way they do other groups of 'special needs' youngsters. "We have an obligation to provide an appropriate education for these kids," he said.

English said that an academically-gifted program "is not elite or something to brag about." She said it "is based on needs the same way that a program for the mentally handicapped is at the other end of the scale."

Board member Ralph Ackerman argued that Brandywine has promoted its academically-gifted program as a magnet to attract 'choice' students to the district and that denying them a place in next year's program at this point would be "ethically wrong" because it would amount to "going back on our word." Of the qualified students, only nine live outside the district.

"We have the responsibility to serve the kids who live here (in the district) first," Doorey said.

Member David Adkins expressed concern that accepting all qualified students, including those found to be such in the followup, would result in a capacity problem next year. Gehrt agreed that promotional material and information given parents about next year's program should include caveats about acceptance.

After more discussion that got down to micro details about likely class sizes and how many books would be needed, it was decided that total classroom space in the district would be sufficient if Claymont cannot handle all the qualified students who accept invitations to participate.

Fantine told the board he is "pretty sure Claymont can hold them all" if three unused science classrooms -- left from when the building housed the former Claymont High School -- are adapted and one is renovated.

Chief financial officer Michael Shockley told the board that increases in the state's employee benefit package have bumped up the preliminary budget presented in May somewhat but said he is "tweaking in other places" to hold spending in line with revenue.

He said the biggest concern looking into future years is escalating energy costs. He noted that Brandywine is largely dependent upon natural gas for heating and, over the past five years, has had to spend $3.4 million in local money for fuel. The Colonial district, on the other hand, uses mostly oil and shuts down its boilers over weekends and has not had to spend anything beyond its state allocation.

"Energy [costs] really concerns me; we have to get a handle on that," he said.

Shockley told Delaforum that the only change he expects to recommend in the district tax rate is the addition of 3¢ to the operating rate to pay for the all-weather running tracks voters authorized at the May 31 referendum and 1.1¢ as the first-year debt service installment on the borrowing the authorized to begin planning school renovations. That would take the total tax rate to 97¢. On a property assessed for $75,000, the tax would be $727.50, up from $696,75. Homeowners age 65 and older are charged half the tax on the first $1,000.

He actually will make a recommendation at the board's June 18 meeting. The board will set the rate in July.

© 2001. All rights reserved.

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