June 7, 2001

If the Neighborhood Schools Act were implemented literally in the Brandywine School District, 91 students would rattle around in cavernous P.S. du Pont Elementary. Presently an intermediate-level school, the building had more than 1,000 enrolled in the just ending academic year. Enrollment at Springer Middle School, on the other hand, would more than double, jumping  from 625 to 1,286

What's more, a recently formed committee charged with devising a plan for the district to comply with the law was told at its first working session on June 5 that eight of the 17 buildings in the district would be over their rated capacities. Eight others would be under capacity and only Concord High would come out more or less where it should be.

"The notion of a neighborhood school can be very seductive," said Richard Hartman, a former school board member who is serving on the committee. "They (the public) are going to find out we're not going back to what it was [like] in the '50s and '60s. There are fewer kids now and they live much farther apart." There also are about a dozen fewer school buildings in Brandywine Hundred.

The old Alfred I. du Pont Special School District had about as many students just prior to implementation of the federal

court desegregation order in 1978 as Brandywine does now. Brandywine includes that former district as well as the former Claymont and Mount Pleasant districts and nearly a third of the former Wilmington Public Schools district.

"The public should see this [data]. It shows that it's a law that doesn't work," committee member Beverly Dennett said.

Interim superintendent Victoria Gehrt cautioned against snap judgments, pointing out that the committee is in its early stages -- gathering information on which to base recommendations which the present school board and district administration will fashion into a plan to be

This is how Brandywine School District elementary school attendance zones would look if students were literally assigned to the schools closest to their homes.

submitted to the state Board of Education by Nov. 15 as the law requires.

"Some of what we're going to look at will appear very controversial. I want to emphasize that nothing has been done yet. Nothing has been agreed upon or endorsed yet," she said.

Although Brandywine has been cast before and after its passage as the district most resistant to the law, Gehrt said the 22-member committee -- which includes school staff, parents and community members -- will meet frequently during the summer months and into autumn in a good-faith effort to comply with it.

"Once we see the problems that are crucial [to its implementation], it's up to us to see how we can solve the problems," assistant superintendent Donald Fantine said.

The enrollment figures and the reactions they drew from committee members were the result of the presentation of hypothetical attendance zones based entirely on a geographic recarving of the district. To comply with the law's requirement that elementary grade levels be reconfigured to a kindergarten-through-fifth (or sixth)-grade pattern, the district's present three intermediate schools were presented as elementary schools. They now house the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. The zones were defined by drawing lines at the mid-points between the schools.

The Neighborhood Schools Act requires district plans that assign children to "the grade-appropriate school closest to the student's residence." But it does contain an escape clause which allows for assignment plans based on "factors other than geographic distance and natural neighborhood boundaries if a substantial hardship to a school or school district, student, or a student's family exists." How those clauses will be interpreted by the state board and, possibly, a court remains to be seen.

The resultant Brandywine attendance patterns present to the committee were not as radical as those which resulted a few months ago from a similar exercise in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. Of the four school districts affected by the law, Brandywine is the most compact.

What is different, administrator Wayne Emsley said, is using a geographic basis for student assignments. Under the desegregation order, racial balance, which evolved into a broader socio-economic balance, became the guiding factor. As a result, there was a bit of gerrymandering in Brandywine, with small enclaves within zones from which students were assigned to other schools. Carrcroft Elementary, for instance, received students from the Colony North apartment complex while children living in surrounding areas went to Mount Pleasant Elementary. Several schools are close to the boundary of their respective attendance zone.

Emsley noted that "one of the hallmarks of this district has been that our feeder patterns (attendance zones) have remained consistent for many years," but added that "in the '80s and '90s, little shifts were made here and there" to maintain court-mandated racial balances. "It occurred without much fanfare," he said.

Besides lopsided enrollments, the hypothetical boundaries produce a dramatic change in the racial and economic composition of schools in the district. The proportion of Black students now ranges from 26% at Brandywine High to 51% at Darley Road Elementary. So-called 'minority' enrollment -- which also includes children of Hispanic heritage -- would range between 5% at Lombardy Elementary to 91% at Harlan Elementary. Only Mount Pleasant Elementary and Talley Middle would come close to matching the districtwide average. Most schools now come within a few percentage points of doing so.

Because the nature of enrollments would change, Emsley pointed out, the rated capacities of the buildings also would be different from what they are now. He explained those numbers are based on the amount of space required for various programs. The present intermediate schools, for instance, have a larger number of students per class than the elementary ones because the lap 'caps' first-, second- and third-grade classes at 22. Also, special education classes have about half the number of students as regular education classes.

2001. All rights reserved.

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