August 23, 2001

P.S. du Pont would be converted back to a high school or become a combination elementary and middle school under the two scenarios which found favor with the committee charged with drafting Neighborhood Schools Act plans for the Brandywine district.

Both proposals are still very much in the conceptual stage with details being worked out and statistical data being developed as the committee prepares for the first of five public hearings prior to the school board's anticipated approval of a final plan for submission to the state Board of Education. The final plans is due in Dover by Nov. 15.

The committee has been told to provide at least two plans for consideration by the board and the public. It previously had developed rough outlines of four potential plans and subsequently came up with two versions of one of them.

At its meeting on Aug. 22, the committee gave its strongest nod to a proposal  which would, in effect, establish Brandywine's portion of the city of Wilmington as an entity within the district. Harlan Intermediate School would serve children living in the city from kindergarten through third grade. They would go on to P.S. for the remainder of their public school education. Those two buildings are just a few blocks apart.

Assistant superintendent Donald Fantine said that the P.S. building is large enough and laid out in such a way that it can be physically and administratively divided so that the younger and older students would actually be attending separate schools in the same building. Arrivals and departures could be staggered and other arrangements made so that the different age groups would have minimal contact with each other, he said. The division probably would occur between eighth and ninth grades.

An alternative, he said, would be to reinstitute the plan approved by state authorities two years ago but never brought to referendum by the district to replace the now-closed high-rise Burnett school building with a conventional elementary school building on the same north Wilmington campus with P.S. If that were done, P.S. would become a combination middle- and high school. It started out in the 1930s as a combination junior-senior high school. Fantine said a new Burnett also could be used for fourth through eighth grade with P.S. becoming just a high school.

Suburban elementary schools, under the plan would be kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade with attendance zones established by shifting theoretical mid-point lines between the existing buildings to align projected enrollments with capacities. Students would then be 'fed' from those schools into the more proximate of the existing three middle schools.

The other plan is more nebulous at this stage, but envisions using postal zip codes as the basis for assigning students throughout the district to schools. Those living in the 19802 area, which covers north Wilmington and a small slice of suburbia just north of the city, would go to P.S. or Harlan from kindergarten through sixth grade. If it were decided to end elementary school a year earlier, P.S. would become the sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school for city youngsters.

Fantine said that his subcommittee's proposal has the advantage of providing considerable space in what would then be four high schools to accommodate essentially anyone wanting to use the state public school choice law to select a high school. That would include both those living in the district -- a city youngster desiring to attend a high school in the suburbs, for instance -- or out of the district -- such as a student living in Red Clay's portion of north Wilmington who did not want to go to one of that district's high schools in the suburbs west of the city.

Committee member Subira Ivrahim questioned, however, whether P.S. du Pont High, which would have only about half the enrollment of Brandywine's three suburban high schools, would qualify for as diverse an academic program as they did. Superintendent Bruce Harter said that, on the other hand, some academic research indicates that high schoolers in schools with smaller enrollments tend to perform better. Committee member Fran Freedman pointed out that the former Claymont High School was closed several years ago because of a similar enrollment comparison and "you'd be telling people in the city that what wouldn't do in Claymont would be good enough for them."

There was only a brief mention of the cost of converting P.S., which became an intermediate school under the federal court's racial desegregation order in the late 1970s, back to a secondary school. Seeking state support beyond the normal 70-30 capital costs split as part of its neighborhood schools plan might be a possibility, Fantine suggested.

The law provides a one-time appropriation of $1.25 million to each affected district to cover the costs of transition to neighborhood schools. Fantine noted that the Department of Education had approved spending a total of $17.5 million, state and local money combined, to finance building a new Burnett school.

Using zip codes as the basis for assigning students was presented as an objective approach which would employ a generally accepted system which, in at least a broad way, has come to define neighborhood groupings.

In addition to the city arrangement, the version of the zip-code plan which the committee opted for would have students in the 19803 area divided between Lombardy and Carrcroft Elementary; 19810 among Brandywood, Lancashire and Forwood; and 19703 and 19809 combined and split among Claymont, Darley Road, Maple Lane and Mount Pleasant Elementary. Similar groups would be used by the middle- and high schools.

Ivrahim told the committee that her conversations with city officials and residents indicated there is support for an arrangement by which children in kindergarten through eighth grade would be grouped together.

When the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee was considering city plans, there was considerable emphasis among its members for establishing middle- and high schools in the city. P.S. was cited then as a logical site for at least the high school. The only public schools at those levels now in the city are Cab Calloway School of the Arts, which runs from fifth grade through high school, and Charter School of Wilmington, a high school. Both are specialty schools.

The Brandywine committee also discussed briefly how a neighborhood schools plan would be put into effect. The law calls for that to happen with the beginning of the 2003-04 academic year, but it is generally assumed that the state board would go along with a phasing in, so long as the process started then.

The committee discussion was inconclusive but there seemed to be agreement that the public would tend to favor immediate implementation at the elementary-grades level while it would be accepting of phasing for secondary students. In the latter case, there will probably be a strong desire among many high school students, particularly juniors and seniors, to graduate from the school they were then attending.

"Whenever you do it, moving children from school to school is not too well received by parents," Harter said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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