August 9, 2001

Children in the Brandywine School District might go to school by postal zip code or attend a 'family' of schools on extended campuses. Those, at least, are some of the ideas slated for further study and consideration after a brainstorming session of the district's neighborhood schools committee.

Before it got down to discussing the bases for possible plans at its Aug. 8 meeting, however, some members of the committee took sharp issue with the Brandywine Board of Education over the 'charge' on which the board agreed two evenings earlier.

Jeff Craig charged that one item in the instructions, which calls for including data regarding racial composition of each school in the final plans to be presented for board adoption, violates state law. The Neighborhood Schools Acts, which the committee is to recommend ways to implement, specifically forbids use of race as a criterion for pupil assignment.

Richard Hartman said that the board's statement that it "believes ... diversity enhances educational quality" is something of a landmine waiting to explode. "That word (diversity) is a very dangerous word in today's society. ... It's a 'hot button' for special interest groups, some of which stand 360º apart in what they stand for," he said.

Susan Cobin said it would be unwise for the committee to "even leave the perception" that it ran counter to the law in its deliberations. To that end, "the best thing to do with this (the charge) is just set it aside [and] get down to what we're charged by state law to do. This clouds the whole issue," said Bob DosPassos.

Superintendent Bruce Harter said that he "cannot accept" rejection of a board charge because that body "is the elected representative of the people," but agreed to seek clarification and possible revisions to the 'charge'.

While dividing the 24-member committee into subgroups to come up with starting points for drafting plans -- the board has called for the committee to produce at least two -- Harter almost casually dropped what could prove to be a pivotal element in obtaining public support for any plan. He said, "The board didn't say we had to keep the same schools as elementary, middle and high schools."

Possible reconversion of P.S. du Pont Intermediate to again be a high school and possibly also house a middle school has been a sticking point with some prominent Wilmington politicians and activists. Because the city was left with only one high school -- Wilmington High, literally on its western edge -- and no junior high or middle school under court-ordered desegregation, city youngsters have had to spend most of their school years riding buses to the suburbs. Many in the city now strongly advocate 'returning' schools at those levels. The Wilmington High building now houses Charter (high) School of Wilmington and Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a combination of middle and high school. P.S. originally was a junior-senior high school.

Although there was no discussion on that point, it appeared to open the door for some creative thinking in the subgroup sessions.

The one led by district administrator Wayne Emsley came up with the more novel suggestion. Rather than trying to gerrymander areas to meet the law's closest-to-home assignment patterns for a population no longer in tune with school locations, it proposed combining nearby school into more-or-less single units and assigning pupils to logical configurations on the resultant 'campuses'.

"We would look at 'families of schools' with a large degree of cooperation and coordination. The schools would work together much more closely than they do today," Emsley said.

Harlan Intermediate, P.S. and the now-closed Burnett building in north Wilmington, for instance, could house kindergarten through eighth grade. Although students would, through the years, move among the buildings, which are just a few blocks apart, they would spend the entire time in what would be, administratively, a single unit. A similar set-up could involve Darley Road Elementary, Claymont Intermediate and Talley Middle. Its 'campus' would be spread over a larger area, but all three schools currently have a community identity with Claymont.

The zip code idea initially evoked humor as some committee members questioned what possible connection could be found between the postal scheme and public education, but a subgroup chaired by administrator Barry Bogden concluded that it is mathematically possible to evenly apportion Brandywine's population among at least three high schools and three middle schools on the basis of the five digits in their address and nearly so among the elementary schools.

Harter asked both groups to meet informally before the next committee meeting to fill out those respective approaches.

The subgroup he headed dealt with comparing student enrollments projected if elementary-school attendance areas were divided by lines drawn at the midpoints of distances between schools with school capacities. Although some schools did not have sufficient capacity and other would be left with excess capacity, shifting the lines somewhat among adjacent zones would bring all of them within capacity. Brandywood, Lancashire and Forwood Elementary, for instance, could be so treated.

"It works better for a K-5 (kindergarten through fifth grade) configuration than a K-6, but we've demonstrated it is theoretically workable either way," Harter told the reassembled group.

Working from the other direction, a subcommittee led by assistant superintendent Donald Fantine found possibilities in establishing secondary schools with slightly difference configurations. They could possibly combine middle and high school in some cases, put sixth-graders into some middle schools and make P.S. a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Although that might make pupil assignment easier, there are snags, the group found. Teacher certification, for instance, is different for sixth-grade teachers than it is for high school teachers. Also, Fantine pointed out, parents are likely to object to "having sixth-grade girls ride on the same [school] bus with 11th-grade boys."

© 2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read the School Board's 'charge' to the Neighborhood Schools Committee.
Read previous story: Schools law could bring radical changes 





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