September 25, 2001

Housing an academically rigorous program in its two schools in Wilmington could at least partly mitigate 'resegregation' expected as a result of the Neighborhood Schools Act, Brandywine School District officials told a public hearing called to discuss its plans to comply with the controversial law.

It is estimated that about half of the 980 elementary-grade students living in the city and about 50 from each of the nine elementary-grades attendance zones in the suburbs would elect to attend the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school on a 'campus' which would include Harlan and P.S. du Pont, according to administrator Wayne Emsley. Those schools are two blocks apart in north Wilmington.

A development of a previously proposed plan to establish a 'magnet' school concentrating on performing and fine arts -- similar to the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in the Red Clay Consolidated School District -- at that location, the idea now is to bring the International Baccalaureate Organization's program to Delaware. That proposal was unveiled on Sept. 24 at the only one of the required five hearings scheduled to be held in the city.

Founded in 1968 and based in Geneva, Switzerland, the international organization provides a standardized curriculum intended to prepare students from their earliest years for entry into prestigious universities. According to its Web site, the program is now operative in 1,182 schools in 101 countries.

One of those schools is in Lee County, Fla., from where Brandywine superintendent Bruce Harter and Mount Pleasant High School principal Dennis Runyon came this summer. Runyon taught in the program.

"I believe they do have the ability to achieve" in such a setting, Harter replied when confronted by an attender at the hearing with the apparent contradiction in proposing to provide an education at the high end of the academic spectrum to a largely  lower socioeconomic enrollment after previously claiming that a predominantly urban population requires a disproportionate amount of special school services.

"There are examples [of such programs working] all around the country. I have no reason to believe that our kids couldn't do that here," Harter said.

As briefly described by Runyon -- who previously joined with Harlan principal Anita Thorpe and P.S. principal Judith Curtis to come up with the arts school proposal -- the International Baccalaureate Organization's program would be open to any child at the elementary and middle-school level and available to those who qualified at the high school level. The high school program would be housed at Mount Pleasant in a 'school within a school' arrangement serving about 300 students.

Features of the program include such things as year-around schooling and courses requiring community service, he said.

Emsley said the half of the Wilmington school population not opting to enter the elementary-level program would be assigned to the schools next closest to their homes -- Lombardy, Carrcroft and Mount Pleasant Elementary. Middle and high school students would necessarily be assigned to the district's existing secondary schools. That would mean that city children would be bused to the suburbs for their entire careers instead of the nine years previously required under court-ordered desegregation.

While the point was not raised at the hearing, it was apparent to observers who have followed developments associated with the Neighborhood Schools Act that the Brandywine 'magnet' plan comes close to the charter-school arrangement proposed by the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee but rejected by default by the General Assembly. That idea was to offer high-end schooling in the city with the idea that would preserve some of the racial diversity now existing in area schools by attracting suburbanites.

The other two proposals now being considered in Brandywine involve establishing attendance zones based on somewhat modified postal zip codes area or lines drawn close to the geometric mid-points between schools. Previously proposed attendance areas have been altered to that student populations fall within the capacities of the schools. Emsley cautioned, however, that the lines have been drawn based on enrollments as of September, 2000, and that some further changes probably will be needed to reflect the actual counts when the ultimate plan goes into effect.

Harter told the hearing that the district has rejected  using modular classrooms to cope with overcrowding which would result if there were strict adherence to the law's closest-school requirement and either opening or closing any school buildings.

Brandywine, which of the four school districts formerly under the court desegregation order has most vigorously opposed the law or changing the status quo of school assignments, is developing the plan to be submitted to the state Board of Education on or before Nov. 15 in an obvious attitude of reluctantly doing so only under irresistible compulsion.

Brandywine board president Nancy Doorey emphasized that the district's Neighborhood Schools Act committee is complying with the law's prohibition against including racial composition of the resultant schools as one of the criteria in designing them. But she said the district administration will provide such data among points of information to be made public before district residents are given an opportunity to vote on which plan they prefer.

The board at its Sept. 20 meeting scheduled that vote for Oct. 30. Doorey said it has not yet decided whether results of the vote will be regarded by the board as binding or advisory. The board is scheduled to formally approve a plan at a meeting scheduled for Nov. 5.

The public vote, she said, will include a "second question" which will ask voters whether they favor the plan they have just voted for or would prefer keeping the status quo. Delaware law does not provide for plebiscites and Doorey has characterized submitting that question more in terms of a survey intended to send the proverbial message to legislators. She said the district intends to seek "professional guidance" concerning how to word the question to avoid any extralegal implications.

Along those same lines, the board also has scheduled a workshop-style meeting on Oct. 1 at which she said it "will bring in experts" to provide information on the "educational implications" of complying with the law.

She, Harter and the other district officials at the hearing sidestepped a direct response to an admittedly perplexed attender's suggestion that the controversial law might be subject to modification or even repeal prior to its supposed implementation with the opening of the 2003-04 academic year.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Brandywine's vote idea challenged
Read related story: Board will submit choice plan
Go to the International Baccalaureate Organization's Web site
Read the Neighborhood Schools Act
Read the Brandywine Board of Education's charge to its Neighborhood Schools Act committee





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