September 10, 2001

An ultimate referendum on what the school-going public feels about neighborhood schools could result if the state Board of Education accepts the Neighborhood Schools Act plan drafted by the Red Clay Consolidated District. The district will ask the board to certify its intent to eventually establish an all-choice district as complying with the controversial law.

That, the district argues, would let students and their parents decide which schools they wish to patronize. There are some indications, based on past experience with employing the state's public school choice law, that the school closest to home isn't necessarily the first choice, Red Clay officials maintain.

More to the point, simply returning to a traditional closest-school assignment plan and feeder system would not work, the district maintains.

"There are insufficient seats in [some] elementary schools to accommodate the number of students for whom that is the closest school," the district said in a concise three-page plan officially made public on Sept. 10, although the gist of the plan has been known for several months.

At the middle school level, H.B. du Pont would be only two-thirds full while A.I. du Pont would have an enrollment twice its capacity as the result of strict compliance with the law, the plan said.

The plan, which was drafted in-house by the district administration, is to be the subject of public hearings on Sept. 13 and 19 at Warner Elementary School and on Sept.. 12 and 25 and Oct. 17 at Brandywine Springs Elementary. The hearings all begin at 7 p.m. The district school board is scheduled to vote on the plan on Oct. 17, in plenty of time to get it to Dover to meet the law's Nov. 15 deadline.

The plan basically argues that the present alignment of schools is incompatible with the population distribution in the district. If the district can move ahead with building two elementary schools, however, it would be in a position to make all elementary schools kindergarten through fifth grade, as the law requires, and allow virtually all, if not all, parents and students to attend whatever district school they choose.

Voters turned down a proposal to authorize a bond issue enabling the district to raise the local share of the cost of building those schools -- in Stanton and near Hockessin. District officials have said they intend to try again but, so far, apparently have not determined when.

A choice arrangement would get away from the traditional method of assigning children to schools while allowing them to go elsewhere only as exceptions to the general rule. The General Assembly a few years ago enacted a  law which permits students and parents to choose to attend any public school in the state. Acceptances depends on their been space available in the school which is chosen.

Whether Red Clay's desire to go all-choice will fly with the state board and the Assembly remains to be seen. The Neighborhood Schools Act presupposes that a majority of students will go to schools by traditional assignment. In enacting the law, legislators saw it as a way to put an end to busing in the four northern New Castle County districts to which it applies. Somewhat simplistically, the alternative was seen to be going back to the old system of having children attend schools in their respective neighborhoods.

In its plan, however, Red Clay maintains that the closest school isn't always the one students and their parents want to patronize.

Tables submitted with the plan indicate that, of the 518 elementary-school students who submitted choice applications  but did not get into the school of first choice, 125 sought to go to the geographically nearest school but 393 sought to go to a more distant school.

At the high school level, where enrollment has been under the choice plan for several years, all students who apply on time get their first choice. The result, according to the plan, is that they are where they want to be, whether or not that is the school closest to their home.

To require the district to assign elementary-school children to the nearest school "would result in 1,300 students not being so assigned, a far more detrimental consequence than the current system, where fewer than one-half of that number is affected," the plan declares.

At the middle school level, all but six students who opted to do so are attending the school closest to their homes and those six are going to one only slightly farther away.

The plan notes that under school choice, middle schools range from 27% to 70% 'minority' enrollment and high schools between 26% and 44%. With closest-to-home assignment, those ranges would change to from fewer than 10% to 86% in middle schools and from 5% to 67% in the high schools. 'Minority' refers to black and Hispanic students.

The law specifically bans race as a factor in determining student assignments.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: School plan will employ choice
Read related story: Brandywine considers realigning city schools
Read the Neighborhood Schools Act





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