May 7, 2003

Maple Lane Elementary School was authorized by the Brandywine Board of Education to develop plans to operate on a year-around schedule beginning in August, 2004.

Principal Julie Pecorella said a 'balanced schedule' would greatly reduce the amount of student proficiency lost during a traditional three-month summer vacation, provide extra instructional days to prepare for the state's annual assessment tests and offer an opportunity for periodic remedial classes or enrichment activities.

In a separate matter before a workshop meeting on May 5, the school board also authorized superintendent Bruce Harter to proceed with establishment of an in-district 'alternative education' program for seriously disruptive middle- and high school youngsters. They are now sent to outside programs run cooperatively by districts in New Castle County or receive instruction at their homes.

Converting to year-around schooling, which is considered by many as being more in keeping with present-day lifestyles, is a relatively small but rapidly growing national trend. Seaford Central Elementary in Sussex County is the only public school in Delaware now offering such a program, for which it has a waiting list of applicants. A plan to adopt a year-around calendar for Highlands Elementary in the Red Clay district in September, 2003, has been shelved pending installation of air-conditioning in the west Wilmington school. A spokesman for the Delaware Department of Education said it is not aware of any other pending plans but thinks there are some in the embryonic stage.

Pecorella said interest in having such an arrangement at the school in Claymont dates back to formation of a teacher-parent committee in December, 1999. The idea was "put on hold during the change in leadership at district level." Harter, who was hired to be district superintendent during a scandal-ridden upheaval, authorized Maple Lane to resume preliminary planning during the present academic year and it was decided at a mid-April meeting to seek board approval to proceed toward implementation.

That came in what appeared to be a consensus of board members after her presentation. Vice president Nancy Doorey, for one, said she was pleased about the school's having taken the initiative. "You are willing to look at something very different [to] bring down that summer-off bloc," she said.

Harter endorsed the idea, saying it was reflective of "a very enthusiastic school community."

“We are very supportive of school districts looking at options that will better serve students, including year-around schooling,” state Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff told Delaforum.

Cutting mid-year vacation time from about 12 weeks to six -- from mid-June through July -- would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the "summer learning loss," Pecorella said. She said in-school testing found that the portion of first-graders performing at grade level dropped from 74% in the spring of 2002 to 62% in autumn and second-graders went from 93% to 80%. Maple Lane has students in kindergarten through third grade.

The principal said Maple Lane has received generally favorable response from both teachers and parents. "There were not as many parents at the [April] meeting as I would have liked, [but] there have been very few negative comments," she said, adding that 94% of the teachers "agreed they want to try it." Included among approving staff, she said, were specialist teachers shared with other schools whose work schedules would have to differ at various times during the year.

The greatest concerns expressed in a survey of parents last autumn was difficulty in making child-care arrangements and coping with different schedules by families with children at various grade levels. Boys & Girls Club and Balanced Family, outside providers in the vicinity of the school, and Maple Lane's own service so far have agreed to accommodate to the arrangement and there are indications that Claymont Intermediate and Talley Middle Schools, to which Maple Lane is a 'feeder' school, are interested in developing similar schedules, the board was told.

Minta Gibbon, a parent with children at Maple Lane and Claymont, told the board that such difficulties are more than offset by advantages. Primary among them are enthusiasm youngsters have for the enrichment portion of their schedule "which can only carry over the the regular year" and relieving some of the pressure they are under in connection with state testing. Besides, she added, "it lets us take vacation when not everybody else is doing it."

Maple Lane would provide only year-around schooling. Families presumably would be able to opt out of the program through the state's public school choice procedure. The timetable accepted by the school board calls for presentation of a detailed proposal by November. Board action then would be well within the window for filing a choice application for the 2004-05 school year.

Pecorella explained that the version of year-around schooling her committee is pursuing provides the same amount of regular instructional time spread through the year. There would be about 10 additional instructional days before state testing. The six weeks lopped off of summer vacation would be added to the Christmas-New Year's and spring breaks and inserted elsewhere into the calendar. All present holidays would be retained.

Maple Lane has not yet produced an actual proposed calendar.

Coming in three-week increments, the breaks would provide a week off for everyone and two weeks of make-up work or enrichment programs, at which attendance would be optional and which would could be attended on a full- or partial-day bases.

Second-grade teacher Kathleen McGorreston said those 'intersessions' would be similar to the changes-of-pace which universities offer between semesters and make room for "those wonderful things teachers used to teach but [that] we don't have time for now." Students falling behind would not have to endure an entire academic year, she added. "We try but we are not able to help them much during the regular session because we have to keep going. This way you stop periodically and give them a chance to keep up."

Pecorella said explatory visits to Seaford Elementary and an inner-city school in Allentown, Pa., which has a similar program, discovered that children at the elementary-school level have come to refer to those parts of the calendar as 'fun school'. A conceptual curriculum she used in her presentation included topics ranging from 'math magic' and Native American culture to crafts and roller skating.

Test scores improved in Allentown and a significant by-product of the program there was a noticeable reduction in the number of disciplinary incidents, she said.

The 'alternative school' program presented by administrator Judith Curtis is in keeping with the portion of the district's long-range strategic plan, which calls for it to provide such schooling rather than seeking it elsewhere. The board authorized her and Harter to proceed with development of a program, which the superintendent said could be implemented at the start of the 2003-04 academic year in September or soon thereafter.

Curtis said one approach being considered is to seek an outside contractor to administer and staff the program. Doorey said and others on the board agreed, however, that Brandywine teachers who might be interested in being involved shousld be given that opportunity, either as individuals or a group.

Talley and Mount Pleasant High School have been identified as possible venues for such classes. They would be located, however, in a separate section of the building and use such common facilities as the gymnasium when other students are not doing so. Another possible to isolate the program, Curtis said, would be to have the 'alternative' school day begin in mid-afternoon after the conventional school day ends.

Board member Mark Huxsoll objected to placing the program in either of those buildings. "Some people might view it as a negative. Those schools have worked very hard and well [to improve reputations] and you could hurt those efforts," he said.

"Placing a student who has been a major problem in a regular school setting [back] in a regular school setting is only going to continue the problem," said board member Thomas Lapinski, formerly the principal at Mount Pleasant. All of the youngsters in the program would have been in disciplinary trouble up to the point of their being considered, which in it, for possible expulsion.

Curtis said the two schools  were identified as having available space and, while it would be possible to use an outside location -- particularly if it is decided to employ and outside contractor -- that would present major logistical problems. Moreover, the program is expected to involve only 25 to 50 students at any given time and that would make for a very high per-student cost.

She agreed that "the perception is going to be negative until [the program] has proven itself." To help offset that, she added, it will not be called an 'alternative' school or anything else that is descriptive of its actual function. "Red Clay [school district] calls theirs a 'community school'," she said.

The Brandywine district formerly operated an 'alternative' program in the Claymont Community Center building, which used to house a high school.

Questioned about the curriculum to be provided in the program, Harter sought to dispel any notion that it would be academically elitist. "We are going to have a very modest program. The question is only whether [the arrangement] will be better than what we have now," he said.

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