November 19, 2003

When it comes to measuring schools' performance, there is more than one way to go about it. And, as far as the Brandywine School District is concerned, the federal government has come up with the worst possible method.

Stung -- as were many public educators around the nation -- by the first set of accountability ratings called for under the No Child Left Behind Act published in August, the district rushed out an extra edition of its direct-mail newsletter explaining why it regarded the widely publicized ratings to be unfair. It then followed up with the formation of a 24-member taskfroce to devise a menu of preferable indicators.

Superintendent Bruce Harter presented the school board with a list of six categories of data "to keep in front of the district and the community." In a demonstration Power Point presentation, he said they combine to provide "dashboard metrics" that are easily understood and similar to the way a driver receives information from automobile instruments.

In other matters before the board at its session on Nov. 17, it:

● Granted itself a waiver from the state law capping class size in primary grades at 22 pupils.

● Approved allowing Maple Lane Elementary to become the first school in northern Delaware to operate on something close to a year-around basis.

● Accepted a 'strategic plan' for the district's program for academically gifted students.

● Extended the pending International Baccalaureate program to include Harlan Intermediate.

● Introduced seven new principals, including one officially hired just 10 minutes before the presentation.

Harter told the board that the measures the taskforce recommended are aligned with the district's long-range improvement plan. For the most part, data required for the presentation is already being generated to gauge progress in accomplishing the plan's stated objectives.

Packaging them in a way that "helps people make sense" of the data will "accurately reflect the quality of the district," his report said.

On the other hand, the No Child Left Behind evaluation is based entirely on results from the annual state assessment tests with those statistics grouped into several categories. A school which fails to show year-to-year improvement in all the categories receives an unfavorable rating. As Delaforum previously reported, only four of Brandywine's 17 schools received a 'passing' rating.

The district's staff "raised questions about whether the community would be satisfied with such a narrow definition of the success of the Brandywine district and schools," Harter said.

While the U.S. and state Departments of Education will in all likelihood continue to publish test results, Brandywine intends to supplement that with additional statistics which:

● Measure year-to-year progress students are making toward meeting or exceeding academic standards by the time they reach 10th grade.

● Evaluate newly-hired  teachers in terms of the academic credentials they bring with them. A separate report presented at the board meeting showed that 37 of the 70 new teachers that Brandywine hired for this academic year have degrees or credits beyond their bachelor's degree and 32 have more than three years of teaching experience.

● Define the number of students voluntarily participating in arts and enrichment activities.

● Show how many high school students move up from traditional programs to courses which qualify for advanced college placement and increases in the number of students who are considered prepared for post-secondary education.

● Chart the performance of students classified as members of racial and ethnic minority groups as a way to determine progress toward closing the so-called 'achievement gap'.

● Tell from  year-to-year and school-to-school the percentage of students involved in serious discipline incidents.

While asking the board to grant the class-size waiver, financial officer David Blowman, who formerly was a ranking DelDOE administrator, said the General Assembly imposed the limit while knowing full well that it could not be achieved at the present level of state financing.

The waiver provision in the law "was put there for a reason." he said. "We simply do not have the state or local resources to meet the cap. It's not do-able."

"Districts have no choice but to waive each year," he added.

Brandywine nevertheless has made some progress toward reaching the 22-pupil goal in its 137 kindergarten-through-third-grade classrooms. The number exceeding that limit this year is 39, down from 48 last year. Districtwide, the average class size in those grades is 21 this year, compared to 21.6 in 2002-03.

Blowman told Delaforum that only Darley Road Elementary and the P.S. du Pont kindergarten were the only schools that came in under the cap in all their classrooms.

He said that state-allocated teacher positions were distributed to all Brandywine school in a way that satisfied the law's requirement that 98% of teacher units generated be assigned to schools that generated them. However, a waiver from that provision was sought, he said, because Brandywine is participating in a special education pilot project which skewed the ratio in five schools. The project, which he did not further explain, resulted in the district's being authorized 20 more teaching units than it would otherwise have.

The state allocates financing for one teacher for each 17.4 students. The units, however, have to be spread to cover such positions as counselors, librarians and instruction in physical education, art and music which are not provided on a single-classroom basis.

In Brandywine, an internal committee assigns teachers to specific positions. Board member Craig Gilbert suggested that might better be done in public session so that the process would be better appreciated.

Although the board advertised a public hearing on the matter, as required by the law, beginning at 7 p.m., it did not get around to dealing with the issue until 10:15. It did not use a hearing format then or earlier, but did accept comments from two people concerned with what they charged is overcrowding at Lombardy Elementary during the usual public-comment section near the beginning of the meeting agenda.

As previously reported, Maple Lane Elementary will begin its academic year on Aug. 4, which is a month ahead of the traditional time. The four weeks of 'summer vacation' thereby lost will be recovered at other times during the year. but the school will provide optional remedial or enrichment classes at those times. It will have the same number of regular instructional days as would be provided under a traditional calendar.

The academically gifted program plan accepted by the board does not get into specifics, but does call for selecting "appropriate service-delivery options to meet the needs of students" and implementing them on a pilot basis in the 2004-05 academic year. Also to be determined is a method for selecting students to participate in the program.

Harlan Elementary joins Mount Pleasant High and Talley Middle as a participants in the International Baccalaureate program. As previously reported, Mount Pleasant will begin a full program next year if it is approved to do so by the Geneva, Switzerland-based organization. Harter said a primary school will be selected to participate next year.

The new principals for this year and their schools are: Lynn Sharps, Lombardy Elementary; Vincent Costello, P.S. du Pont Intermediate; Ron Mendenhall, Hanby Middle; Richard Gregg, Brandywine High; Greg Robinson, Mount Pleasant High; Ginny Burns-Ferrara, Bush Early Education Center; and Anne Humphrey, Forwood Elementary.

The board formally ratified Humphrey's hiring just before the presentation so that she could participate. She actually assumes the post on Dec. 15. Retired former principal of Forwood, David Moore, returned to serve in an interim capacity since the resignation of Kristina DuBois on Nov. 7, the board was told.

2003. All rights reserved.

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