June  17, 2004

Realigning its grades structure will enable the Brandywine School District to close some buildings and bring its student capacity more in line with projected declining enrollments, the committee looking into how best to manage facilities was told.

The committee considered the pros and cons of four possible alignments, including maintaining the current one, at a meeting on June 16. It did not come up with a conclusion although it appeared to have eliminated by consensus the idea of defining kindergarten-through-fifth grade as elementary school.

"Most of the districts are going to 'K-5'. Why can't we?" said Robert Maffia, vice president of Tetra Tech Inc. and a member of the committee.

David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, replied that Brandywine's elementary school buildings -- which now house kindergarten through third grade -- are too small to do that.

Nancy Doorey, president of the school board, added that twice-expressed community sentiment overwhelmingly supported retaining the present alignment. The most recent was at an actual plebiscite during consideration of how to comply with the state Neighborhood Schools Act and the state Board of Education backed up that decision.

Putting six grades in a building which now has four would necessarily result in having more children in the classes, she added. Total enrollment in the building would be about the same and, since the state allotment of teachers is based on total enrollment, the same number of teachers as now comprise the faculty would have to be spread over more classrooms, she explained.

Actually, the status quo is automatically one of two options the committee and its parent task force is required by its charge to present to the Brandywine board as part of its planning for the third and final phase of the district's building renovation program and a tax referendum to finance it.

In addition, the committee is looking at two options which would combine either fifth-through-eighth grades or six-through-ninth as middle schools. The present arrangement, which dates from compliance in the late 1970s with the federal court order combining suburban districts and Wilmington to achieve racial desegregation, has kindergarten-through-third as elementary; fourth-through-sixth as intermediate; seventh and eighth as middle; and ninth-through-12th as high schools. The court then ordered all children to attend school in the city for at least three years. Brandywine, the most compact of the four districts involved, has elected to basically retain that arrangement although one of its intermediate schools has since been relocated from Wilmington to Claymont.

The committee consensus strongly endorsed having grades configuration consistent throughout the district rather than varying among some schools.

With the desegregation order having been lifted and race effectively eliminated by both federal and state law as a criteria for 'diversity', the taskforce mandate calls for 'socio-economic diversity' as determined by the number of students in a school who qualify by household income for free or reduced-price lunch.

Paired with Maffia's expressed desire to "keep it (the K-5 scenario) on the table" was Margaret Fox's support for retaining the present arrangement as the only specifically stated preferences at the committee meeting. "Our racial balance is good. The community is happy with it, teachers are happy and the kids are happy," said the second-grade teacher who has taught in the district and its predecessor districts for 31 years.

Joseph Brumskill, school board vice president and a resident of the area, noted that there appears to have been a shift in the racial composition of people living in the western side of north Wilmington. "I see more young white families walking around than I did when I first moved in," he said.

All of the options presented to the committee called for relocating the district's administrative offices from Pennsylvania Avenue in Radnor Green to either the Concord High or Mount Pleasant Elementary building. Nothing was put forth concerning what would happen to the present headquarters building, which once housed an elementary school, but Superintendent Bruce Harter said it would be cost-prohibitive to convert it back in a way that would comply with current educational standards or building codes.

"Whatever it is that we do, it's not going to be what we did with Channin and Old Mill Lane," he said. Those schools were closed during the desegregation shuffle and the buildings have since become derelict.

Also apparently ruled out in a different context was the possibility of closing one of the district's three high schools or returning the P.S. du Pont Intermediate building to being a high school. The former, Harter said, would be "politically untenable" and likely to embroil the district in a bigger row than what happened when it closed Claymont High several years ago. The necessity of putting in science laboratories and other high school-required facilities would make that prohibitive, he said.

Under one of the possible scenarios presented to the committee, however, P.S. would become a middle school as would Harlan and Claymont Intermediate. One scenario would involve closing Springer Middle and another would close both Springer and Hanby Middle.

Although there is an assumption that any proposed school closing is likely to draw opposition from the public, Richard Geisenberger, assistant state secretary of state and a member of the committee, said, "Almost by definition you have to close something; otherwise you would be wasting tax dollars."

Buildings renovated since 1999 or slated for renovation during the current second phase are off-limits from consideration for possible closure.

As is inevitable in such discussion, committee members came up with variations on the possibilities the district administration offered. While not ruling out the possibility of modifying them, Harter said the options appeared to be the most practical in terms of being achievable. "If we put out all the possibilities, it would take a lot more than six months to decide," he said. One of the options studied but not presented was making P.S. a high school again, he added.

In addition to the taskforce's work, the district is using an outside consulting firm to produce a marketing plan for how best to attract additional students from outside the district through the state's public school choice law and from private schools.

Even if that effort is successful, the district is going to have excess student capacity. "We're not so good that everybody is going to 'choice' in," he said. "I don't know how we're going to justify that (being overcapacity)."

The options were presented along with data relating enrollment with capacity if there were adopted. The figures, however, did not take into account the possibility that the state will soon mandate that public school districts offer full-day kindergarten sessions.

Geisenberger said that is "not a question of if, but of when." The General Assembly's apparently having agreed to finance the full cost of enlarging or remodeling buildings to accommodate additional enrollments resulting from combining now separate half-day sessions "is probably what's going to put it over the top," he said.

Doorey pointed out that current thinking in Dover is to make all-day kindergarten an option for parents rather than a requirement. But Harter said that the Smyrna district, which went that route voluntarily, had only three parents opting for half-day schooling. In Florida, where he formerly was a district superintendent, and elsewhere "full-day is a given," he said.

Brandywine currently offers full-day kindergarten as an option and Harter said between a quarter and a third of its kindergarteners are enrolled in between 10 and 15 classes. A fee is required to participate in the program. but it is waived for low-income households.

Harter said that, in planning the third phase of the renovation program, the administration will provide for "the full life of the building [rather than] just what looks pretty for a few years," adding that "that standard didn't apply in the [first] phase."

2004. All rights reserved.

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