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September 23, 2005

Brandywine School District is poised to move aggressively to address recognized shortcomings while building on its strengths and reputation, but superintendent Bruce Harter and school board president Craig Gilbert cautioned that the process will not necessarily be a smooth one.

"Whenever you have change involved, you see a lot of disequilibrium; where there is no disequilibrium, there is no advance," Harter told a community breakfast meeting on Sept. 23.

"There's a daunting challenge ahead. ... To say this will be an easy journey would be very misleading," Gilbert said.

Harter said it is important when confronted with difficult and often unpopular decisions "not to pull back to the way things were before."

"We've been building up for the past four years; now is the time to break through," he added.

He identified several topics that will be on his administration's agenda as it prepares over the next 18 months a new five-year strategic plan to succeed the present one. Following self-evaluation within the system and study by outside consultants, the drafting process will be put into the hands of a taskforce of community volunteers and school personnel. Financing the plan the board will approve will be a significant element of the proposal to be put before district residents at a tax referendum in the spring of 2007.

Even before the planning process is fully underway, an immediate charge is to reform  the approach to educating special-needs children, which the superintendent called "a substantial problem for us in the Brandywine School District."

Following presentations by several parents at a recent meeting, the board directed Harter to prepare a plan to respond to their concerns. At the breakfast, he promised to bring about noticeable improvement in the measured performance of special-needs students within the current academic year.

"We're going to modify our instruction to let them meet [state] standards," he said. Although the performance gap of those students compared to 'typical' students has narrowed, he said it is still too wide.
"We're not going to put up with that," he added.

Until now, he said, the focus has been on "the disability, ... not the person behind the disability."

Another group of children whom Harter said have been short-changed are "the four out of 10 who leave [Brandywine schools] only marginally prepared for service jobs [at] minimum wage."

The challenge there, he explained, is to look beyond those who intend to go on to college and to prepare every student to meet the demands of an increasing sophisticated and competitive global economy. In his remarks Gilbert also referred to providing all -- he emphasized that word -- students to meet "the demands and rigors of today's economy."

Harter that would in no way diminish the district's commitment to students on the upper rungs of the academic ladder. "Our kids [are prepared to] go to the same high-end colleges and universities as [those from] Archmere, Tatnall and Tower Hill," he said. Those are area private college-preparatory schools.

The Brandywine district employs one teacher for every 15 students with 86% of its teachers rated 'highly qualified' and another 12% as 'qualified' when measured against national teaching standards. "That's tops in the state," he said. "Public education is our calling. That's why we're here."

He noted that Brandywine enjoys a high degree of community support. That was evidenced by the approximately 200 attenders at the breakfast meeting. The audience included a cross-section of people active in community, business and public affairs.

Harter specifically  invited their participation in the strategic planning process.

Referring to the array of family situations which affect learning, the superintendent said it would be "easy to say it's not us, we're not responsible for these things." However, he added, schools and their faculties and staffs are in a position and have an obligation to deal with the results.

"We have them for six hours a day. If the legislature would let us have our way, I would have them for eight," he said.

Among other objectives he listed were "safe and orderly classrooms [which] are absolutely essential"; a need to "eliminate racial predictability"; and more frequent assessment of student performance than once-a-year state tests.

Outside the classroom, the district faces a need to determine whether it should "'privatize' or partially 'privatize' our [bus] transportation or leave it like it is," he said. Brandywine is the only district in the state which operates its bus system totally in-house. The will be one of the questions put to an outside consultant for study and recommendations, Harter said.

© 2004. All rights reserved.

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Read previous Delaforuim article: Parents lash out at Brandywine’s special-education program
Read previous Delaforuim article: Harter: We’re good, but not as good as we can be

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