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September 5, 2005


Brandywine School District students' performance has shown marked improvement during the past five years, but superintendent Bruce Harter said there still is a considerable ways to go before he and district residents should be satisfied.

"We'll never get to the point where 100% [of the students] meet the [state] standards, but we can get a lot closer than we are now," he told Delaforum. "I'm pleased with the progress we've made. I'm looking forward to accelerating the rate at which improvement happens."

In a detailed and candid presentation at a recent school board meeting and during a subsequent interview with Delaforum, Harter attempted to cut through the maze of published data on both the state and federal levels to to come up with a straight answers to the questions: Are we improving? If so, how much?

In summary, the answers are yes and "not as much as we would like."

On the plus side:

• Overall performance, as measured by what Harter calls "the Brandywine School Index, our Dow Jones of learning," went up by between 21 and 37 'points' in third, fifth, eighth and 10th grade scores on Delaware State Testing Program scores. The district index is the sum of the average scores in reading, mathematics and writing, the three subject areas that the state tests.

• The greatest rate of achievement was among high school students. Starting from a 35-'point' lower base in 2001, they came in about 18 'points' lower this year.

• The achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and white and Asian students was narrowed from 109 'points' to 86 'points' during the same period. Both groups showed improvement, with the gap narrowed the greatest among third-graders.

• The gap between special-education students and 'typical' ones also narrowed by a considerable degree with third-graders also accounting for the most narrowing. Special-education students are measured against the same standards, Harter pointed out.

On the down side:

• Improvement among fifth-graders lagged well behind that of the other grades.

• Brandywine's rate of improvement lagged behind other top-performing districts in the state with comparative ranking having slipped in each of the four grades. Those comparisons were among the five leading districts, which were not the same for each grade.

"I'm quite pleased with the honesty and maturity" which Harter's presentation at the board meeting demonstrated, board president Craig Gilbert said.

Board member Nancy Doorey praised Harter for "having the courage to bring it all out." Few, if any, school superintendents would be willing to talk so openly in public, she said.

Brandywine board meetings of late have been sparsely attended and those who do come out mostly have a direct connection with schools or a specific item on the agenda. The district, however, has scheduled an open-to-the-public 'state of our schools' presentation on Sept. 23.

"I feel we need to tell the public the truth. ... While we're improving, we're not improving as rapidly as we would like. We want the public to understand the level of challenge," Harter said.

His presentation to the board served as a prelude to developing a basis for a community taskforce next to recommend a strategic plan for the years beyond 2007. The plan also would serve to frame the provisions of a tax referendum expected in the spring of that year.

In the interview with Delaforum Harter said the Delaware State Testing Program has reached a point where valid comparative data is available to measure both progress and accountability. While student learning is measured against state standards, results in meeting those standards is a guide for professional development, he said.

In that regard, he said an effort is underway to determine why Brandywine fifth-graders are apparently lagging. "We're not exactly sure. Is our staff teaching to the state standards? Are they using instructional strategies that are proven effective?," he said.

The Delaware standards, he said, are "not the toughest [in the nation], but are more rigorous than many other states'." What is more significant is that, unlike tests traditionally used in the past to measure how much course content a student has grasped, current testing is  skill-oriented and measures performance.

That has not sat well among some segments of the public and politicians as some results of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have emerged. Harter's view is that "overall, it's a good law."

"It sets targets for yearly progress," he said. "One of the better things about [it] is that it forces us to look at [specific] groups of our students."

To be judged as meeting progress goals a school must do so not only for its student body as a whole but also for whites, blacks, Asian, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, English language learners and special education students.

To meet the adequate-year-progress goals for the 2005-06 academic year 62% of students in each category must meet state standards in reading and 41% in mathematics. The  high school graduation rate goal is 78%. Those percentages will be increased for each of the next several years.

All of Brandywine's kindergarten-through-third-grade schools met the targets during the 2005-05 year and were rated 'superior'. Harlan Intermediate was rated 'commendable'.

What is not measured in the widely reported statistics but is showing up in Brandywine, Harter said, is an increase in the proportion of students taking higher-level courses. Moreover, as that goes up, the number of discipline problems goes down. During the past year, "94% of our students were not involved in any serious disciplinary incident," he said.

While the intent is to improve performance relative to other school districts and to private schools, Harter said there should not be overconcern about 'slippage' in that regard.

"What we're doing is comparing ourselves with the districts which have shown the most improvement. ... We think that, when [state education] reform started in the late 1990s, Brandywine was focused on a lot of other things," he said. "Only in the past four years have we become focused on such things as professional development and closing the achievement gap." Harter became superintendent in July, 2001.

"We're a very good school district. With at a point where we have the right staff, the right set of goals and the right degree of community support to be an even better school district," he said.

© 2005. All rights reserved.

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