At a recent Brandywine school board meeting, the mother of a special-education student said that, during a visit to her son's school, board president Joseph Brumskill inspired the boy by recounting the life of Harriet Tubman and encouraged his reading so he could learn more about her.

Brumskill is a frequent visitor to schools, not only because he once aspired to be a teacher but also because he considers it an important part of his role as a school board member. Among the basic requirements to hold that position, he said, "is first to be interested in the welfare of children and a major area of their welfare is education."

He added that if more people were committed to helping children "live life to the fullest ... we would have less problems."

At the start of the final year of his first five-year term on the Brandywine board, Brumskill, 71,  was elected by his colleagues to be its president. He previously had served a year as vice president. He intends to run for

re-election to the board next May. Board membership is an unpaid volunteer activity but a time-consuming one which puts incumbents into public view in a not always favorable light.

Brumskill is likely to soon find himself in that position.

In February or March, 2008, the Brandywine board is expected to vote to close one or more schools. He has no illusions that will not bring out  strong emotions among district residents. "People have a feeling 'that's my school you're closing'. They have a sense that 'you're taking my school from me'," he said.

That should have been done in 2005 after a committee similar to the one that is now attempting to come up with a plan to eliminate at least half of what the

Joseph Brumskill

district administration has identified as excess capacity recommended closings. At that time, a public outcry forced a compromise by which the board agreed to close the buildings housing the district's central office and the Bush Early Learning Center in Radnor Green and Talleyville, respectively, but not close Brandywood Elementary nor Hanby Middle Schools in Brandywood and Chalfonte, respectively.

Those two schools are among the five presented to the current committee as viable closure candidates. Buildings renovated since 1999 and those either being renovated or planned to come next in the renovation schedule are deemed ineligible.  Neither of the approved building closures has taken place.

Brumskill voted for the compromise as did the other six board members. He said he did so because he realized it had majority support and he did not want the board to be presented as divided on the issue. Sometimes it is better to subordinate your wishes to those of the majority, he said.

This time around, however, he expects the result to be different. There surely will be pressure again, he said, but "when a job needs to be done you do it." With district enrollment declining and likely to continue doing so into the next decade, closure is necessary if the board and the district administration are going to be responsible "in how we're managing your (taxpayers') money," he said.

Still, the board has to listen to the community, he added. Having the study committee recommend a plan will "help us make the right decision." That, he explained, goes beyond merely selecting one or more buildings to include changing the four-tier grade configuration and possibly "closing a portion of a building" by combining schools.

More significant to the future of Brandywine district is improving the quality of the education it provides above its recognized high level. To that end, "the attitude of the person in front of the classroom is what makes the difference," he said.

Brumskill said he regards the majority of teachers to be good teachers, but that he would like to see a stronger commitment by some to the idea of inclusionary instruction. There are still several teachers -- including young ones -- who have different attitudes toward teaching 'children of color' and those with special needs. "They are not ready for the differences," he said.

Superintendent Jim Scanlon, who was hired just a year ago, is moving in the right direction, Brumskill said, but more has to be done. The district has instituted an 'equity' program to improve racial and cultural sensitivity of the staff, but so far participation has been voluntary and Brumskill said that may not be enough.

His own views are somewhat at odds with supporters of racially- and economically-integrated public education. "I make it no secret that I would rather have a Wilmington district" even though that would result in racially identifiable schools, he said. A city district would have to be provided with necessary financial and other resources to be able to measure up to acceptable standards, he added.

Of the 1978 federal court decision which consolidated the former Wilmington Public Schools with suburban districts, Brumskill said flatly, "It didn't work."

"Children should go to school in their neighborhood," he said, explaining that the Harlan school that he found in the north Wilmington neighborhood where he lives when he moved from Philadelphia in 1971 would be a good model of what a neighborhood school should be.

"They had team-teaching even back then," students were grouped academically according to ability but not separated in schoolwide activities, and teachers were required to visit the families of new students including every first-grader, he recalls. "It was a good example of what public schools can do, much like charter schools," he said.

He added that he does not personally favor charter schools, but feels some of their techniques and approaches are adaptable to conventional public schools.

Brumskill gives the impression of having 'teacher instincts'. In fact, he started to become one, enrolling in Temple University in 1954 with an early-childhood education major. He transferred, however, to Philadelphia College of Art & Design and went on to a career in retailing and arts management.

He said that as a board member and its president his role is not to micro-manage but to set policy and rely on the superintendent to run the district. He said is is very much impressed with and supportive of Scanlon.

He was particularly impressed early-on, Brumskill said, when Scanlon told the district staff -- both teachers and support staff -- that he did not come which an array of new programs to replace what was being done in the district.

"Sometimes a new broom sweeps too clean. It sweeps out the good things. Jim (Scanlon) didn't do that," Brumskill said. "His attitude has been to keep what works and move carefully to replace what doesn't"

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Posted on October 8, 2007

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