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June  10,  2008

Brandywine appears to have
worked out attendance zones

Where the kids will go to school -- the thorniest issue related to the Brandywine district's plan to slim down in the face of declining enrollment -- appears to have been resolved, albeit clearly not to everyone's satisfaction.  

"We're doing the best we can. ... We're not going to make everybody happy; we realize that," superintendent Jim Scanlon said as the school board wrapped up a 'workshop' session  at which it received the latest -- and, likely, final -- iteration of the plan to redraw attendance zones.

"Just say I'm more satisfied now than I was before," board president Joseph Brumskill told Delaforum after the session. "I still have two weeks to make up my mind"

The board is scheduled to vote on the plan at its regular monthly business meeting on June 23.

As previously reported by Delaforum, the plan now calls for children from some Wilmington neighborhoods to continue to be bused to four schools in the suburbs rather than attend Harlan Elementary and P.S. du Pont Middle. That is expected to have the effect of reducing the proportion of students from low-income households who are eligible to receive government-subsidized lunches at those schools while increasing it at others.

The lunch program is regarded as a way to measure economic diversity. Although both supporters and critics of earlier versions of the plan have focused on economics, it was clear during discussions that both race and perceived shortcomings in the way of academic achievement were significant considerations.

Brumskill previously had voiced strong objections to the wide disparity in the proportion of children from low-income households who would be assigned to attend Harlan and P.S. He was joined in his opposition by several parents and other residents.

According to data presented at the June 9 'workshop', the latest version of the plan will result in 47% of the students at Harlan coming from low-income households, down from 56% in the earlier proposal. At the other end of the scale, Brandywood Elementary will be 25% up from 19%.

The range is more narrow at the middle school level with P.S. and Talley both having about 38% and Springer 30%. Under the former plan, P.S. would have had 46% and Springer 23%.

David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, who presented the data, said that it was not in any way manipulated to produce a desired result. As was the case in previous versions of the plan, attendance zones were drawn, using a University of Delaware computer model, on the basis of the district's official 2007-08 academic year enrollment. No assumptions regarding how extensive school choice assignments will be nor the projected continued decline in enrollment were cranked into the model and "free and reduced [price-] lunch [eligibility] was not a factor in program location," he said.

He said that "it is impossible to get lower [ratios] ... unless you bus kids all over the district."

An unexpected side effect of some of the shifts was to improve feeder patterns to noticeably increase the number of students likely to remain together as their elementary-school class advances to middle school and high school, Blowman said.

The board at the 'workshop' also received a preliminary plan for locating special programs. That plan, however, will not be ready for a vote on June 23, Scanlon said. Among decisions yet to be made is whether to locate the program for academically 'gifted' students in one school or run parallel programs in two.

Diversity ratios

Following are the expected percentages of students who would be  eligible to receive government-subsidized lunches under the latest attendance zones plan:

Elementary

 

Brandywood

25.00

Carrcroft

41.00

Claymont

44.01

Forwood

36.48

Harlan

47.35

Lancashire

29.61

Lombardy

30.60

Maple Lane

43.86

Mount Pleasant

42.79

   All

37.97

Middle

 

P.S. du Pont

37.89

Springer

30.04

Talley

37.62

   All

35.33

Included in the attendance zone plan is a provision for moving the kindergarten program from P.S. to Harlan. The section of the P.S. building where it was housed was rebuilt and drastically changed during the current renovation project. The Harlan building will require modifications to accommodate kindergarteners, Scanlon said, but was not able to provide an estimate of the cost of doing so. The overall reconfiguration of the district has been estimated to cost about $2.6 million, he said.

As part of the transition process, the district is working with an architect to determine specific costs of the several physical changes that will be necessary, Barbara Meredith, director of support services, said.

Since the new attendance zones will not be in effect until the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year, Blowman cautioned that there will be some changes in their actual result and that variances in the figures could be significant.

Establishing new zones is necessary because the district will close two schools -- Darley Road Elementary and Hanby Middle -- after the coming 2008-09 academic year. Although obviously difficult, that decision was less divisive because it essentially involved just two schools while attendance zones apply to the entire district.

During a public comment session at the start of the 'workshop', north Wilmington resident Martha Carper, wife of U.S. Senator Tom Carper, called on the board to delay taking a vote on the plan and possibly postpone implementation of school closure and realignment of grade configurations until the start of the 2010-11 academic year.

The latest plan "makes an attempt to reduce the inequities [among] schools, but it doesn't go far enough," she said. "It moves students out of the city, but makes no effort to attract suburban children. ... Parents will 'choice out' of city schools."

It is more than theoretically possible under the new plan that some children living in the city could spend all 13 years of their academic careers being transported to suburban schools. Most of those would be assigned to schools which children from their neighborhoods now attend, except for fourth, fifth and sixth grades. With the new grade configuration, Brandywine no longer will have intermediate schools, which now serve those grades.

No one on the board indicated during subsequent discussion any desire to entertain the idea of postponements.

New Castle County Councilman Jea Street told the board that if it "votes to create high-poverty schools or [to] resegregate," it will leave the district vulnerable "to litigation I believe is coming."

"Make sure that 'choice-out' doesn't become a way to make segregation raise its ugly head again," Karim Abubakar, a resident of Brandywine Hills, said.

Attendance at the 'workshop' was larger than usual and most of the 50 or so attenders remained for the entire session despite the fact that the air-conditioning system in the administration building had broken down earlier in the day and a temporary unit could only make a valiant but not totally successful attempt to fill in.

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