May  21,  2008

Residents decry proposed student
profiles at Harlan and P.S. du Pont

Board president Joseph Brumskill joined with some of his north Wilmington neighbors to urge the Brandywine School District administration and the board not to turn Harlan Elementary and P.S. du Pont Middle into 'high-poverty urban schools'.  

In a highly unusual move, Brumskill left his seat at the board table to read a five-page statement on behalf of residents of the district from which he was nominated to serve on the board during a public-comment session at the board's May 19 meeting.

The statement included a proposal to limit the proportion of students from households with incomes low enough to be eligible to receive government-subsidized lunches to no more than 42% in elementary schools and 38% in secondary schools.

Under the most recent plan to redraw district attendance boundaries, it is estimated that Harlan would end up with 56% of its enrollment in that category and P.S. would have 46%. Both would be the highest in the district for their respective grade levels. By comparison, the lowest proportions would be 19% at Brandywood Elementary and 23% at Springer Middle.

Even so, Brumskill charged, the Harlan and P.S. estimates presented by the administration are "deceptively low" because they include children from the suburbs the district expects to be attracted to the International Baccalaureate and 'gifted'-student programs to be housed at the city schools. Brumskill questioned whether that expectation is realistic considering the resultant make-up of the rest of the student bodies.

"For the sake of all the children of our district, we cannot afford to further exaggerate the disparities between our schools," he said.

After Brumskill spoke, district lawyer Ellen Cooper cut short any further discussion of the issue on the grounds that a discussion of attendance zones was not on the posted agenda for the meeting and engaging in it would violate the state's open-meeting law. The first public-comment session at board meetings, she said, is limited to talking about items that are on the agenda. Any topic related to education, she added, is permitted at a second public-comment session at the conclusion of the meeting.

She said she nevertheless let Brumskill continue reading his statement and did not hold him to the usual three-minute limit imposed on speakers during the public-comment sessions "because of [his] position on the board."

Karim Abubakar, a resident of Brandywine Hills, remained for the second session during which he presented to the board a petition signed by state representative Dennis Williams, Wilmington City Council member Charles Potter and 96 other residents of Brumskill's nominating district urging adoption of new guidelines for attendance zones and redrawing the proposed zones accordingly.

Candidates for election to school boards in the four northernmost districts are nominated, on a staggered sequence extending over five years, from seven districts. But the election itself is conducted on an at-large basis and elected board members are considered to be serving the entire district and not just representing a specific area. That somewhat convoluted arrangement is left over from the 1978 federal court racial desegregation decision when it was imposed as a way to guarantee 'minority' participation on the school boards.

Brandywine superintendent Jim Scanlon actually introduced the attendance-zone issue before Brumskill spoke when he told the board that, in response to its earlier criticism, the proposed zones have been "adjusted ... without going back and starting over at the beginning" to fall within the 20%-to-50% subsidized-lunch range set as a guideline for the advisory committee preparing the district's space consolidation plan. He said the new plan will be presented to the board for discussion at a 'workshop' on June 9 and approval at its June 23 business meeting.

The zones have to be redrawn because the district intends to close two schools and convert from a four-tier to a three-tier grade configuration, effective with the academic year which begins in August, 2009. Harlan and P.S., which are now intermediate schools are slated to be converted to a first-through-fifth-grade elementary school and a sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school, respectively. Harlan's kindergarten is to be housed in a separate area in the newly renovated P.S. building.

Scanlon also said that the locations for the district's special programs will be presented for discussion and approval on the same schedule as the attendance zones.

In a departure from usual procedure at 'workshops' Scanlon said there will be provision made for public comment at the June 5 session.

Brumskill, who was unopposed in his bid for a second term on the Brandywine board, has been critical of what he considers ranking the concept of neighborhood schools above maintaining economic -- and, by implication, racial -- diversity. In his statement, he referred to the district's successful effort to, in effect, exempt itself from the state's Neighborhood Schools Act several years ago by contending that literal compliance with the law would work a hardship on its students. He referred to research done at the time which, he said, "made it clear that increased barriers to learning result when poor children are concentrated into high-poverty schools, especially high-poverty urban schools."

In a non-binding plebecite conducted at the time, district residents voted overwhelmingly to retain the four-tier desegregation grade configuration and existing attendance zones.

During the space consolidation process it was argued that economic status and student achievement are not necessarily related. In Brandywine, some schools with higher percentages of students from low-income households have fared better in state assessment testing. Brumskill acknowledged that some schools are both high-poverty and high-achieving, but called them "exceptions rather than the rule," adding that they are "rarely able to sustain that performance over time."

Brumskill said that  "most residents did not fully realize [the] implications" when they supported the planned change to kindergarten-through-fifth grade elementary schools, but his statement did not call for reversing that decision.

He said that, in addition to economic status, such things as the proportion of special-education students, truancy and disciplinary statistics, state test performance and level of teachers' experience, "should be considered in the restructuring so that all schools face these challenges in equitable proportions."

"The idea of a diverse learning environment benefiting all students, 'minority' and 'non-minority', also has merit," he said. "In 2001 Brandywine fought to preserve diversity in its schools, so we should not take steps backward with the new plan."

The guidelines for revising attendance boundaries -- also referred to in discussion as 'feeder patterns' -- in Brumskill's statement are:

For Harlan --

Reduce the proportion of students eligible for subsidized lunches to no more than 20 percentage points higher than the lowest proportion in any elementary school and cap it at 42%.

Cap class size at 15 for kindergarten through second grade and at 18 for other grades, with no provision for waiving those limits. State law caps kindergarten-through-third grade class size at 22, but permits school boards to waive that requirement if it cannot be met.

Relocate the kindergarten program from P.S. by remodeling an area at Harlan and providing a separate entrance.

Make the International Baccalaureate program "a whole-school implementation" in place for kindergarten through fifth grade at the start of the 2009-10 academic year. Brumskill did not further explain that provision.

Provide free transportation for students who live in the district and choose to enroll in the International Baccalaureate program.

Require that teachers have a minimum of two years of experience.

For P.S. du Pont --

Reduce the proportion of students eligible for subsidized lunches to no more than five percentage points higher than the lowest proportion in any middle school and cap it at 38%, while excluding students enrolled in special programs from the calculation.

Cap class size at 25 for core subjects in the regular-education program.

House the middle-years International Baccalaureate program, now at Talley Middle, there and provide transportation for students who live in the district and choose to enroll in the program.

House the existing sixth grade 'gifted'-student program there  and establish a 'gifted' program for seventh- and eighth-graders.

Require that teachers have a minimum of two years of experience.

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