This story was originally published Dec. 1, 2022.
As enrollment declined at A.I. du Pont High School starting in 2008, the percentage of minority students and English Language Learners rose dramatically while test scores dropped steadily.
That year, the school enrolled 1,492 students. Today, just 680 students are enrolled at A.I.
In 2008, the student body was 24.1% Black, 11.8% Hispanic and 60.2% white, according to state report card archives.
This year, 44.4% of the school’s enrollment is Black, 35.7% are Hispanic and 15.7% are white.
The percentage of English Language Learners rose from 5.6% of students to today’s 15.44%.
The number of low-income students increased 13.5%.
“I do not believe enrollment is in any way connected to test scores,” said Principal Kevin Palladinetti.
Mark Pruitt, director of secondary schools at Red Clay, said any comparison of test scores needed to be taken with a grain of salt because of the pandemic.
“There’s going to be a dip in every school in the state, and probably the country,” he said. “It’s been very difficult to get good data.”
But the school’s struggles didn’t start with the pandemic.
Data from 2008 to 2018 — all before the pandemic — showed SAT scores and reading and math proficiency declined.
Palladinetti pointed out that enrollment didn’t fall 54% overnight.
“The enrollment drop has been very gradual over time, so the impact in the building isn’t as dramatic as people assume,” he said. “We’re talking about a 10- to 11-year period of time here, so it’s been slow and steady.”
It’s easier for families with multiple children to send their children to the same school and that has meant A.I. High often didn’t lose just one student to another school — it also lost that student’s siblings and family members.
Palladinetti noted that the state has changed its standardized testing model several times since 2008. And, he said, comparisons of SAT scores from then and now can’t be made, because only since 2016 have 11th-graders been required to take the test. It replaced the Delaware Smarter Balance state test for high schoolers.
“Because we’re not themed, we’re not chartered, we’re not magnet, and we don’t have a selective enrollment process, we’re essentially forcing kids into a testing environment that they may not have any interest in or desire to sit for,” Palladinetti said.
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Vic Leonard, a Red Clay school board member who taught at A.I. for two decades, agreed with Palladinetti, arguing that many students “don’t take the SATs seriously.”
“A lot of these kids had no inkling to go to a four-year school,” Leonard said. “They would just be done with the test in two or three minutes.”
But bad scores may be turning off parents making school choices, he said.
State Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, who sits on the House Education Committee, says she’s watched parents and families opt out of public education in Sussex County.
“In Georgetown, a lot of parents have moved their children into charter schools, private schools and other situations because they feel their child’s not learning at a level appropriate to them,” she said.
She believes the drop in student achievement is one reason why A.I. High’s enrollment has halved since 2008.
“We’re allowing mediocrity, and parents aren’t going to accept that anymore,” Briggs King said. “Parents are talking with their feet and they’re taking their kids out of schools.”
New Castle County has lots of alternatives, she pointed out.
“Districts have done wonderful things to reach the Latino community, but when you have over 90% of the classroom being English Language Learners, there’s no way that those already speaking English are going to be learning at the rate that maybe they should,” Briggs King said. “These are the things people don’t want to say because they’re not politically correct, but people are talking.”
Future of A.I. du Pont High
What happened to A.I. has been a hot topic at the Red Clay Consolidated School District board meetings for the last three months.
Many reasons for the decline in student interest were cited in board meetings including charter and magnet schools attracting more Red Clay kids; Odyssey Charter opening down the road in 2015; the district ending bus transportation for students who choiced into A.I.; fewer students in A.I.’s feeder pattern, which includes more affluent areas where parents can afford private schools; and a few hundred fewer students in the district itself now compared to then.
“We have more high school seats than we have students,” said Cathy Thompson, a Red Clay school board member. “I just think we have a ton of options, so many parents are choosing different options.”
Thompson’s daughter attended A.I. High in 2008 when the district decided to cap the number of students at 300 per grade level.
“I know that was the first thing that drove enrollment down because ‘choice people’ couldn’t get in there anymore,” she said. “It was all with good reason.”
The school was over capacity at the time and many classes were held in trailers parked outside of the school building.
It’s unfair to single out A.I. for its enrollment drop, Thompson said, since many other schools in the state have had similar challenges.
“Were we to pick on A.I. and increase the enrollment there, it’s just going to decrease enrollment somewhere else,” she said. “There just aren’t enough students, so there needs to be a holistic look.”
Red Clay already has appointed a committee to seek ways to revive interest in the school off state Route 52 in Greenville.
Already the idea of making it a green campus and focusing on environmental science courses has gained traction.
Leonard, who proposed the task force as well as himself as head, noted that in 2007, when the magnet Conrad Schools of Science opened, 25% of A.I. High’s student body transferred there.
He hopes finding a magnet topic will have the same result for A.I. High.
Leonard was asked at the November board meeting to flesh out the membership of the committee to meet board policy before he continued meeting with government officials and others about the idea of making A.I. green.
While Palladinetti has seen a dip in student achievement, he wants to focus on everything the school has to offer. That includes a state-of-the-art eSports center that opened two weeks ago.
“We have an open house coming up and we’re showcasing the school — what we have to offer, our pathways, our programming, and what some of our plans are worth exploring for the future,” Palladinetti said. “I would love for the public to come and check us out. That’s really the best way to get a feel for a school.”
The A.I. open house will be Tuesday, Dec. 6 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
Jarek can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at (215) 450-9982. Follow him on Twitter @jarekrutz
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