August 24, 2008

School Districts Gear Up for Start of Classes Monday

By Paul Paterra

Classes open at most school districts Monday with many new programs for students, technology advances in the classrooms, and new teachers and administrators.

Two districts have new superintendents -- Dr. Christine Oldham at Ligonier Valley and Dr. Denise Shipe in Yough. Greater Latrobe is looking for a replacement for outgoing Superintendent William Stavisky.

Here are some highlights for the coming year:

Albert Gallatin: Carl Bezjak will fill in as substitute superintendent until October while Dr. Walter Vicinelly is on medical leave. The district opened a new school Aug. 13. Alfred L. Wilson Elementary in Fairchance is a state-of-the-art, "green" school that features automatic lighting, water-sensitive faucets and wireless Internet.

The district purchased materials only within a 500-mile radius to save on transportation costs. "We're trying to stay local to save energy," Bezjak said.

Belle Vernon Area: The district starts full-day kindergarten this year. Elementary students will get Spanish instruction.

A $165,000 Classrooms for the Future state grant will boost technology at the high school. "We'll be equipping six or seven classrooms with Smart boards (interactive white boards) and wireless laptops," said Superintendent Robert Nagy.

Construction of three classrooms at Marion Elementary School and four classrooms at Rostraver Elementary School has been completed.

Blairsville-Saltsburg: Superintendent Arnold Nadonley said the district is implementing a new student management system to give parents access online to grades, homework assignments and lesson plans. "It will make us more efficient as we concentrate on education," Nadonley said.

A new policy prohibits cell phones from being visible in the classroom. "That will eliminate texting of test questions," Nadonley said. "They can only have them for genuine, bona fide emergencies. They must be off in the classroom, and you can't use them in restrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms because of camera capabilities."

Connellsville Area: Plans to close three elementary schools and reconfigure some grades will not take place. "We're remaining as is," said Dr. Philip Savini, director of curriculum and instruction.

The district is incorporating curriculum in conjunction with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. "We'll be working with students to have them understand what it takes to open your own business," Savini said. Students will develop a business plan and be involved in local, state and federal competitions. Support will come from local businesses and the foundation. "Not only do you get a curriculum, but you get a taste of people who own their own business," Savini said.

Derry Area: Derry Area Middle School and High School will offer Chinese as an elective foreign language course. Marty Rovedatti- Jackson is the new primary principal at Grandview Elementary. A Classrooms of the Future grant of $154,406 will equip the high school with four classrooms with 25 laptops with video-conferencing capabilities, a Smart board and projector.

Elementary schools are initiating an anti-bullying program. "The hope is to change the culture and climate of the school," said Superintendent Roberta McCahan.

Franklin Regional: The annual capital improvements project included about $870,000 worth of work this summer, topped by replacement of the roof at Sloan Elementary School for $475,600. The visitors' locker room was refurbished and the high school's weight room was renovated and supplied with new weights and cardio equipment.

Superintendent Dr. P. Emery D'Arcangelo said the district is exploring on-line remediation plans for students who need additional support, "especially those not proficient at the state level." Parents will have on-line access to attendance information and grades.

Greensburg Central Catholic: The school is aligning its curriculum with the recently approved framework from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Evangelism and Catechesis.

"The USCCB has taken great time and care to outline in detail the curricular context for the formation of children and youth within our church," said Trent D. Bocan, superintendent of Catholic schools. "We wish to follow their lead and expertise in this area in order to create the most excellent formation programming possible within our Catholic schools."

The framework outlines a four-year course of instruction with six core courses and five electives and a specific sequence in which they are to be taught.

Greensburg Salem: New staff members include Kevin Binge as assistant principal at the high school; Lisa Hauswirth, middle school assistant principal; Todd McMillen, middle school principal; and Tammy Wolicki, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Extensive renovation projects include the replacement of sidewalks and concrete entrances at Robert F. Nicely and James H. Metzgar elementary schools and the main kitchen entrance at Amos K. Hutchinson. Parking lots at the middle school and Nicely have been resurfaced.

The district will implement a program called Best Practices in the classroom. "You identify strategies to support student learning so we can both work hard and smart," Thomas Shipley, director of secondary education. "Some strategies work better than others. We're working to identify those strategies as a focus of our professional development."

Greater Latrobe: The district is offering Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language elective at the junior and senior high schools. Last year, the district offered after-school Chinese classes. This is the first year for classes during the school day.

"With the global economy, it is definitely the language that we need to continue to embrace in order to make our students competitive in the work force," said senior high school Principal Dr. Georgia Teppert.

Hempfield Area: Student athletes face a pay-to-participate fee of $50, and students joining clubs will pay a $20 activities fee. Superintendent Dr. Terry Foriska said feedback from parents about the fees has been mostly positive. "This is an alternative to raising taxes," Foriska said. "Most parents understand the need for it." Elementary teachers will get training to help meet the needs of a wider range of students by tailoring lesson plans for children at different levels of learning.

Indiana: A guest educator from China will provide instruction in Chinese at the junior and senior high schools. The district is implementing the OLWEUS anti-bullying program, an international supported intervention program. The district received a $140,000 state Classrooms for the Future grant. "We'll be bringing a number of classrooms cutting-edge technology," said Superintendent Dr. Deborah Clawson.

Jeannette: The district is enhancing technology instruction with a Classrooms for the Future grant. "It will help us to implement technology into our high school in terms of equipment and teacher training," said Superintendent Sharon Marks. "Kids will have more access to technology." Marks said the district continues to work on improving academic achievement and staff development.

Kiski Area: Kiski Area High School will implement Nova Net, a Web- based, cyber instructional opportunity. The high school received a Classroom for the Future grant that will provide additional high- tech resources for students. The district will welcome 33 new teachers and administrators. A third, full-day kindergarten class has been added at Bell-Avon Elementary School.

Laurel Highlands: Laurel Highlands received an additional $67,000 for Classrooms for the Future. "We were able to put laptop computers and an overhead projector and Smart boards in 15 classrooms with the extra money," said Superintendent Dr. Gary Brain. "Students today are bombarded with technology. They learn differently; they're wired differently. There's so many different interactive-type things they can do."

A feasibility study is under way for renovations at the high school.

Ligonier Valley: Dr. Christine Oldham joins the district after serving as superintendent of the Ferndale Area School District near Johnstown since 2003. "It's going wonderfully," she said. "I've been spending the summer getting to know people and some of the things that make this district what it is." Secondary students will shift to seven, 50-minute classes to give them daily instruction in shorter time periods.

Monessen: Annual Yearly Progress test scores have spurred the district to write an improvement plan for the middle school, but the district will take it a step further. "We're going to draft a plan for the entire district for the improvement of scores," said Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Chelen. "We don't have to do that. We just have to do that for the middle school, but we want to be a step ahead." A new fiber-optic line now connects both school buildings. Lunch prices went up slightly.

Mount Pleasant Area: An extra half-hour of instructional time has been added to the school day to "help students and teachers meet their goals," said Superintendent Dr. Frank Watson. Ten Mount Pleasant teachers will be trained at the E-Academy, an on-line consortium of Westmoreland districts. The consortium is meant to develop curriculum that can be distributed on-line within districts. The Viking Spirit Pass gives senior citizens free admission to any school cultural or athletic events. Passes can be picked up in the high school office. Kenneth Williams is the new high school and middle school principal.

New Kensington-Arnold: The school board agreed to spend $1.8 million over three years to boost technology in grades 4-8. The district received a $138,000 Classrooms for the Future grant. "All of our students in grades 4 through 8 will have laptop computers and there will be one laptop for every two high school students," said Superintendent George Batterson. "We want to deliver instruction through the latest technology to the kids."

The district will be involved in a partnership with Jilin City, China. Two teachers from Jilin City will instruct Chinese classes, assisted by Valley High School teachers. In exchange, 22 students and 12 teachers from Valley High School, along with Batterson, will travel to Jilin City in December. "We're exchanging educational ideas with China," Batterson said. "We hope we will become one of the leading technological districts in Pennsylvania, but we're also embracing another culture that's becoming a world leader."

Norwin: Several activities are planned through the year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Norwin School District. On July 1, 1958, the North Huntingdon Township School District and the Irwin-North Irwin schools joined to form Norwin. "They've stuck together ever since," said Superintendent Dr. John Boylan. The long tradition of playing the homecoming football game on Saturday afternoon has been changed to Friday evening. The dance and parade will remain on Saturday.

Report cards will be available online. "Parents will be able by mid-year -- using name and password -- to log in and bring up their children and check their grades and attendance," Boylan said.

Penn-Trafford: The Connect Ed program, which is capable of sending personalized messages to thousands of parents, faculty and staff in seconds, will be used this year. "It sends out phone messages or e-mail messages to parents within minutes. Each person can have up to six numbers in the phone bank," said Assistant Superintendent Harry Smith. In the case of the bomb threat called in to the high school in November, "we could have instantly sent messages to parents of high school students," Smith said. "Within five to 10 minutes everyone would have been contacted."

Renovation work continues at the high school, including the replacement of lockers and the roof.

Southmoreland Area: Two large-scale building projects -- a new middle school and a renovated elementary school -- are set for completion at the end of October. Students will be moved to the new building between the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. Dan Krofcheck was hired as the new dean of students and Lynn Huggins as food services director. The district will hire a reading teacher to work with students who have a need for extra help and a desire to be challenged.

Uniontown: The district continues its reading initiative, Response To Intervention, for grades K-4. "Each child is assessed with the use of an electronic Palm Pilot," said Debbie Rittenhouse, curriculum coordinator. "Once they're assessed, they're put into one of three different tiers: Intensive for those who are struggling the most, strategic and benchmark, for those reading at their level or higher. It's a way of addressing students' reading needs."

The district is mapping out a five-year curriculum for each subject. Teachers work in groups to review what needs to be taught in each subject each month "so you don't have a teacher going down on their own track," Rittenhouse said. "The whole district is focused on that."

Yough: Dr. Denise Shipe is the new superintendent. She served a term as acting superintendent in Ambridge Area School District, nine years as a principal at Shaler and 15 years as a teacher at Steel Valley. West Newton Elementary School reopens after being closed for one year.

The dual enrollment program has been expanded from two to five subjects. Juniors and seniors can now enroll in college math, chemistry, foreign language, English and psychology.

Reporter Emily Mullin contributed to this story.

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