Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Letter to the Editor: Closing a school no longer is an option

on November 20, 2013 11:00 AM

I certainly respect Bill Balint’s two-decade-plus service to the district as a school board director but the times they are a-changing.

We can no longer consider closing a school building, as he did in a letter to the editor published Sunday, Nov. 17, in Gazette, without considering a building program. The district has added 150 students in kindergarten through fifth grade since 2007. That is an additional classroom each year for the last six years. The projections by Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), our internal projections and then verified with the 2010 census all point to this trend continuing. This one fact, of increasing enrollment, makes mothballing a school without replacing the lost classrooms inconceivable.

To close Horace Mann and lose its 18 classrooms means that we will initially have to build a dozen more classrooms with support spaces, taking on additional debt and long-term expense. The current debt will be retired in less than 15 years, giving that board tremendous flexibility to meet the demands of 2025. I do not think it prudent to spend 10 million dollars to save one.

The only way to avoid a major building program is to move the fifth grade to the junior high school. Absolutely no academic advantage devolves to our students to support this move. It will certainly have a measurable negative academic impact on the fifth grade and will devastate the middle school teaming approach that was piloted while you were on the board. There is not room to do both, maintain the teaming middle school approach and move the fifth grade. Since its inception the team teaching concept has proven to be academically successful and must not be dismantled.

Reducing kindergarten to a half day will save less than 1 percent of our current budget. This move will adversely affect our most vulnerable students when they are in the greatest need for educational and emotional support. This early education allows for early intervention, which is a proven method of ultimately achieving success. This is especially important for our economically disadvantaged students who have done so poorly on the state testing. Furthermore, in-depth longitudinal studies show that children from these types of programs are more likely to graduate from both high school and college and go on to earn substantially more income over their lifetimes, stay out of jail while avoiding drugs and alcohol problems, than children that were denied this opportunity.

You are quite correct in that this school board and all school boards across the commonwealth face dire financial straits. The retirement funding fiasco, compounded by the crisis in health care, multiplied by ineffective state and federal funding, reduced by more and more unfunded mandates makes all of our decisions particularly difficult. There will be no white knight, no cavalry charge to save the day; we are on our own. However, we cannot ask our children to wait while we get our house in order. These children deserve the very best education we can give them within our financial capacities.

The proposed grade realignment has much to recommend it. First and foremost is that class size will be equalized across the district. We currently have classes ranging in size from 15 to 28. Guess which ones are doing better on all measurements? Twenty-five percent of our classes are above our current class size guidelines. The proposed grade realignment will allow us to equalize this class size with the current staffing. In short, we get to lower our classroom populations, reduce costs and add robust intervention all at the same time. This will result in a much-improved educational situation for all of our students at lower expenses for the taxpayers.

We will also be able to focus grade-appropriate resources to fit the needs of those particular students. This focus will extend to staff as well as facilities. We will be able to offer a robust intervention program and staff it with specialists in behavior, speech, reading and math. This intervention means that no longer will we just pass kids onto the next the level because they age-out of a grade but because they actually achieve academic success at an early age. This robust intervention means that the goal of having every child reading at grade level by the third grade is absolutely achievable.

The board has begun reviewing the graduation requirements, as it should do on a regular basis. I resent the assumption by you and others that this board is set upon a path of academic destruction.

I have several basic questions about the curriculum that I’d like answered. Why do we wait until junior high to begin to study a foreign language? Why, if we are preparing students for “an ever changing global society,” do we not require a foreign language for graduation? Why do we require four years of physical education and only three of math and science? Why is biology not a laboratory course? How can we incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into our curriculum?

The current requirements are mute on distance learning, discourage early graduation and dual enrollment, and allow little flexibility to meet individual needs. The current graduation requirements were written well before the public schools competed for students with cyber schools, home schooling and charter schools.

It is time that we investigated the possibility of awarding our students a high school diploma along with a two-year college degree like some districts are doing. How do we best prepare our students for the 21st century? This entire conversation is about actually achieving academic excellence and has nothing to do with saving money.

By the way, I know how well the majority of the IASD students would do on your quiz: excellent. On state tests they regularly achieve 90-plus in English and social studies, and they score threes and fours on the AP tests. The vast majority are unbelievably great students, who are smart, polite, honest, moral, hard working and enthusiastic.

In short these are the people that you want in charge of your future. They are certainly our future and we had better do right by them.

 

Tom Harley

president

Indiana school board

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