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BACK TO SCHOOL: Indiana realignment means big changes

by on August 17, 2014 1:59 AM

If ever there was a mix of emotions over the start of school — eagerness, sadness, excitement, anxiety — it’s this year with the realignment of the four elementary schools of the Indiana Area School District.

Gone are most of the boundary lines that determined which schools the kids attend. Rather than kindergarteners through fifth-graders attending each of the four schools, the district is assigning the K-through-third students to the larger buildings in White Township — East Pike and Ben Franklin schools — while the fourth- and fifth-graders will study in the smaller Indiana Borough buildings, Horace Mann and Dwight Eisenhower.

The only real remaining boundary is the line separating the two easternmost schools from those to the west.

It’s a plan that evolved from years of debate and planning. The school board, with input from parents and taxpayers, analyzed enrollment trends and mulled over whether to close one of the schools.

And that was only one of the options.

The district eased the crunch on the elementary buildings in September 2011 when sixth-graders were moved into Indiana Area Junior High School and the ninth grade was bumped up to the senior high.

School directors and administrators continued to study the dueling issues of enrollment versus economy, and as recently as October had boiled the matter down to a choice.

On one hand, the district could hire many new teachers, divide the students into classes that meet the optimal student-teacher ratios (20 to 1 for K to three, and 25 to 1 for grades four and five), and keep the students in the same schools.

Or the district could concentrate the grade levels into few buildings, meaning fewer teachers would be needed too maintain desired class sizes.

Last fall, the school board voted to let district voters decide, by referendum in the spring primary, whether to authorize a tax increase estimated at up to 12 mills to pay for the teachers needed to maintain status quo enrollment.

But in January, the board rescinded the motion and decided on the realignment of the schools, a plan that becomes reality in two weeks.

Cue the moving trucks.

The summer months have been spent by teachers and maintenance people boxing up everything associated with the early grades in the borough schools and moving it all into East Pike and Ben Franklin. Trading places, all the fourth- and fifth-grade materials from the township schools have been shipped to Horace Mann and Eisenhower.

“We set up like a box brigade,” said Dan Wilson, head custodian at Horace Mann.

The building has no elevators. Workers lined the front walk and stairway to shuttle the boxes to the second floor.

“What we did was make a human chain,” he said. “Overall it was a fast move. Faster than we expected. This school is ready.”

When classes start, some students will adjust to new surroundings they might never have seen if they had stayed in the same grade school until they advanced to junior high. No longer will Indiana district kids stay in the same school for six or seven years (counting pre-K).

They’re not the only ones.

Some teachers who have been entrenched in their primary school classrooms for their entire careers have spent the summer adjusting to new surroundings.

For some teachers, the moves are serendipitous. Husband-and-wife fifth-grade instructors Brian and Greta Helsel, who had been separately assigned to East Pike and Ben Franklin schools, are ending up next door to each other on the second floor of Horace Mann School.

Others like Barbara Bell, a fourth-grade teacher, will especially empathize with students who move from the only schools they’ve ever known.

After 35 years at East Pike, Bell spent the past week preparing her new classroom in Eisenhower.

“I’ve had kids and their parents; I’ve had generations of students out there. So it is a little bit emotional,” Bell said. “I’ve worked with a lot of the same people for a lot of years, friends that I love and trusted. But the good thing is, it’s not all about bricks and mortar, and I have a coworker who has come over with me.”

Bell was paired up in the move with teacher Zack Whited, who taught eight years at East Pike.

“It’s been a trade-off. As hard as it was, I am so glad he was able to make the move with me to Eisenhower.”

Bell said she and Whited understand how it will be for the students who attended third- and fourth-grade at Ben Franklin School last year and have to get accustomed to new surroundings in Eisenhower now.

They may turn right instead of left to get to their new rooms. The sun may shine in the windows from another direction.

Bell said that puts her and other relocated teachers in the right place to help students make their adjustments.

“All the district teachers are working hard and doing everything possible to make the restructuring a smooth transition for the students,” Bell said. “We are all concerned about the kids and how the changes impact their families.”

There’s a slight change in school hours beginning this year. Elementary classes will start at 9 a.m. and dismiss between 3:40 and 3:55 p.m., a change of about 5 minutes from 2013-14 class hours, according to Superintendent Dale Kirsch.

For all the other facts and figures concerning the realignment, the Indiana Area School District website has dedicated a special category on its user menu to help inform parents, students and others. The site provides links to documents that explain how the new system works and what it’s supposed to accomplish. Visit for the list of documents, or for the answers to the most common questions.

The district also focused on the realignment in a story in the Summer 2014 edition of “Indiana Reporter,” a newsletter mailed to residents of Indiana Area School District.

According to District Superintendent Dale Kirsch, here are five things you need to know about the elementary school realignment:

1. More students will ride buses.

Students attending Ben Franklin and Eisenhower schools in the west side of the district will ride the same buses, and those attending the east side schools, East Pike and Horace Mann, will ride together. Until now, Indiana Borough students have never had bus rides because they have lived less than a mile from their neighborhood schools, Horace Mann and Eisenhower. But now, because the youngest kids will be bused out to the White Township schools, all borough residents will be offered a ride.

“We’re offering transportation to all the borough students, even those who are within walking distance,” Kirsch said. “They don’t have to, but the ride will be available for them. We’re not eligible to claim them for reimbursement for the state; we just have to track them separately.”

2. Class-size projections are on target.

“Right now we’re still under or at the optimum levels for most classes,” Kirsch said. “I think we have one of the 4-5 classes with 26 students.

“In K to 3, they’re all at 20 or under, at least for now. We think kindergarten is most uncertain because we can have more kids move in. But right now it looks like we’re going to be in good shape compared to where we’ve been in the past.

“We have actually reduced a lot of class sizes. It depends on where you are. If your child had 14 in the class, it went up, but if you had 28, it went down.”

3. Despite the debate over music education at school board meetings, the district is still offering the same classes.

“We reduced the music positions and people thought we were reducing the music department, but we still have all certified music teachers. We were able to reduce a position because of scheduling efficiency,” Kirsch said. “We still have certified music, art, library and phys ed teachers.”

4. The district has saved money on salaries.

“If you compare apples to apples, the staff we have now versus what was required by the original alignment, I think 14 more positions would have been required to do what we’re able to do now if we still had the four K to 5 schools.”

The number includes the new teachers that would have been hired — and required an estimated 12-mill tax increase — to keep class sizes balanced this year. The payroll would have been $1.3 million more.

But in addition to the positions that turned out not to be necessary, the realignment allowed a real-life reduction of 4.3 teaching positions for the new school year, according to district figures.

5. The number of students changing schools because of realignment is smaller than it appears.

Those who attended kindergarten through second grades at East Pike and Ben Franklin last year are staying put. So are last year’s third- and fourth-graders at Horace Mann and Eisenhower schools. All of last year’s fifth-graders are automatically moving to the junior high, regardless of the alignment. That leaves only about half of the students in the elementary grades who have to move this year.

But there’s a quirk for the kids who attended second-grade at Eisenhower and Horace Mann last year. They’re moving into the third grade at the White Township schools now but will return to their original schools next year for fourth grade.

“But the good thing is they are moving and staying with their peers,” Kirsch said.

PHOTO: Fourth-grade teachers Zack Whited and Barbara Bell unpacked supplies in their new classrooms at Eisenhower Elementary School. (Tom Peel/Gazette)

See what's new at other Indiana County schools here.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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August 17, 2014 1:58 AM
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