INDIANA name and colors slide

Parents and other school district residents reminded the Indiana Area school board on Monday that their dissent of the Summit Learning program hasn’t waned, even though the administration scaled back the program and put it on “opt-in” status for the 2018-19 school year.

Summit is a brand of mass customized learning, a style of teaching that relies on students following a computer-based curriculum and relying on online sources to achieve goals set in their classes. Instead of delivering lectures to entire classes, teachers tailor their instruction to individual students based on their pace of learning.

“Just because a lot of parents are not here doesn’t mean it has been deemed OK. It is not,” said Thomas Kauffman, a parent of a sixth-grader in the pilot program. He questioned whether the administration has actively polled parents of fifth-graders and the current sixth-graders for what they want for their kids next year.

“Traditional school should be the norm. We’re still very concerned,” he said.

Parents began protesting the Summit program in October, complaining that it was a radical departure from traditional forms of instruction, that it was introduced on short notice, and that the online resources provided in the California company’s curriculum were inappropriate for Indiana County students in the 10- to 12-year-old age range.

“I come to the meetings again and again because of the fear that this will become mainstream and there will not be an opt-in later,” said Julie Brunetto. “That is my biggest concern as I have a third-grader coming up.”

Brunetto said her older child, a sixth-grader, has been uplifted since Summit was rolled back.

“She is excited about certain classes that have been taken off ... excited that there is discussion, not just lectures, but discussion and excitement about the subject again.”

Brunetto also warned that if Summit becomes mandatory for students, she would move her family from the district.

“That scares me to death and that’s why I will be here for every meeting.”

Mihaela Nowak acknowledged that the science and social studies classes have reverted to the traditional teaching method while Summit is used only for math and English Language Arts classes.

She, too, said she stood for other parents who were unable to attend the meeting.

“We have invested in child care, we have families, we have jobs. We have put a lot into this. If one of us is here, all of us are here,” Nowak said.

“We communicate constantly with parents from eight other states who are fighting this same fight,” Nowak said. “We are not the only district who saw this, constantly being belittled and pushed back by the administration that doesn’t understand that this is not good. This is a bad program, bad to the core, and we feel very strongly about that.”

Board members handled only one matter related to Summit on the business agenda, the administration’s request to authorize travel for eight staff members for updated training on the Summit Learning program from March 11 to 13 in Hyattsville, Md.

The board delayed action.

District Superintendent Dale Kirsch said the training is part of an organized sequence of sessions and would be unlike another session set for the summer.

Those listed to attend include Assistant Superintendent Jeff Boyer and Junior High Principal Michael Minnick. The others are sixth-grade teachers or mentors who consult with students to guide their progress in Summit, but only two of the teachers use Summit in their classrooms.

While Summit would cover the costs of the conference and lodging, the administration proposed allowing $250 each for transportation and other expenses.

Board members hesitated to approve the request, in part “due to the uncertainty of Summit,” several said.

They voted 6 to 3 to table the request until February. Board President Walter Schroth and directors Barbara Barker, Tom Harley, Terry Kerr, Tamara Leeper and Ute Lowery approved the delay. John Barbor, Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro and Doug Steve voted no.

In other business, the board:

• Approved a plan to allow junior high school students who live on the western end of Indiana Borough to ride school buses to and from school.

District Transportation Coordinator Mike Travis scheduled a series of new stops for five buses that travel the Armstrong Township and Shelocta routes but are not filled to capacity. Ordinarily the buses travel nonstop — except for the Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad crossing at Station Avenue — between the school and the White Township border.

Parents of sixth-graders in the Third and Fourth Wards appealed to the board in the fall to provide transportation. The district policy is to provide bus service only for secondary students who live more than two miles from school or whose walking path is considered hazardous.

The board agreed to provide transportation for students living more than a mile from the junior high. There is no additional cost to the district, but the district does not qualify for additional reimbursement from the state.

• Revived a request to approve a contract with EduLink Inc. for software program designed to monitor and track school district employees’ compliance with board policies, administrative regulations and other legal requirements.

Lowery remained cautious about the language in the software user agreement; Barbor suggested that the provisions are the norm.

“It’s a terrible contract, like any other contract in the field,” Barbor said. “But if the software does what they say it does, it’s worth every penny.

“Lousy contracts like this come with every software package on the market.”

The board voted 7 to 2 to pay the annual licensing fee of $7,821, which is based on the number of employees that would be registered into the program. Cuccaro and Kerr dissented.

• Hired Stephanie Ferraro as a long-term substitute teacher of German at the junior and senior high schools at a daily pay rate of $240.64 pending approval of an emergency teaching permit.

• Approved a leave of absence for Ben Franklin Elementary School para-educator Mary Angelo until the end of March.

• Revised the dates for the varsity baseball team’s trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to March 20 to 23.

• Approved an educational field trip to Washington, D.C., on April 6 by about 50 senior high Art Portfolio Club students and French students and two adults, at a cost of $180 for two substitutes.

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.