Neighbors hope AASD reconsiders closings

Penny and Dan Hatch have lived across from Washington-Jefferson Elementary School for 54 years, and their three grown children attended the school.

“I’ve noticed a decline in children over the years,” Penny said. “It’s a shame for it to close, but I don’t disagree with it as long as students are accommodated.”

There are more than 2,100 excess elementary seats across the Altoona Area School District. Wright and Washington-Jefferson enrollments have declined the most of the district’s 10 elementary schools.

“Right now that is one of the reasons for closing them,” Acting Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said.

But low enrollment at the schools has a beneficial side-effect – small class sizes that parents are hoping to maintain.

Sarah Ammerman and Melissa Helsel said their children have been in classes as small as 16 students at Washington-Jefferson.

There is no guarantee classes would remain that small if the board closes the schools and realigns district boundaries to balance class sizes districtwide.

Ray said the district’s goal is to have no more than 26 students per class in kindergarten through third grade and no more than 30 students in fourth through sixth grades. The district realignment is meant to benefit students who are in classes larger than those targets.

“The board really does need to reconsider,” Pastor Chris Heller said.

Heller directs an after-school program for Wright Elementary students at Hope Community Church and is also a former classroom aide.

“Bigger is not better for these kids. They need TLC,” she said.

Wright Elementary is located in a mostly low-income, single-parent neighborhood, she said.

There are going to be consequences whether the schools remain open or close, Board President Ryan Beers said.

Potential tax increases might be needed to operate the schools if they remain open, he said.

“I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but its definitely possible,” he said.

A major consequence of closing the schools, parents say, is transportation trouble.

Robin McClain has walked her four children to Washington-Jefferson throughout their school careers.

“Not a lot of people have cars here. There are a lot of low-income people here.”

She anticipates a decline in parent involvement at students’ new schools.

“The school wants people to be involved, but it’s hard when you don’t have vehicles,” she said.

Wright parents share those concerns.

Ashley Montgomery, 25, walks her three children, ages 4, 5 and 9, to Wright every school day, and she volunteers at the Head Start program there.

“I don’t want Wright to go anywhere,” she said. “It’s going to be hard for me to transport my kids. I don’t have a driver’s license,” she said.

“If I have an emergency, I can’t get to Juniata Gap and Ebner Elementary.”

The district’s plan is to bus Wright students to Juniata Gap and Ebner schools. Washington-Jefferson students would attend Logan and Penn-Lincoln schools.

Transportation details need to be worked out, Ray said. But she said children who live in the same neighborhoods would attend schools together next year. She hopes that reduces stress related to losing school friends.

Montgomery said her children “love” Wright and “their teachers couldn’t be better than what they already are.”

Ryan Wood, 30, is a Wright alumnus and has fond memories of attending the school. He regularly walks his young niece home from Wright Elementary and is concerned about uprooting her from her friends at school.

“She’s doing great here,” he said.

“And all of her friends are there.”

The schools are not the oldest buildings in the district, but closing the schools would result in $1.6 million savings annually from personnel and building costs, project architect Vern McKissick said. And Wright is the most “energy inefficient building,” McKissick said.

Washington-Jefferson opened in 1973 as the result of combining Washington and Jefferson elementary schools.

Wright opened in 1971 after other schools were closed.

Wright and Washington-Jefferson, the smallest of the district’s elementary schools, at one time were at the cutting edge of educational innovation, said Ray, who was a teacher at Washington-Jefferson.

Teachers pioneered an “open classroom” concept for student learning. Having no walls separating grade levels allowed large groups of students to be taught in one classroom among a team of a few teachers. Ray said she and another teacher taught a group of 93 students with the help of a classroom aide.

“There was opportunity for teachers to be creative with student projects,” she said. “At that time that was the innovation being recommended. It had to do with socialization and opportunity for students to work with different teachers.”

The open room classroom model ceased in lieu of curriculum regulations and state standards, which have in recent years tarnished Wright Elementary School morale.

For a second year, Wright would be classified by the state as a low-achieving school in 2013-14 based on reading and math standardized test scores. As a result, students would have the option to transfer to a different school on a state-funded scholarship.

The Mirror reported last year that 11 students transferred from Wright on that scholarship.

“I’m glad they are considering closing the school. That is the worst school I’ve ever seen,” Robert Miller of 15th Avenue said. He has one child attending the school

“It’s in the worst location. Who would build a school in the top of a hill like that? And it’s run terribly bad. I don’t particularly like the idea of shipping kids to other schools, but it is ridiculous how bad they run Wright, ” he said.

“It’s got the grades to show it, too.”

But Wright and Washington-Jefferson’s closing could negatively affect surrounding communities.

About 85 percent of Wright students and 82 percent of Washington-Jefferson students receive free lunches. The schools also offer free lunches through the summer months.

The district is working on finding free lunch sites within walking distance for the same kids, district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said.

Chuck Doughenbaugh doesn’t have schoolchildren, but the 11th Street resident across from Wright hopes the school remains open because it will deter crime he said.

“In the summer time I see drug deals here all the time. There is never a dull moment, but when school is in, it’s different,” he said.

Altoona police declined to comment on that.

Wright’s location makes it a tough sell, McKissick said, but the district has received an inquiry from an agency interested in purchasing a building for training purposes, Foreman said.

At the other end of town, the district plans to use Washington-Jefferson as a new preschool center. Preschool programs are spread out through the district, Ray said.

A public hearing for both schools is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. March 11 at Altoona Area Junior High School.

“It will be an opportunity for the board to address reasons why we are doing this,” Beers said. It is also an opportunity for the board to hear different reasons for why the board should not close the schools, he said.