Student shuffle angers parents
If the Altoona Area school board decides to close Wright Elementary School and turn Washington-Jefferson Elementary School into a preschool, all of the elementary schools in the district will be affected.
The district intends to absorb an influx of 560 students from the two schools at other buildings by reshuffling school attendance districtwide.
To achieve financial savings and decrease excess building capacity left by declining enrollment, the district’s architect, Vern McKissick, was hired to generate school closing options, which he presented in January.
On Monday, the board will hold public hearings on the potential closings and then wait 90 days to vote on the closings, which will be after the current school year ends.
While some parents are questioning whether the board has thoroughly considered options to maintain small class sizes, McKissick said his plans are designed to eliminate the current small class sizes to increase efficiency.
Part of the $1.6 million annual savings he estimates the district could save from the closures is from elimination of up to 10 teaching positions.
Teacher union president Doug Rosenberry said he is not sure there are enough teachers retiring to cut 10 positions without layoffs.
“We hate to lose any teaching positions. When it comes to educating our students, the lower the class size the more beneficial it is for them,” he said.
Rosenberry said the board has not put a retirement incentive in place this year to encourage senior teachers to retire and therefore avoid layoffs.
“But when the district comes up with a plan, you may find teachers at that point who have been slotted to take a grade level they are not comfortable with and [they] may retire,” he said.
Parents opposed to the closings and the resulting school reassignments for their children have banded together through a Facebook page, “Altoona Elementary Families for Action.”
The page, established by Pleasant Valley Elementary parent Cheri Squires, gained 108 members since it was created on March 3.
“The feeling of parents is that the board is running the schools as a business instead of a school district,” Squires said.
Parents in the group have scheduled a meeting for 2 p.m. Sunday at Family Pizza, 200 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd., to share concerns and information about the board’s plans prior to Monday’s hearings.
Class sizes, boundary exceptions
As of February, slightly more than 30 classes in kindergarten through sixth grade had between 15 and 20 students, a Mirror analysis of district enrollment shows. Twenty one of them are at Wright or Washington-Jefferson.
McKissick said if the two schools close, the district plans that no elementary classes will have fewer than 21 or 22 students.
He said the district intends to compensate for the influx of the Wright and W-J students by pulling about 720 students out of schools they’ve attended through boundary exceptions.
Boundary exceptions are granted by the district. One reason for an exception could be so students in single-parent families may attend a school within the district where a relative can provide care before or after school.
Spokeswoman Paula Foreman said the district has been phasing out boundary exceptions over the past three years in an effort to equalize school enrollment.
Boundary exceptions at Logan have contributed to overloaded class sizes and required the hiring of three to four teachers the school would not otherwise have needed, substitute Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said.
Jill Daloisio is principal at both Wright and Logan. She said she has seen how boundary students have benefited from attending Logan and said parents of boundary students are valuable to the school’s operation.
“A lot of volunteers are parents of boundary students. They are in the PTO. They are very involved,” she said.
There are 180 boundary students at Pleasant Valley Elementary, said Flo Brunner, a volunteer at the school and the mother of three.
Although her children do not attend Pleasant Valley through boundary exceptions, she said their education would be affected because parents of boundary students direct fundraising efforts, serve on the Parent Teacher Association and help out teachers as “unpaid teacher aides,” she said.
While McKissick’s plans eliminate low-end class sizes, they appear to decrease class sizes districtwide.
There are currently 16 classes in kindergarten to third grade with between 26 and 30 students, February enrollment figures show. McKissick’s plans include only four classes that size.
On paper McKissick’s student distribution evens out class sizes, but that may not last. Enrollment is prone to change due to factors including the No Child Left Behind Act.
Since 2005, every student attending a public Title I school identified for “school improvement” because of low standardized test scores must be offered the choice to transfer to another public school within the district that has not been identified for improvement.
In the 2010-11 school year, 32 Penn-Lincoln Elementary students transferred to Juniata, Ebner or McAuliffe Heights Program at Irving.
In 2011-12, four Penn-Lincoln students transferred to McAuliffe Heights and 19 students transferred to Pleasant Valley Elementary, according to the district’s website.
Attendance areas redrawn
Aside from erasing boundary exceptions, the board’s plan also redraws some attendance areas to evenly distribute enrollment.
As a result, students currently attending Juniata Gap but who live near McAuliffe Heights, a magnet school, would go to Juniata Elementary.
About 100 students from Lakemont who currently attend Baker would transfer to Pleasant Valley.
Ray could not say how many students would be affected by planned attendance area changes for next year.
Some transportation issues may also arise. For example, the majority of Wright students walk to school except for about two busloads of students.
Ray said at Washington-Jefferson, except for children who are transported by van, she doesn’t believe there are any children who ride buses.
With the redrawn lines, she anticipates some students will be bused who aren’t now, because walking to school would require crossing high-traffic streets, such as Washington-Jefferson students who would cross Lloyd Street to attend Logan Elementary.
According to state mandates, transportation is not provided for elementary students who live within 1.5 miles of their school and who are not in high-traffic areas.
Cost of transportation has yet to be answered.
“That is a key decision-making factor for the board,” McKissick said.
Ray said the administration expects to have answers to school enrollment and transportation prior to the board’s vote in June.
“Once the board hears from parents, we get a sense of whether the board is going to close schools or not,” she said. “If we get a sense they are going to close schools, we have to move on transitioning,” including student orientation at their new schools.
“I can’t wait until June to start doing that,” she added.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.