Washington-Jefferson Elementary School was formed in the wake of the Altoona Area school board closing Jefferson and Washington elementary schools, Tim Wesner of Bell Avenue remembers.
"For some reason, when you close Washington-Jefferson, there will be no schools left in the East End," he said during the school board's public hearing in March.
The board is considering repurposing Washington-Jefferson as a preschool and closing Wright Elementary because enrollment has declined from 4,900 elementary students districtwide in 1994-95 to about 4,350 students currently. And enrollment is expected to continue declining steadily.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Vern McKissick, a consultant working for the school district, describes how district enrollment has steadily declined over the past 25 years during a recent meeting at the Altoona Area Junior High School.
Parents from Wright and Washington-Jefferson who spoke at the hearing were concerned with their children entering different schools and having larger class sizes.
Some Wright students, who are now in some of the smallest classes in the district, would be moved to Ebner Elementary, where 12 classes are projected to contain 26 to 29 students. Ebner would be the only school in the district with a majority of classes near the maximum class size of 30, according to McKissick's plans posted after the hearing.
"My son has a hard time functioning in a class of 16, but he is too smart to be in a special class. Put him in a class of 30 kids - he will completely shut down," Washington-Jefferson parent Renee Beach said during the hearing.
The board must wait 90 days from the March 11 hearing before voting, which sets a potential vote on the closings for June.
Since the hearing, school board members have said parents' messages have been heard.
"I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking of ways to accommodate," Cheryl Rupp said during a school board meeting. "I want you to know we work hard at this."
Retired teacher: 'needy' students impacted
Even though school board members and school administrators might not purposefully be targeting low-income families, a retired teacher said during the hearing, those students have been continually targeted through school building closings.
In her 33-year teaching career at Altoona Area, Paulette Frederick had advocated for schools in the district to remain open. Garfield Elementary, in 1979, had the most needy population in the district, she said. Currently, students who could have walked to Garfield are bused to Wright.
"It was a small neighborhood school. All children walked. They had relatives in the neighborhood; they knew which houses were safe," Frederick said.
The reasons the administration and school board have given for closing Wright are the same reasons given for closing Garfield, she said.
"They [students] were taken from Garfield and bused further to Wright, and now you are taking them further away from their neighbors and safe zones."
The proposed plans for Washington-Jefferson and Wright elementary schools also could result in redistricting students near the former Irving Elementary School, which houses the McAuliffe Heights program.
Some parents have been angered that the board's plans to close schools and reassign students to different buildings across the district but completely excludes McAuliffe Heights, the district's magnet school, from planned changes.
Students chosen by
Parents who live in the neighborhood around McAuliffe Heights and who want a chance for their child to attend the school must wait in line with other parents districtwide.
"Parents put their children on the waiting list as soon as they are born," district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said.
The school has the lowest proportion of low-income household students in the district. There are 28.1 percent of students at McAuliffe Heights from households that are income-eligible for free lunches, according to a study by district architect, Vern McKissick.
The average percentage of students across the district's 10 elementary schools eligible for free lunches is 61 percent.
According to Pennsylvania System of School Assessment results from the state Education Department, McAuliffe Heights is one of four Altoona schools where the special needs student population is so small that the school is not measured by special education test scores.
Substitute Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said students are not chosen based on where they live or whether they have individualized education plans.
"Often times, it's a lottery, to be fair and equitable," Ray said.
When the McAuliffe Heights program opened in Irving Elementary school in 1996, Irving students who would have been displaced were allowed to remain there if their parents agreed to the dress code and school service hours. People in public housing and the immediate neighborhood who attended Irving as a regular public school were promised their children would have "first dibs"on McAuliffe Heights, Frederick said.
"That was not to be forever," Ray said.
Students residing in the boundaries of the former Irving Elementary School have been reassigned to Juniata Gap Elementary and could be reassigned to Juniata elementary with the planned school closings.
Ray said parent applications to McAuliffe Heights are chosen by lottery, but to enroll a child in the school, parents must "take a tour of the building, you must write a letter explaining why you want [your child] to go to the school and request to be put on the list," she said.
'Envisioned to help
During a public hearing in March regarding plans to redistrict schools, Frederick voiced her opinion that McAuliffe Heights had more resources for students than other district schools.
"They put this thing in [McAuliffe Heights in place of Irving Elementary], and there was so much brouhaha about how wonderful it's going to be and how these children were going to outwork and outgrade everyone else in the district. ... We had to build it up to make sure it sounded like it was working better than everybody else," Frederick said.
The school was planned to focus on math and science, to prepare students for the 21st century. It has been recognized nationally by Apple computers as each child has access to a laptop, the school's website states.
Suzanne Vincent of Cherry Street said she had been scheduled for a walkthrough but had to reschedule because of a family emergency.
"They didn't have any openings to reschedule," Vincent said.
Frank Meloy, former assistant superintendent who was integral in planning McAuliffe Heights, said the school has been used to pilot programs and technology for other schools to use. Regarding enrollment, he said the district should continue its lottery system.
"They need to continue what they are doing. It's lottery-drawn. Whoever is chosen is chosen. It's done so it is a fair opportunity," Meloy said.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.