Penn Hills board, superintendent defend elementary center plan

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David Wolf realizes that Penn Hills school officials may regard him as an annoyance.

He keeps asking them to re-examine their plan to consolidate students in kindergarten through fourth grade in an elementary center to open in 2012.

Mr. Wolf, a software engineer and father of five Penn Hills students, has repeatedly urged the district to look at research that says schools with fewer than 500 students have higher attendance, achievement and participation in extracurricular activities and less violence.

"There is no research that says that students do better in a large school," he told the school board again at a recent meeting.

Mr. Wolf is one of a core group of Penn Hills parents who have actively voiced concerns about the elementary center plan.

They have told school officials that their concern is not for their own children -- most will be well beyond elementary school age by 2012 -- but for the effect on future students and the community.

They also have affirmed that they understand the financial reasons for consolidation. District enrollment and revenue have been declining for several years and will likely continue to do so.

But they still want the district to provide evidence that an elementary center with about 1,600 students will educate children as well as smaller schools.

"I've heard of nobody who wants an elementary center, but the decision has been made," laments Mr. Wolf. "Nothing is up for debate."

The elementary center is part of a districtwide construction plan, which also includes a new high school (grades nine-12) and improvements to Linton Middle School. All construction is expected to be complete by fall 2012.

The elementary center will be in two connected buildings on the current campus of Dible Elementary on Jefferson Road. A third building on the site will house district administration.

School officials have said that consolidating the district's four elementary schools will save $8 million per year and that new construction will not require tax increases.

The estimated $103 million cost of elementary and high school construction will come from state reimbursements and a bond issue. Federal stimulus funds will cover middle school improvements, which will serve grades 5 through 8 starting in 2012.

The elementary center will be the first in Allegheny County for a district the size of Penn Hills, which has about 4,900 students.

Data from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit indicate that the 16 districts in the county with populations between 3,000 and 6,000 students have three to seven elementaries. Ten of the 22 school districts with under 3,000 students have one elementary.

Asked for evidence that a large center will educate children as well as a smaller school, Superintendent Joseph Carroll said in an e-mail: "There is likely an equal number of studies out there that say a smaller school is not necessarily better."

He added that a recent study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation concluded that teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement.

"The district did its own internal research and determined what was best for Penn Hills," Dr. Carroll wrote. "Keep in mind that we have been looking at the configuration of the district for some time now. We had stacks of information we examined and I could not give you citations at this point in time. But, after careful consideration and review, these are our conclusions."

Dr. Carroll's responses rankle critics of the elementary center plan.

"Do you think this is the best educational option for Penn Hills? We haven't heard word one from you," said parent Jane Marra at the June 25 school board meeting.

Mr. Wolf said he believes Dr. Carroll is passionate about the success of the school district, but as a first-time superintendent, may not have the experience to lead significant change.

Asked to provide more detail about the educational rationale for the center, Dr. Carroll wrote that it will combine support personnel for students in one location, offer an auditorium for presentations and events (which no current elementary school has), provide more chances for teachers to meet and collaborate and have multiple administrators on site

He added that the "school-within-a-school" concept -- kindergarten through grade two will be one building, grades three and four in the other -- will ensure "a smaller-school atmosphere while functioning in a larger physical setting."

The center also will support students' acclimation to middle school, he said. Research shows it is best to minimize the number of moves students make during school, he said.

School board members have noted other benefits of the center. Margie Krogh said the consolidations will preserve programs that might otherwise be too expensive to continue at individual schools.

Director Barry Patterson often speaks about the physical benefits of a new facility, such as state-of-the-art technology, air conditioning and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Large elementaries are not unusual in school districts with similar size populations. O'Hara Elementary in Fox Chapel has 675 in kindergarten through grade five. Pine-Richland has a building for 1,000 students in grades four through six.

And Ms. Krogh notes that Penn-Hebron had 950 students in kindergarten through grade six when her children attended in the 1980s. She recalls being afraid to send her children to such a large school, but she changed her mind when she realized how many resources there were. She said parents will feel the same way when the new center opens.


Freelance writer Tina Calabro can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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