Community gets a look at new Penn Hills Elementary School

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For years, Jackie Kruzic taught art in an old locker room.

A remnant of the room’s former use was evident in the shower heads still attached to the walls. Only a small single sink was available for students to wash their hands and materials. Access to the sink was a constant battle for students, she said, and she would often have to wait until after class or the end of the school day to clean up. Students would sit in uneven three-legged chairs at old tables found in storage rooms around the school to do their lessons.

But for her and her students at Penn Hebron Elementary School in Penn Hills School District, the room lacking central air conditioning was “home, and we made it work.”

Her art room at the newly opened Penn Hills Elementary School is palatial by comparison, she said.

The consolidated elementary building opened to the public Saturday after the district closed its remaining three elementary schools — Forbes, Washington and Penn Hebron. Along with the consolidation of the three remaining schools comes the consolidation of support services, electives and available resources for students and teachers. More than 1,200 students are enrolled to start at one of the largest elementary schools in Allegheny County.

For Ms. Kruzic, the merger means a crop of new students, a new principal and a new team of about 150 faculty and staff members from across the district. It also gives her a classroom with multiple cleaning sinks and a large storage closet and cabinets filled with glitter, paint, paste and other art supplies.

Forbes and Washington elementaries previously shared art and music teachers, while all three buildings shared one behavior specialist. Penn Hebron was the building for specialized autism support services and also had its own music and art teacher.

Reading specialist Kerry Ott would spend one day at her office in the district administrative building before carrying her books and materials with her from school to school throughout the remainder of the week.

“Now we’re all here,” Ms. Ott said. “The grade levels can work together like a team, instead of being separated by buildings.”

Under one roof, teachers can build shared lessons and support plans for students based on grade and skill level, she said. In previous years, internal processes and schedules often differed by building with limited collaboration between schools. 

While the transition into teaching a larger student population under one roof is “daunting,” Ms. Kruzic said, the improved access to services for students is “only fair.”

“We do have students who needed their individualized services last year, especially for behavior, but we couldn’t find the resource or staff member because they were at another building,” Ms. Kruzic said. “Having the immediacy of services and the security of one or two people readily available to them will help.”

The shared system is one the district has used for years, music teacher Barbara Spiri said. For the past several years, she has alternated throughout the week between Washington and Forbes. On days she would teach at another school, her classroom often would house small reading groups and serve as a one-on-one testing site. Each day, she would clean her room and pack away instruments to make space for others using the area before packing up her notes and props for her lessons to carry with her to a different building.

For her, having an individualized permanent space is a “welcome change.”

“In the past, we always shared teachers because there were never enough students for us to be in one place full time,” she said. “I love that I have my own space and place. This just gives us more opportunity to really be creative and utilize what we have.”

Building principal Kristin Brown said her hope is that, while the school continues to grow, the multitude of support services and resources available will make the environment feel smaller.

“Our clients are the children, and now we can meet their needs in an expedited fashion,” she said. “The people you need to go to are right here or down the hall or around the corner, not in another building. That’s the community we want to build.”

Clarece Polke:; 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.

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