Mars Area tweaks graduation requirements

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Members of the Class of 2016 are off the hook with one of the graduation requirements in the Mars Area School District. But members of the Class of 2017 have another hurdle to clear in order to graduate.

The school board Tuesday tweaked the graduation requirements to align with state mandates.

“The state is changing things faster than we can all keep up,” said board President J. Dayle Ferguson. “As soon as we understand it, they change it. We've been rocking and rolling the best we can here.”

The state requires students score advanced or proficient in Keystone Exams in algebra 1, literature and biology in order to graduate, beginning with the Class of 2017. Students who cannot pass the exams can take an alternate path, which involves a project.

Mars Area had required the Class of 2016, the current sophomores, to pass the Keystone Exams in algebra 1 and literature in order to graduate. But, the state did not offer a project-based alternative for those students, Mrs. Ferguson said.

So the board decided to let them off the hook.

Instead of remaining in a remediation class for the second semester, which begins Tuesday, students can instead choose to be in a study hall or elective course.

“If the state didn't develop something for these kids, why continue to torture them?” said Todd Kolson, high school principal, who recommended the change.

In a related action, the board added passing the Keystone Exam in biology, beginning with the Class of 2017, to its graduation requirements.

Students who attend the vocational technical school or have an Individualized Education Plan can “move right to a project” if they do not pass, Mr. Kolson said.

Both measures were approved 7-0 with Gordon Marburger and Bonnie Weaver absent.

In other action, the board passed a resolution limiting any potential tax increase for 2014-15 to 2.1 percent, the state’s inflation index.

“It does not mean that the district is going to raise taxes, but, if they do, they will not raise it beyond 2.1 percent,” said business Manager Jill Swaney.

Boards must either approve such a resolution or ask for exceptions from the state in January. Budgets are approved by June 30.

James Budzilek gave a report on his first 100 days as superintendent.

Mr. Budzilek started in August but did not take over until former superintendent William Pettigrew retired in December. He said he used those months to tour the schools, meet with staff, parents and local officials, and develop goals for his administration.

Some of his goals are reviewing and updating policies that are outdated, such as the transportation policy. He's also evaluating teacher supervision and technology.

Mr. Budzilek said that one of the tenants of the early-bird contract with the teachers was “differentiated supervision.”

“We all know that (students) learn differently, so we teach them differently. But adults are no different,” he said. “Instead of top-down professional development, you tell us what you need to be a better teacher.”

He is also requiring administrators to observe classrooms without advance notice.

The One-to-One Initiative, which provided a laptop to all high school students this year, “has opened a door,” he said.

“Where are we going to go, technology-wise, from there? You need to go from the top down and the bottom up," he said. "There is a lot of research that, when students come to school, they are bored out of their minds.”

Mr. Budzilek said he has been impressed with what he learned about Mars Area in his first 100 days.

“In my opinion, this district is on the edge of greatness,” he said. “It’s an exciting time.”

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:

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