Shaler Area plans all-day kindergarten, building updates

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Shaler Area School District is recommending full-day kindergarten, a new grouping of grades within each school and building expansions and renovations totaling $38 million.

If approved by the school board, the plan -- intended to start in 2008 -- would add three-quarters of a mill to the district's 23.5-mill property tax rate beginning July 1.

"We feel this plan is better suited to curriculum delivery," Assistant Superintendent Joe Latess told 120 people attending Monday's meeting at Shaler Area Middle School.

The meeting was the last of three held to familiarize residents with results of a yearlong study of academics in the district. Dr. Latess chaired the committee on the feasibility study.

In a review of Pennsylvania's academically successful schools, Dr. Latess said, the committee found the trend to be toward smaller student groups. "There is a trend to schools within a school," he said.

The recommended changes call for full-day kindergarten at all five elementary schools, which would house kindergarten through third grade rather than kindergarten through fourth grade, as they do now.

Parents who do not want their children in full-day kindergarten would be able to opt out of the afternoon part, Dr. Latess said.

Fourth-graders would move to Shaler Area Middle School on Scott Road, which would switch from housing fifth, sixth and seventh grades to contain fourth, fifth and sixth grades. The oldest portion of the middle school would receive $5.5 million in renovations.

Seventh-graders would move to Shaler Area Intermediate School on Mount Royal Boulevard. The school would house seventh and eighth grades rather than eighth and ninth grades, as it does now. No renovations are planned for that building.

Ninth-graders would move to Shaler Area High School on Wible Run Road with grades 10 11 and 12. The high school would receive $30 million in renovations to create space for ninth-grade classrooms and guidance offices and to enlarge the library and lab areas.

The board is expected to vote on the plan in May or June. Superintendent Donald Lee said the district plans to convene focus groups of parents, teachers and administrators this summer to determine specifics.

"They'll look at what our student transition plans should be, how best to assimilate fourth-graders into a bigger school building, what's most comfortable. Things like that," he said.

The projected property tax increase in the district, which serves Etna, Millvale, Reserve and Shaler, would mean the tax bill on a home assessed at $100,000 would increase by $75 a year, Dr. Lee told the audience.

By 2008, the district expects to have to double its kindergarten teaching staff to 15. Administrators said they hope the cost will be offset by a planned early retirement package for staff.

Some of those attending the meeting brought up questions about the district's swimming pool.

The pool, built in 1966, is in the middle school and was renovated three years ago, Dr. Lee said. Speakers said they would like to have an indoor swimming pool at the high school.

Tom McDonald, who coordinates community programs at the pool, said the schedule is full and so is the parking lot most weekends and evenings.

"We have 120 kids in each Learn to Swim program, and we always have a waiting list for the aquatics class," he said. Access to the pool area for handicapped people is difficult, he said, and a new pool should be considered in the plan.

Administrators said they are hesitant to recommend a pool with its estimated price of $4 million.

"We want to be very sensitive to our taxpayers, particularly our senior citizens. We've already cut nonessentials from this package. Our emphasis has to be on academic achievement," Dr. Lee said.

Jan Adam is a freelance writer.


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