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Surprise jump in students forces hiring at Elizabeth Forward schools

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, 3:51 a.m.

The Elizabeth Forward school district anticipated a reduction in its student body from 2,355 in 2013-14 to 2,302 in 2014-15.

But on Wednesday, Superintendent Bart Rocco said the district instead is on course to start on Aug. 28 with 2,377 students — and may need more faculty members as a result.

“In the last two weeks there has been a real growth spurt,” Rocco told the school board at its meeting on Wednesday.

Rocco said it could mean an increase of three to four teachers. In answer to a question from school director Francis Posa, Rocco said that would include a minimum of two additional kindergarten teachers.

“I'll know better after the first week,” Rocco said. “We'll look at it again once the dust settles.”

It would reverse a pattern of reduced enrollment in four of the last five years. The district gained six students from 2011-12 to 2012-13 but had lost a net total of 329 since the end of 2008-09.

“It is really a good situation to be in,” Rocco said. But no extra money was budgeted.

“We've been really cautious of our spending,” he said.

That caution extends to how the district uses its basic state subsidy, which is unchanged from 2013-14 at nearly $8.96 million.

Overall funding for Elizabeth Forward from Harrisburg went up from $14 million to $14.7 million, including charter school and pension reimbursement and a slight hike for student transportation. Special education funds are up from $1.65 million to $1.69 million and the $199,623 Accountability Block Grant of 2013-14 was replaced with the $364,189 Ready To Learn block grant in 2014-15.

Hiring may involve substitute teachers, and the district is expecting a need for more aides.

The board is thinking about the need for a special meeting.

The next regular voting meeting is not scheduled until Sept. 24, though the district could do as it did on Wednesday and have its committee of the whole meeting to discuss the agenda and the meeting to vote on that agenda on the same night, Sept. 17.

Average elementary class sizes are reported to be 20 or 21 at William Penn, 23 at Greenock and 24 at Central, though 28 students are reported for a fifth-grade class there.

“I want to make sure those numbers are balanced throughout the system,” Rocco said.

The district uses a system that tracks students as they go from grade to grade.

Slight changes can be seen. There were 167 kindergartners in 2009-10, but 158 first-graders in 2010-11, though the second grade totaled 165 in 2011-12, which was followed by 166 in third grade in 2012-13 and in fourth grade in 2013-14.

The district believes a reason for the increase is the reputation it has established for high-tech learning, including its distribution of iPads to every student. The board bolstered that reputation with a series of actions on Wednesday.

Elizabeth Forward accepted a $56,000 Grable Foundation grant that is going to a consortium of districts working on SMALLab, or Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab.

Other districts in that consortium are Pittsburgh, McKeesport Area, West Allegheny, Seneca Valley and Southeastern Greene. They work with students from Carnegie Mellon University.

“This is a partnership like no other,” Assistant Superintendent Todd Keruskin said. Districts in New York, Louisiana and Alabama have expressed interest in joining it.

The board accepted a Chevron Energy Lab Grant for earth and space science classes at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. The amount of the grant was not available, but Keruskin said $5,000 will go toward redoing a classroom for that lab.

“Carnegie Mellon approached us and brought Chevron to us,” Rocco said.

Elizabeth Forward will be in a partnership among CMU, Chevron and Bethlehem-Center School District in Washington County.

The board approved an instructional technology class at the high school for the first nine weeks of the new year. The class will involve California University of Pennsylvania students who are a semester or two away from student teaching assignments.

Marcia Hoover from California's Department of Secondary Education will work with high school principal Michael Routh to integrate those students into the high school.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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