Belle Vernon Area plan calls for just one middle school site
Belle Vernon Area seventh- and eighth-graders will integrate into a single middle school next year – to be known as Belle Vernon Area Middle School – with sixth graders staying in their respective elementary centers an additional year.
That was the reconfiguration plan proposed by Superintendant Dr. John Wilkinson at Wednesday's public forum in the high school auditorium.
Wilkinson suggested closing one building – Rostraver Middle School – and transferring its approximately 200 affected students to the Bellmar Middle School building in Washington Township.
The school board will have to approve or deny Wilkinson's proposal – something that could happen as soon as April. The plan would then have to receive state approval.
No teaching jobs would be affected, Wilkinson said. Currently, there are less than 100 students at each of the Rostraver Middle School's grade levels.
Wilkinson cited structural and heating concerns at Rostraver Middle School while pointing out that, following mine subsidence problems in 1980, Bellmar was renovated in 1982.
“Bellmar is a newer, more stable, better facility,” he said.
“Is there plenty of room (for the additional students)? Absolutely. I wouldn't be here if there wasn't. Bellmar has five classrooms that are either unused or underutilized. … Rostraver and Marion (elementaries) have six classrooms that are either unused or underutilized.”
In creating a singular middle school, Wilkinson wants to end what he calls the “Route 70 Divide” – a perceived socio-economic separation between students from upper Rostraver Township and those living in lower Rostraver, North Belle Vernon, Belle Vernon, Fayette City and Washington Township.
Wilkinson said he heard of that division before taking his post in July and learned high school students have even referenced it humorously during commencement speeches.
“The flaw is that our district is not a united team to date; there's still a perceived difference between the ends of the district, and my goal is to bring everybody together,” Wilkinson said.
“I don't think the middle schools are the embodiment of that, but I think it reinforced it. I think the kids are more understanding of this than the adults. When you line them up together, they're all our kids.”
Another key change in Wilkinson's plan would result in sixth-graders staying one additional year at either Marion or Rostraver elementary schools.
The two middle schools currently house sixth through eighth grades while the elementary centers comprise kindergarten through fifth grades.
Wilkinson stated that sixth grade teachers are already certified to teach at the elementary level.
He said both Rostraver and Marion elementary centers would feature a “school within a school” concept that would separate students in kindergarten through grade three from those in grades four through six.
“I'm of the opinion that there's probably a bigger difference between a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader, than there is between a ninth-grader and a 12th-grader,” he said.
Wilkinson said he considered potential problems with closing Rostraver Middle School, including transportation concerns, and cited a study by transportation supervisor Dave Bashada that states the middle school buildings are 5.8 miles apart “from doorstep to doorstep.”
Additional transportation costs would be “pennies” and reimbursable, he said.
“What would it take from one of the furthest points to go all the way to Bellmar? About 26 minutes, on the average, which is only 12 to 15 minutes longer than going to Rostraver middle school,” Wilkinson said.
“We have 11 runs right now that go to Rostraver Middle School. We have some flexibility there. So if we sent vans out to the furthest points, it would be like riding the express.”
He maintained the closure will not only save the district significant money in maintenance costs, but would allow the implementation of an ambitious curriculum that starts with mathematics. The goal, he said, was to have 95 percent of BVA students to be enrolled in calculus by senior year.
While the savings wouldn't balance the district's budget, it would allow the purchase of new textbooks to replace outdated ones. Some math books, he said, have copyrights dating back to 1994.
The key, he said, is to make every student – regardless of skill level – at least master algebra at some point.
“Algebra is the blueprint for all problem-solving strategies,” he told the audience. “I want the kids currently in fifth and sixth grade to reach calculus by senior year.”
Wilkinson insisted that forming one middle school would spearhead that goal, as it would combine teachers and resources, while allowing all middle school students to fall under the same evaluation criteria.
This would free up staff members to teach new classes, such as poetry or creative writing. The district would use both principals – Bellmar's John Grice and Rostraver's Dr. John Folmar Jr. – for the first two years at the middle school, he said.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's count for the 2009-2010 school year, 210 students attended sixth grade at Belle Vernon Area, with 244 and 276 in seventh and eighth grades, respectively.
The new middle school would accommodate more than 400 students, according to estimates by school board President Dale Patterson.
The future of the Rostraver Middle School building—possibly demolition – would be decided later, said Wilkinson, who added that cuts by Gov. Tom Corbett made any possibility of new construction nil at this time.
“I tried to think as a parent, because I am one. ‘What questions would I ask for my daughter?' And that's why I wanted to make a compelling argument why this is the best (option) for our kids,” he said. “I didn't just come up with all this stuff for fun.”
Wilkinson fielded questions and concerns from more than a dozen of the nearly 100 people in attendance.
Only once did the superintendant become annoyed: when one woman – a teacher from outside the district and also the mother of an elementary student – accused him of making class sizes too large at the middle school.
“Is there a difference between having 26 kids or 30 kids,” Wilkinson responded. “Does four more kids make that big a difference?
“ ... If indeed we take the staff from Rostraver Middle, and we merge them in, doesn't that give us more teachers?
“It is not my goal to furlough teachers like we had to last year, because we were $2.9 million in debt. Let's be real about this. You know how easy it is to furlough seven teachers next year and not have to do the work I'm doing?
“I have to sleep at night, and I lost a lot of sleep over furloughing people last year. I would rather have, as a teacher, have 30 in a classroom, as opposed to being furloughed.”
In the end, Patterson – who attended one of the first classes at Rostraver Middle School more than five decades ago – said he was more than satisfied with Wilkinson's proposal.
“Some people are worried about moving their kids over to Bellmar, but come ninth grade, they're all mixed together anyhow, so they're just going to get mixed together sooner, and that's never been much of an issue,” Patterson said.
“I thought there would be some big issues from some of the residents, but I was amazed at how well it was received. It's not a real cost savings to reconfigure, but it is what's best for the students, and I think that's where we always have to focus.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.