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Bellmar Middle School named 'School of the Year' at national history competition

Chris Buckley | The Valley Independent
Bellmar Middel School was recently named School of the Year at the National History Day state competition. Pictured is the winning team, front row, from left, Hannah Day, Sarah McGowan, Kendyle Bennett, Carmen Sawa, Megan Christner; and back row, from left, Sierra Lynn, Jennifer LoGerco, teacher Ross Farmer, Natalie Bialon, Tim Hudak.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Bellmar Middle school's introduction to the National History Day had humble beginnings seven years ago.

It wasn't until the second year that the middle school students competed at the regional event in the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Although no student progressed to the state level that year, each subsequent year they did better.

“It's grown and become more successful each year,” said Ross Farmer, middle school history teacher and team mentor. “That was the goal all along.”

That milestone was finally reached at the National History Day state competition held at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg last weekend when Bellmar Middle School was awarded as the “School of the Year.” Bellmar is part of the Belle Vernon Area School District.

Nine Bellmar students who completed seven projects represented Bellmar at the competition. They competed against 1,400 students from 103 participating schools statewide.

“The school of the year award is a testament to all of them because they were going up against some pretty impressive schools,” Farmer said of his team.

“Five of the seven (Bellmar) projects were state finalists. I think that's what pushed us over the top to be named school of the year.”

Their work involved a research paper, three documentaries, two websites, and a historical exhibit. Five of these projects were state finalists and three placed in the awards round.

The school received a grant from the Consortium for Public Education to assist with the creation of the documentaries.

Bellmar English teacher Carol Frow helped students with the writing components of their projects. She is a finalist for the Pennsylvania State Teacher of the Year.

The competition at Bellmar begins in January with a runoff competition involving all eight grade students. The winners compete at California University of Pennsylvania as a warm up before the regionals at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

The competition is divided into five categories, available to individuals and two-person teams: research paper, performances, documentaries, exhibits and web page.

This year's theme was Turning Points in History.

Three Bellmar students won state championships: Carmen Sawa in individual documentary, and Kendyle Bennett and Sarah McGowan for group website.

Sawa created a documentary on the Donora Smog. The subject had special meaning for her. Sawa's great-uncle was among the victims of the killer smog, which ultimately led to the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

She has volunteered at the Donora Smog Museum.

Bennett and McGowan created a webpage titled, “The Gentleman's Agreement: The Color Bar Comes to Baseball.” The website can be viewed at:

The site contains a historical perspective of the segregation of baseball and the creation of the Negro Leagues. Farmer noted it involves the social issues involving segregation.

McGowan and Bennett recently saw the movie, “42,” the story of Major League Baseball's first black player Jackie Robinson.

They both came out of the movie – like their project – with a new perspective on Robinson's trailblazing career and the role he played in today's society. The story has meaning in their lives for how to treat people with respect and dignity, they both noted.

Sawa, McGowan and Bennett will compete at the national event June 9-13 at the University of Maryland campus, judged by professors, historians and published authors.

A full, four-year scholarship to Case Western University will be awarded to the overall winner.

In addition, McGowan and Bennett are competing for the African-American History Award and the Lee Allen Baseball Award.

The competition can include both American and international history, although Farmer stresses American history with his students because that's what he teaches.

Student Tim Hudak placed second in the regionals and competed at the state level with his individual exhibit concerning The Battle of the Bulge.

Megan Christner placed third in the states, just missing a chance to compete at the national level, for her individual documentary on “Special Orders 191 and 1862 the Battle of Harper's Ferry.

Sierra Lynn and Hannah Day finished fourth in the state for their group documentary on George Washington and Braddock's defeat.

Jennifer LoGreco finished fourth in the state in individual website category for her project.

Natalie Bialon, who finished second in the regionals, said she hopes to write novels one day. She was impacted by the research for her research paper project detailing how editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast brought down Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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