Belle Vernon Area superintendent ready to make more changes

Photo by Rick Bruni | The Valley Independent
| Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Proposed changes in the Belle Vernon Area School District might not be as drastic as last year's middle school realignment.

But Superintendent Dr. John Wilkinson hopes his latest plan, unveiled at a public informational meeting Thursday, has a significant benefit to students.

Among Wilkinson's goals are a grading scale expansion and individual learning plan for each student.

The school board would have to approve any change.

First, Wilkinson would like the district to change its grading system to a 10-point scale, meaning an “A” grade would be given for test scores ranging from 90 to 100 percent, instead of the current 93 to 100. Likewise, a “B” would be given for an 80 to 90 percent result, from the current 85 to 92 percent.

Wilkinson said the liberalized policy would be outweighed by a more rigorous curriculum under which children are “challenged but not overwhelmed.” He cited the more concentrated Algebra I classes at the middle school this year as an example.

“Someone who goes to Elizabeth Forward or Upper St. Clair can get an 89.5 and still get an A, and our kids don't, so what does that mean on your transcript?” Wilkinson said.

“Some people will say, ‘Oh, you're going to water it down, everyone is going to get A's, but the truth is if someone wanted to water it down now, they could.”

The grades, likewise, would be 90-percent weighted toward “formal assessments” like projects, tests and lab work. Extra credit or bonus points awarded for fund raisers would be eliminated.

“I think that brings us back into some rigor,” he said. “It brings us back into the kids being competitive against themselves.”

Under the second goal, Wilkinson wants the district to gather information on each student and eventually tailor learning and testing to the each student's strengths. He compared the desired academic data necessary to doctors keeping medical records for individual patients.

“Ultimately, what I want to have is if you type in (a student's name) it says he needs to sit in the front of the room because he doesn't pay attention real well, and he learns best when it's visual as opposed to auditory, and he does better on tests when they're chunked into four questions at a time,” he said.

Wilkinson said he has programmers interested and aims to have a “schematic” idea in place by May for students in grades nine through 11.

“It's a vision I have, and I think with the administration and teachers we have, we can figure something out, even if it's paper and pencil off the bat,” he said.

Wilkinson said coming up with a fair, concise evaluation is a daunting task – he joked that the creator might make a fortune by selling the software to other school districts – but insisted the result could be each student learning to his or her specific abilities and tendencies.

He said another key is each student taking an “ownership” stake in his or her learning process.

“If the kids don't learn something in third period, and they can go find the teacher and say, ‘Hey I didn't learn this,' then we've turned the corner,” Wilkinson said.

“That's pretty powerful to be able to sit down with a kid and say, ‘OK, you didn't learn the Pythagorean theorem … let's sit down and get you squared away.'”

Wilkinson said another goal is bringing district cyber school students back to BVA classrooms on a part-time basis. He said cutting off potential cyber students at a young age would help “stop the bleeding.”

Wilkinson said he estimates the 56 current cyber school students cost the district nearly $500,000 – a price tag of approximately $12,500 per student.

Anticipating five to six retirements in the coming year, Wilkinson proposed the district sharpen its hiring process for new teachers – which he called a “35-year, $2 million commitment” for each hire. This includes “vetting” applications and having the finalists undergo “teach-off” exercises in which they would literally teach lesson plans to administrators.

Wilkinson said that as part of an induction plan, he intends to “Belle Vernonize” neophyte instructors and end speculation about hires being made for political reasons.

Lastly, Wilkinson wants to continue implementing a STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – curriculum centered on specialized engineering classes. Wilkinson wants the high school to offer high-level engineering courses by the 2015-2016 school year.

As for integrating seventh and eighth grade students into a single middle school while keeping sixth graders an extra year at their respective elementary schools – a controversial proposal at this time last year —Wilkinson offered no regrets.

“A couple parents who were my biggest critics and calling me every day … came up to me and said, ‘My kid's so happy,' and me being a little bit of a smart alec, I said, ‘And?'” Wilkinson recalled. “They said ‘OK, you were right, we were wrong,' and I don't need to hear that – maybe at home once in awhile – but it's going well.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2635.

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