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Penn Hills proposes 'suspending' 15 high school courses

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Penn Hills School District officials may suspend 15 high school courses for the 2014-15 school year, because low enrollment in them is anticipated.

Many of the classes are second- and third-year continuations of other courses, such as Theatre Arts II, Psychology II and Foods III. But the idea still didn't sit well with some parents and educators at a school board finance committee meeting earlier this month.

“You look at our ranking” among other school districts, said parent Pat Boody. “We have a lot of students who aren't cutting it. But we have students who have found their niche and succeed, and now we say to them, ‘Sorry, you're not part of the greater good, and we're taking your niche away.'”

District officials said a combination of projected enrollment and a lack of resources are factors in considering the cuts.

“We have only so many classrooms, so many facilities, teachers and seats,” said Roger Myers, district technology manager.

“Those things have to line up, or else it makes it very difficult to schedule.”

Superintendent Thomas Washington said an examination of classes with low enrollment was needed for next year.

“They're not gone. We're suspending them at this point,” Washington said.

School board member Heather Hoolahan, who also is on the finance committee, said the district has to look longer-range.

“When we look at the big picture, we have to look at what allowed there to be classes with only three kids,” she said.

Penn Hills graduate Justin Calderone teaches a Journalism II class that is slated for suspension.

“Journalism II is the course that does the school newspaper, and that is terrible,” Calderone said.

“As a student, I took the creative writing class (also slated for suspension), and it inspired me to write.”

Renel Williams, the district's teaching, learning and assessment director, said the district isn't cutting the suspended programs.

“They'll still be offered next year, but kids have to sign up for it,” she said.

Some parents were skeptical. “My daughter's a freshman,” parent Donna Mercurio said. “By the time she's a senior, how many more things will be cut?”

Williams didn't disclose current or projected enrollments for the classes, noting that students still were signing up for classes.

High school Principal Eric Kostic said only one or two entry-level courses were on the list for suspension.

“The kids have had Journalism I, they've had Digital Photography I. So the things that won't be offered next year, we haven't taken them completely away from the kids,” he said.

“I wish we could offer everything, but right now they're on hold.”

Kostic said based on 2014-15 sign-ups, “there are maybe 105 seniors who won't be able to take these classes,” he said, referring to the courses on the list for suspension. “But for juniors, I would hope they'd be able to take them in the 2015-16 school year.”

Hoolahan said the courses that might be suspended “will be offered next year, and if we can talk them up and enough kids sign up for them they'll be back.”

Calderone said that with high numbers of students leaving Penn Hills for charters and other options, suspending classes was not the way to go.

More than 750 students who live in the district attend a charter or cyber school, and the district estimates payments to those schools will top $12 million next year.

“People are leaving in droves, and when the news gets out that we're dropping programs that Gateway and other districts have, more will leave,” he said.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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