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New superintendent, principal plan positive impact in Clairton

Clairton City School District students will be greeted by many friendly faces and two not-so-familiar ones this school year.

School starts Monday, and Dr. Wayde Killmeyer and Dr. Victoria Magi Berger are poised to make a positive impact on the district as its new superintendent and elementary principal, respectively.

"We are all enthusiastic and hope that it's going to be a great year," Killmeyer said. "I expect that everybody is going to treat every student like they're the most important person in that room. I want every student to feel welcome here and to know that this is a place where they're safe, where they're wanted, and where they're going to be treated with respect.

"I'm going to be on top of the principals to make sure that's happening in their buildings. The principals are going to be watching the teachers to make sure that they have a welcoming atmosphere and are concerned about student achievement and student safety. With all of us on that same team that's how we're going to make sure it happens."

Killmeyer, the former Avella Area School District superintendent, started his era in Clairton July 1. He was named to the position at the March 23 meeting, and Avella accepted his resignation in April.

Killmeyer replaced departing superintendent Dr. Lucille Abellonio, who retired in late June after a 40-year career in education.

Berger was hired earlier this month. The board unanimously voted to ratify her employment, with a starting salary of $86,000 and 20 vacation days, at Wednesday night's meeting.

Berger replaces Deborah Marshall as elementary principal. Marshall was moved to associate principal for discipline/attendance.

"I'm honored to be the principal of the elementary school," Berger said Wednesday. "It is my eighth day on the job, and I have hit the ground running. ... I look forward to building a team at the elementary level. Some of the changes, most importantly raising the bar for student achievement. I believe that with building a team, working closely with the teachers and being a significant support and a very visible leader in the classrooms always, everywhere the students are within the building, that we will make significant progress.

"One drastic change that we have is within scheduling. We have included recess for all students kindergarten through sixth, which I understand has been gone for a long time. It's something that I firmly believe will also minimize troubles within the classrooms and focus students by having that release time."

Killmeyer talked about Berger's experience at Wednesday night's meeting.

Berger is a 17-year veteran in education. She held many positions within the public school system including secondary language arts teacher in York City Schools, assistant principal to a school for behaviorally challenged youth in Upper St. Clair, a K-12 alternative school principal in the Wilkinsburg School District, and a senior program officer for student services in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maryland as well as master's and doctorate degrees in education leadership from Duquesne University.

"She firmly believes that by practicing dignity and respect, students will reach for the stars and make significant progress towards their academic goals," he said.

Board president Rich Livingston said Berger was chosen out of 45 applicants.

District officials interviewed seven of the 45 candidates, three were brought before the board, and Berger was chosen based on her experience working with elementary, behaviorally-challenged and Pittsburgh Public Schools students, Livingston said.

"We're very glad you're here," Livingston told Berger.

The middle school/high school also has a new principal as a result of personnel moves made in June.

Dean of discipline Thomas McCloskey was moved to that post while principal Debra Maurizio was moved to associate principal for cyber school/in-school suspension.

"The board, under the direction of the administration, has tried to put everybody where they're best suited," Livingston said. "We felt we need to get the most out of our administration that we can. This way we're doing that."

"I don't think it will be all that traumatic for (students)," Killmeyer said of the personnel moves. "The new high school principal was the dean of discipline for the last couple of years so the students know him. They already know him as an authority figure in the administration."

Directors approved the district's 2011-12 school year spending plan. The millage rate remains the same, with 87 mills for land and 3.5 mills for buildings. One mill generates approximately $100,000.

Clairton was one of many school districts faced with difficult decisions as a result of state budget cuts to educational programs.

The district lost its after-school tutoring program and cut most of its daytime tutoring, as well.

Assistant superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Ehrlich said the district has written some grants and hopes to revitalize its tutoring program should the funds come in.

The district also made a change in addressing students in alternative education by having them enrolled in its cyber school.

"We had to look for a new way for those students to come back into the school district," Ehrlich said. "So we're starting our own alternative school. ... We lost a couple of things, but we got a couple of things too. We're working to try and get grant money to put things back. You write these grants and you send them off (on) a wing and a prayer hoping that some of them will lead to some funding."

Ehrlich said bringing in other students within the district who are enrolled at other cyber schools to the district's online program is part of Clairton's long-term plan.

Student enrollment is up this year. Killmeyer said there are 797 registered students this year as compared to last year's 756.

School Director Robert Harrigan said the education center and its floors are clean and ready for student traffic.

"The maintenance staff is going a fantastic job," Harrigan said.

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