Indiana County Technology Center campus site for proposed Challenger learning center
By Jeff Himler
Published: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, 4:24 p.m.
The campus of the Indiana County Technology Center in White Township has been chosen as the preferred site for construction of a proposed Challenger Learning Center in the county.
Vicki Smith, president of the Homer-Center School Board and member of a committee that is overseeing plans for the Challenger center, cited the ICTC campus as the likely spot for the space science-themed facility during remarks at the end of a special July 25 Homer-Center board meeting.
The site choice was confirmed by resolution at a Tuesday meeting of the ICTC joint operating committee, which Smith chairs. The resolution directs an ICTC committee to work with the local Challenger committee to establish a specific location for the proposed new center on the 55-acre ICTC campus.
Smith said the resolution marks “an exciting opportunity for both organizations to offer enhanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs for the communities in our region, particularly Indiana County.”
According to Ed Smith, president of the Blairsville-Saltsburg School Board and an ICTC joint operating committee member, it's expected ICTC would provide the Challenger center a long-term lease for 10 acres at a nominal annual cost. Both parties are looking at whether to use any of ICTC's existing staff and facilities in conjunction with the new center.
About a year ago, the Homer-Center and Indiana Area school districts launched the proposal to develop a local Challenger Center, which would offer visiting students hands-on STEM enrichment through simulated space missions. The project has since received support from area officials and most county school districts, including Blairsville-Saltsburg and United, which each pledged $1 per enrolled student to help cover initial costs of the proposal.
The national Challenger Foundation recently approved the local committee's initial application to create what has been dubbed the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center in Indiana County. The first such facility in Pennsylvania, it would serve 22 counties in the western and central sections of the state. There are currently about 50 of the Challenger centers, the closest of which is near Wheeling, W.Va.
The Challenger committee's next goal is to raise funds to cover the estimated $3 million cost of constructing the center, which would include a computer simulator, and of operating the facility for the first year.
If enough funding is available, Vicki Smith said, project planners also would like to build a related academy devoted to STEM education at the ICTC, which currently offers vocational and technical courses for students at participating county schools as well as some adult education programs. The academy, she noted, would provide programs that would be difficult for individual local school district to afford.
Inclusion of the academy would increase project costs to as much as $8 million. Vicki Smith estimated the project committee has about $12,000 on hand after covering $5,000 in costs related to the Challenger application.
Private foundations, corporations and public grants are among sources of funding the committee is hoping to tap. Despite the sizeable fundraising challenge ahead, Vicki Smith was upbeat about prospects for the proposed center.
“I think it really can happen,” she said. “We're looking forward to having Pittsburgh students come to Indiana for a field trip instead of us sending all our students to Pittsburgh on a field trip. It will be a nice change. It will be good for the county.”
She credited Lance Bush — a Homer-Center graduate, past NASA engineer and current president and CEO of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education — with helping to open the door for a proposed center in Indiana County. She said Bush is “a big reason why Indiana County has been able to have the opportunity.”
The Challenger centers have grown from an effort by families of astronauts lost in the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion to promote education in science and engineering. Vicki Smith noted the local Challenger center proposal marks a growing spirit of collaboration among local school districts.
In another regional effort, organized through the ARIN Intermediate Unit, local school districts will have the opportunity to enter agreements with Thought Process Enterprises of Ellwood City to post banner advertisements on participating school's websites.
At last week's special meeting, Homer-Center joined districts that have signed on for the advertising program, which would generate extra revenue for the district. H-C Superintendent Charles Koren said the district would maintain its own counter of clicks on the web page to compare with figures cited by Thought Process.
There was no specific estimate on how much revenue the advertising might generate for Homer-Center. According to Koren, it's been reported a similar advertising agreement generated nearly $2,000 per month for the Seneca Valley School District.
Koren said he has proposed setting aside any ad revenue Homer-Center receives to support extra-curricular activities at the district.
The agreement lists content that would be prohibited in the ads, including profanity, violence, adult or provocative content and promotion of gambling or illegal activities.
In personnel matters, the district hired Sarah Fyock as a temporary professional employee for teaching high school mathematics and Jon Stolarz as a part-time music teacher, with a starting salary of $27,074.50, in conjunction with his current role as director of bands.
Fyock, who will be paid a starting salary of $54,149, is also certified to teach biology. A 2008 graduate of Marion Center High School and a 2012 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. she completed student teaching at Saltsburg Middle/High School.
Each of the instructors' salaries will be increased for the 2013-14 school year as set forth in the district's collective bargaining agreement with the Homer-Center Education Association. High School teacher Cindy Andrie was approved for an unpaid leave Dec. 12 and 13.
Resignations were accepted from Nathan Blehi, part-time computer technician, and from cleaners Mary Little and Rebecca Mathews, who will retire on Aug. 9.
The school board hired Matthew Wilson as a part-time summer maintenance worker, at $8.25 per hour, retroactive to July 15. Amy Stefan was employed as a substitute cleaner for 2013-14. Her starting salary of $8.95 per hour will be increased according to the district's contract with its support staff.
The board agreed to purchase 11 portable walkie-talkies and five batteries for $2,364 to enhance school security during situations such as fire drills. District officials indicated the devices would be assigned for use by Homer-Center's safety response team with three of the units dedicated to maintenance staff.
Homer-Center approved purchase of new textbooks for U.S. history instruction in grade 8, physics courses in grades 11 and 12 and algebra and trigonometry courses in grades 10-12. The board also approved revisions to the elementary handbook.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or email@example.com.
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