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New plan for gifted instruction concerns Blairsville-Saltsburg parents

| Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, 12:12 p.m.

When classes resume in a few weeks, Blairsville-Saltsburg School District will introduce a new approach for instructing gifted students.

Assistant Superintendent Ian Magness told several concerned parents who attended a July 31 school board meeting and curriculum session that their gifted children should benefit from a new emphasis on team-teaching, with more time spent in a regular classroom setting. He explained the district's 85 students who have been identified as gifted will receive instruction from teachers who are specially trained to interact with gifted pupils as well as from regular classroom teachers who are knowledgeable in specific core subjects.

“An analysis of the data demands that changes be made to the ways in which we deliver services to students we identify as gifted and talented,” Magness said. “They may not be growing as much as we expect them to. That's the issue.”

Citing results of standardized testing from 2012 and previous years, Magness said areas where students scoring in the “advanced” range have not shown expected yearly growth include reading in grades 4, 6, 7 and 8 and math in grades 5 and 8.

But some parents said they believe their children are doing just fine under an existing format that regularly has pulled gifted students from regular classrooms to work in a smaller group with gifted instructors. Some expressed concern that the revised instructional model would shortchange their children.

“‘Pull-out' is not outlawed, but it would be less frequent,” Magness said. With the new approach, he explained, the district's two gifted instructors — one each for the Blairsville and Saltsburg school campuses, “will have more face time with more kids,” including a larger number of students who are higher achievers but have not been identified as gifted.

Parent Dan Satler expressed concern that “the gifted kids are probably going to get pulled down” in their academic performance while instructors devote more attention to less advanced learners.

Magness indicated that shouldn't happen because gifted students would not be placed in the same classrooms with the district's least advanced learners. “We group like students with like ability and put them together,” he said.

Satler and fellow parent Dan Ringler expressed misgivings about the district requiring regular classroom teachers to also provide gifted instruction.

Satler drew a parallel to an earlier change when the district eliminated specialized art instructors at the elementary level and expected regular classroom teachers to incorporate art into their lessons — a concept that has not worked in reality, Satler said.

“If things happen with this (gifted) program the way it happened with the art program, it's going to be trouble,” Satler predicted.

Theresa Allshouse told school officials she and other parents of gifted students were alarmed by a June 28 letter from Magness they received to announce the planned changes in gifted instruction.

“This needs to be researched more,” she said. “We still have no answers.”

Allshouse noted that some of the parents have “come together to talk about issues that affect both sides of the district.”

“Everyone in the audience is judging this and saying it's not going to work. That's not fair,” Magness responded.

Magness said district officials will closely monitor the new gifted instructional model and, if it doesn't work as planned, changes can be made.

Tanya Morret, a consultant for gifted education with the state Department of Education, has also been working with Blairsville-Saltsburg and attended the curriculum session by remote link to address some of the issues being discussed.

Another area of concern for district parents as fall classes approach is a new schedule that will keep children in school for just half a day on Fridays so that teachers can use the time for professional development.

Working parents of younger children in particular have protested the additional costs and challenges they face in obtaining child care services on Fridays.

Magness reported that the Indiana County YMCA could not follow through with plans to provide a Friday afternoon program for students at district schools due to a lack of interest. Acknowledging that the program's fees may have been a hindrance, Magness noted only one parent signed up for the program.

Now, he said, the district is working with the Evergreen Boys and Girls Club to provide a Friday afterschool program at a lower cost for parents. If the program is successful, as it has been at other neighboring districts, he said grant funding may be sought in hopes of offering an expanded afterschool program in the future.

Magness said information about the proposed Boys and Girls Club program is being sent home to parents.

“This is a great opportunity,” he said. “I implore parents, if they are at all interested, to please respond to the solicitation.”

In addition, Magness said, district residents will be receiving information about new pre-kindergarten instruction at the district for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The instruction, which is funded through the state's Pre-K Counts program, will be available to younger students in households whose income does not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Magness said the program won't be ready to start on the first day of fall classes but should be launched sometime in September.

In other curriculum matters, Blairsville-Saltsburg approved an agreement that will allow students to take driver education instruction — 30 hours in the classroom and six hours behind the wheel — offered through the ARIN Intermediate Unit, though some school board members expressed concern that the fees parents will have to pay are on the high side.

The per-student fee if 10 to 19 students enroll would be $100 for the classroom phase and $200 for the driving portion including a test. The fee decreases if additional students enroll in the program.

The board also switched the institutional affiliation — from Penn Highlands Community College to Seton Hill University — for a college-level algebra course that district instructors Trisha Kaylor and Lisa Shimer will offer. Magness said the tuition Seton Hill charges for the course is higher, $220 compared to $147, but many district students are unable to meet the higher testing standards Penn Highlands imposes to grant college credit for completion of the course.

In personnel matters, the school board prepared for the coming school year by hiring eight new teachers and establishing their starting wages according to their various levels of training and the district's salary scale: Cassandra Fisher, $50,882; Jessica Foor, $52,382; Ashley Kovalovsky, $55,965; Kayla Machak, $50,882; Matthew Nicely, $52,845; Maria Olechovski, $52,345; Megan Palmiscno, $52,345; Amanda Watson, $50,882.

Kovalovsky, Machak, Palmiscno and Watson each will receive a $200 adjustment for special education.

Board member George Rowley noted district administrators narrowed the field of candidates down from more than 100 initial applicants.

The board agreed to advertise for two teachers and two aides for the new pre-kindergarten program. It also will seek a replacement for speech/language clinician Jennifer Moore, who resigned effective Aug. 21, and for Blairsville Middle/High School secretary Lynn Soltesz, who is retiring effective Aug. 23.

The district hired two long-term substitute teachers at Saltsburg Middle/High School, each at a prorated salary of $20,000: Karen Magalich, who will fill in at social studies during the leave of Allison Weir, and Michael Rhea, who will fill in at math for Megan Decker.

The board recalled Joy Watt as a part-time support employee and hired Mark Palmer for an HVAC/mechanic position.

Blairsville-Saltsburg approved realignment of some coaching positions.

Whitney Shearer resigned as assistant volleyball co-coach with Brittany Conrad, who will continue alone in the assistant position.

Jared McCormick and Shawn Liotta resigned respectively as first and second assistant Saltsburg football coaches. The pair now will combine efforts to cover both positions as co-coaches.

The following volunteer coaches were approved pending appropriate clearances: Ken McGinnis, Blairsville girls' basketball; Bill Petro, Brannon Pate, Rolly Young and Mason Kuntz, Saltsburg football; Gina Bruce, Anne Long, Kathy Muir and Calie Weimer, Saltsburg marching band.

In the area of field trips, Saltsburg's fifth-graders were authorized to visit the McKeever Outdoor Education Center in Sandy Lake Feb. 19-21 and Gettysburg National Battlefield on May 15. Blairsville's marching band will take part in a Fall Fantasy parade Aug. 9 at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh. There will be no cost to the district for any of the trips.

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or

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