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Blairsville-Saltsburg School District honored by Apple for technology use

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 6:51 p.m.

Blairsville-Saltsburg School District has been recognized by computer giant Apple for making good use of technology in enhancing instruction for its students.

At the Nov. 20 school board meeting, assistant superintendent Ian Magness announced that the district's iPlan has been recognized as an Apple Distinguished Program for 2013-15 — a distinction granted to just a handful of districts in Pennsylvania.

Blairsville-Saltsburg is in the midst of a multi-year agreement with Apple that has provided use of an iPad tablet for every high school student.

But Magness said the honor, announced a week earlier, stems from the use and leveraging of “not just iPads, but technology at large” — demonstrating an “ability to transform learning and promote innovation using mobile tools and dynamic instructional practice.”

At a technology showcase the district hosted last March, Blairsville-Saltsburg staff exhibited a number of new learning tools and methods. Demonstrations included a paperless biology course that uses an e-textbook and submission and grading of student essays online using a file-sharing service.

“By leveraging technology, the district is able to not only present information in an innovative manner, but also provide a distinctive change of roles for our students as they move from consumers of our curriculum to active participants and creators of their content,” Magness stated in a press release. “The use of various apps and learning management systems ... has literally placed the curriculum in the hands of our students for self-paced instructional access any time of the day.

“I could not be more proud of our teachers. They are the innovators who are finding the most creative ways to make the classroom more engaging and accessible for our students. We have a good thing going here at B-SSD.”

Magness added at the meeting that teachers “responded to the demands of the students who say, “Hey, we want to use these things even more in our classrooms.'”

But, he noted, “There's still plenty of room to grow.”

Apple officials will be present at an upcoming school board meeting, Magness said.

The school board also approved a new Keystone biology curriculum as well as a district comprehensive plan for July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017.

Magness explained the new curriculum is meant to prepare district students for a Keystone biology exam that is now administered in grade 11, replacing the science portion of the Pennsylvania State School Assessment tests that previously were completed at that grade level.

In the 2012-13 school year, he acknowledged, “Our biology scores were horrendous.” According to the district's state-generated school performance profiles, only about 49 percent of the students tested at Saltsburg Middle/High School scored at proficient or advanced levels on that year's biology exam, while just a little over 35 percent were proficient or better at Blairsville High School.

“We need to change,” Magness said. “We need to reevaluate our resources and our teaching practices.”

Adopting the new biology curriculum is the first step in that process, he said, noting the instructional plan was the result of a gathering of 10 biology teachers from Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit districts. The instruction will be based on state standards as measured by the Keystone exam, Magness said: “Everything that the kids will be asked to do on that exam will be covered in that course.”

He pointed out the ninth-grade biology course has been beefed up by adding formal lab sections. As a result, students taking the course will meet 9 times in every six-day rotation of classes.

Topics covered in the curriculum include biotechnology, population dynamics, and interactions and relationships in an ecosystem,

The comprehensive plan, posted on the district website, will be submitted to the state Department of Education. It stresses a goal of providing “leadership and opportunities for all students to become life-long learners” within a “positive and safe” school environment.

It also cites a number of “shared values” at the district, including: a strong work ethic for both students and staff; respect for diversity and authority; formal and informal character education; partnerships among the school, community and families; and a curriculum based on research and “best practice.”

District-wide goals noted in the plan:

• Ensuring that professional development is focused, comprehensive and implemented with fidelity;

• Ensuring that each member of the district community “promotes, enhances and sustains a shared vision of positive school climate,” with family and community support of student participation in the learning process;

• Ensuring consistent implementation of effective instructional practices across all classrooms in each school;

• Ensuring consistent implementation of standards-aligned curricula.

The plan also touches on such topics as special education, professional education, materials and resources, safe and supportive schools, academic assessments and graduation requirements, instruction and curriculum.

Former principal returns

The district is calling upon recently retired elementary principal Debra Shirley to return to the school to fill in on an interim basis while the current principal, Joseph Baker, takes a leave of absence. Shirley was expected to report for duty this past Monday. The school board set a daily rate of $354 for her compensation.

Security grant sought

After much debate earlier this year, a majority of school board members opted against hiring armed school resource officers to beef up security at the district's schools. Officials indicated B-S has been taking other security precautions, but they have declined to specify what those measures are, noting they don't want to reveal their hand to potential “bad guys.”

Now, Magness reported, the district has applied for a maximum grant of $60,000, which could be used to hire a resource officer after all.

“Maybe we can readdress this issue,” said school board President Ed Smith.

Magness noted there will be stiff competition for the funding as less than $4 million is available to go around among the more than 500 schools in the state. The funding was approved by the legislature in July, but documents needed to apply for the money didn't become available until October, he said.

In other financial matters, the school board accepted a $3,000 Community Bullying Prevention Coalition grant from the Center for Safe Schools for use by Saltsburg Elementary and that school's PTA. The funding is provided by the Highmark Foundation.

Also, Wal-Mart is providing a $1,000 grant that will help fund playground equipment for Saltsburg's pre-kindergarten program.

The board agreed to purchase mats from EZ Flex Sport Mats for the district wrestling program at a cost not to exceed $9,214. The district also entered into a five-year agreement with Johnson Controls, which provides energy and security control products and services; the annual cost will be capped at $3,888.

Web ad agreement OK'd

Blairsville-Saltsburg approved an agreement with Thought Process Enterprises of Ellwood City. In an agreement similar to that approved with other area schools, the firm will sell advertisements for placement on the district's website, splitting the resulting gross revenue with the district. The initial agreement runs through Dec. 31, 2014, after which it will continue indefinitely until cancelled by either party with a 90-day notice.

The school board agreed to participate in the ARIN Intermediate Unit 28 cooperative purchasing program for the 2014-15 school year. It also approved a district audit report prepared by Wessel and Company. “We had a clean audit,” noted board member George Rowley.

The district approved an agreement with Catapult Learning to provide Title I remedial reading instruction for district students attending the non-public St. Bernard Learning Center in Indiana. Blairsville-Saltsburg will pay a total of $4,124.52 in instructional and administrative fees to cover services for up to four students.

Guidance substitute hired

In other personnel matters, the school board hired Jennifer Watson as a long-term substitute guidance counselor at Saltsburg Middle/High School at a prorated salary of $20,000 with no additional benefits. She will fill in for Lori Baker during a Family and Medical Leave absence from about Dec. 3 to March 14.

Other leaves were approved for Saltsburg high school biology teacher Linsey Palazzi, beginning about March 21, and for custodian Debrah Bair, retroactive to Oct. 14; both run through the end of the school year. Alissa McNulty's leave was extended through Dec. 4.

Katie Milliron and Lisa Slicker were hired as part-time instructional aides at Blairsville Elementary School. Their salaries will be set in accordance with a bargaining unit contract.

The board approved changes in the coaching staff for Blairsville's cheerleading program. Lisa Fodor was hired effective Nov 16 as the head high school coach, replacing Ronda Halldin, who resigned. Tascha Morris was hired as the junior high coach starting the same day.

Approved as Smith Bus Company employees were: Jean Messenger of Blairsville, caravan driver/aide; Isabelle Jankey of Saltsburg, caravan driver; Merissa Stringham of Blairsville, spare driver/caravan driver; Violet Lloyd of Shelocta, spare driver.

Smith and Linda Brown received certificates from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association recognizing their respective years of service on the local school board — 12 and eight.

Board member Rick Harper said the district is waiting to hear from its insurance company while weighing options for repairing a problem at Blairsville's football field. “None of them are cheap,” he cautioned.

Heavy rains several months ago washed away part of the field's running track. According to Harper, the episode also revealed storm water inlet problems on an adjacent road as well as the fact that an earth embankment on the visitor's side of the field was never compacted properly.

The board agreed to expel a district student identified only by a five-digit number.

It also approved use of district facilities for a Feb. 16 wrestling tournament by the Saltsburg Young Olympiads and a June 8 dance performance by The Dance Alley.

Members of the Blairsville High School FBLA program were authorized to attend a leadership conference Jan. 6 at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. The district's French I and II students will visit the Carnegie Science Center's Omnimax Theater Feb. 11 in Pittsburgh. There will be no cost to the district for either trip.

According to a report submitted by principal Tracy Richards, a Christmas concert will be held Dec. 10 at Saltsburg Elementary School.

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

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