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Blairsville-Saltsburg approves varsity soccer teams for fall

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Students at Blairsville-Saltsburg School District will have an opportunity to compete in PIAA-sanctioned soccer as the school board has approved a varsity program to begin next fall.

The board, by an 8-1 vote at its Jan. 15 meeting, agreed to support separate district-wide boys' and girls' teams that will play on a field at Burrell Township's Saylor Park.

Board member Anthony Canzano, in his student activities report, estimated that as many as 50 students have shown interest in playing the sport.

Bev Zajdel, president of the local soccer boosters group, said 22 boys and 19 girls pre-registered for the fall team, while at least a handful of others have shown interest but were waiting to see if the program would receive board approval. “I'm excited, and the kids are really excited.” about the pending debut of the full-fledged program, she said.

According to business manager Eric Kocsis, the district expects to spend $4,200 for uniforms and $30,644 on other costs of running the soccer program next school year, including hiring coaches.

The new district athletic offering is an outgrowth of a co-ed soccer team that was launched two years ago as a club sport and has played under the name Saltsburg Trojans —with home games at Saltsburg's football stadium and practice sessions in Burrell Township.

A Saltsburg resident, Zajdel said she became interested in organizing a district soccer team so that her son could join a program in his own community rather than playing for a recreational league in nearby New Alexandria. She said she worked with school board member Mary Whitfield to promote a Blairsville-Saltsburg soccer program, but Zajdel noted the club team had difficulty finding opponents and played only eight games in its first season. Zajdel said the new varsity teams are expected to play seasons that include eight home games and eight away games — though she noted long trips may be involved since United and Ligonier Valley are among the few other area schools that also have sanctioned soccer teams. Still, she said, “It's becoming such a growing sport.”

Zajdel said the soccer boosters group will meet at 6 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month, with sites alternating between the Blairsville and Saltsburg high schools. The next meeting is planned for Feb. 11 at Saltsburg.

School director Rick Harper cast the sole vote against the new soccer teams. He explained that he could not support spending money on an additional athletic program when the district has curtailed funding for field trips and, so far, has taken a low-key approach when addressing security measures at its school buildings.

Blairsville-Saltsburg could adopt higher-profile security measures if its application for a $60,000 grant is approved. Assistant superintendent Ian Magness said the district should know by next month if it will receive the funding that could pay for hiring a security guard, known as a school resource officer, at both the Blairsville and Saltsburg school campuses.

Magness also reported that the district has received a grant targeted for rural or low-income schools. That funding will support a fourth reading specialist position at Blairsville Elementary School for the remainder of the school year while also improving filtering capabilities for the district's digital devices and covering costs of additional resources for an English as Second Language program.

The school board voted to accept an invitation for the district to participate in a Pennsylvania RAISE Cohort IV grant.

Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education is a research study being conducted in Pennsylvania and four other states in an effort to improve literacy. For participating districts like Blairsville-Saltsburg, it will provide select secondary teachers with literacy-related professional development and instructional resources with an eye toward meeting new Common Core educational standards. Teachers are to receive 10 days of training at no cost to the district in three multi-date sessions beginning this summer and concluding in July 2015.

Magness indicated the grant valued at more than $30,000 will facilitate training in literacy instruction for nine high school teachers.

School officials also briefly discussed plans for Blairsville-Saltsburg and other area districts to cooperate in seeking a federal Youth Career Connections grant for a proposed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) academy that would be located at the Indiana County Technology Center. If approved, the grant would stretch over four years and could total in excess of $2.5 million depending on the number of students expected to participate in the academy.

Magness said, “Regardless of whether we get the grant or not, we're still going to integrate more STEM pathways into what we offer,” through a relationship with post-secondary partners such as Westmoreland County Community College and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“We could very easily integrate (STEM) into our curriculum and bring some relevance, frankly, to our technology education department,” Magness added.

Students at Blairsville-Saltsburg and other districts have begun taking state-mandated Keystone exams in various course subjects, including biology.

Magness noted there have been cases where a student has passed the Keystone exam in an academic area but has failed the corresponding district course.

“The Keystone exam is what a student needs to graduate,” Magness noted. So, at his recommendation, the school board adopted a policy to award credit for a course to a student who passes the Keystone exam. While the failing grade still would be reflected on the student's high school transcript, the student would not have to repeat the course.

The district updated its dual enrollment agreement with Seton Hill University in Greensburg. Retroactive to this past July, the agreement notes that B-S high school students who complete select courses offered through Seton Hill can receive credit from the district toward their graduation requirements as well as post-secondary credits from the university.

At the midpoint of the 2013-14 school year, board members and district officials discussed the merits of the new schedule introduced in the fall that includes only a half-day of instruction on Fridays to allow teachers more time for professional development.

One of the downsides of the new schedule is that the school day may be cancelled entirely if adverse weather conditions trigger a two-hour delay on a Friday. Superintendent Tammy Whitfield reported that scenario occurred on a recent day when frigid temperatures prompted a delay.

But Magness reported the half days have allowed Blairsville-Saltsburg to take leaps forward in staff training.

“We're one of the very few districts in Western Pennsylvania that has all our people trained in (state) Act 126, which is child abuse training – which not a lot of districts can say,” Magness noted. Secretaries and custodians received the training in addition to instructors.

He added that the class-free Friday afternoons also are being used to schedule school security training sessions with state police at the district's various buildings, beginning with a police visit to Blairsville Middle/High School on Jan. 17. Magness said the sessions provide an introduction to the state police's Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) program.

In personnel matters, the school board granted family and/or medical leaves for elementary teachers Heather Reo, from about Feb. 10 through April 23 at Saltsburg, and Jennifer Surratt, from about April 17 through the end of the 2013-14 school year at Blairsville. A leave in December was approved retroactively for Saltsburg Middle/High School custodian Lisa Cunliffe.

The board hired Kristen Galo as a long-term substitute for Reo, at a prorated salary of $20,000 based on a 180-day school year, with no additional benefits.

Gretchen Stiffler resigned as a cafeteria aide at Blairsville Elementary, and the board agreed to post and advertise the vacancy in order to fill it.

The following supplemental positions were approved:

Blairsville High School — John Brady, English department chair and newspaper adviser; Nancy Hartmann and Laura Goodnack, 11th grade class co-advisers; Sean Barrett and Alice Moore, respective director and director of music for the high school musical; Cory Manarelli, volunteer basketball coach; Rebekah Gibson, band front volunteer;

Saltsburg Middle/High School — Lindsay Pingor and Mary Jo Fadden, respective director and director of music for the high school musical:

District-wide — Marty Kessler and Mark Freeman, respective head coach and assistant coach for boys' track; Brandy DelleDonne and Jessica Foor, respective head coach and assistant coach for girls' track; John H. Harsh, assistant softball coach.

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

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