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South Hills

What's inside? Committee gets to work on what will fill new Thomas Jefferson High School

| Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Math teacher Melissa Sosanko feels like a parent on Christmas morning.

The kids are excited to start classes at the new $95 million Thomas Jefferson High School, set to open this summer, complete with new furniture, state-of-the-art technology, collaborative learning spaces and the district's first swimming pool.

Yet for teachers and administrators, it's important that they're prepared.

“It's an exciting time. There's lots of great things going on. But when you're the one that's in charge of it all, there's a lot of work to be done,” said Sosanko, who has taught in the West Jefferson Hills School District for 12 years.

As district leaders prepare to move ninth- through 12th-grade students from the more than 50-year-old Thomas Jefferson High School at 310 Old Clairton Road to a new school being built about a mile down the road on 161 acres, they're hoping to create a new culture.

They would like to bring the best of the school with them, while leaving behind any negatives, Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.

“Some district's look at a new building project as just simply moving everything from the old (school) — both physical and human capital — into a new building,” Ghilani said. “I think we looked at it as an opportunity to do things differently.”

A 15-member steering committee was formed at the start of the school year, comprised of teachers and staff at the high school, who will address how personalized learning/scheduling, facility use and learning environments should be handled at the new school.

“We want to really look at how we want to use the facility differently and to maximize the use of the facility,” said Scott Milburn, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

From surveys of key stakeholders in the district, administrators learned West Jefferson Hills community members wanted a change in the climate at Thomas Jefferson High School.

“I think you have to consider the history of the high school,” Ghilani said. “There were many physical problems with that building for a very long time. The hopes of a new building was promised or talked about amongst the faculty and students of that building for probably close to 20 years.”

That has left an environment at the school that “isn't real positive,” Ghilani said.

District leaders want to change that at the new school — taking the good of TJ with them, while leaving behind the bad, Sosanko said.

“We've got to leave some things behind and that's OK,” she said.

The steering committee, broken down into three subcommittees, is looking at how to do just that.

They're reviewing everything from bell schedules to seating to how to make the best use of open spaces for collaboration between departments at the school, Milburn said. The steering committee will make recommendations to administrators who will have the final say.

Every decision they make must tie back to the district's core values.

“How do we make it more learner-centric, focus on personalized learning and strong relationships?” Milburn said.

A group of nine teachers and administrators traveled to Mentor, Ohio, to visit Mentor High School, which, with similar demographics to Thomas Jefferson, also implemented modernized seating and one-to-one technology — where each student gets a laptop or computer — at the school all at the same time.

Five classrooms at the current Thomas Jefferson High School will test high, regular and soft seating this school year to help determine what is best for the new school. All students will receive laptops for their use at the new high school, as the district goes one-to-one at the high school level in 2018-19.

Teachers on the steering committee also shadowed students at all levels at Thomas Jefferson High School for a day to learn what life is like for them.

They also plan to tour local school districts, including Montour and South Fayette, to see how leaders in those schools developed personalized learning and handle use of space in their buildings.

Members of the steering committee are determining what they need at the new school — the “non-negotiables” — and will bring that back to the administration.

“One of the things we heard time and time again was when you change space and you add that much technology into a building, the type of instruction and the focus of instruction begins to change, which really lends itself to personalized learning,” Ghilani said.

Board members planned to vote at a Dec. 5 meeting on hiring a moving company to handle transporting the boxes, books and supplies to the new school. They also planned to approve a proposal for furniture for the new high school at that meeting.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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