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South Hills

West Jeff eyeing school reconfiguration plans

| Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

West Jefferson Hills School District leaders are exploring several options — from building additions, to closing schools and constructing a new one — to tackle a surge of growth among the district's youngest students.

Options being considered include turning McClellan and Gill Hall elementary schools into kindergarten through second grade only buildings. That would require a 10 classroom addition at Gill Hall and cost $7.2 million.

Another option includes closing McClellan and Gill Hall and constructing a new early childhood learning center for all kindergarten through second-graders at a cost of $29.4 million.

Under both options, all third through fifth grades would attend Jefferson Elementary.

“We are going to have to move quickly if we are going to do something,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.

District leaders will hold a community meeting Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Thomas Jefferson High School cafeteria, 310 Old Clairton Road, to discuss the options.

A recommendation on the elementary program restructuring likely will be made to school board members at their Jan. 16 work session at 7:30 p.m. Board members likely will vote on the matter at the Jan. 23 meeting.

A demographic study of the district, completed this summer, showed the elementary population exploding, specifically in the 2- to 6-year-old age range.

Ryan Pierce, of Core Architects, presented school board members in December with seven possible options to handle the growth, determined through a feasibility study his firm conducted.

Only two of the options are being considered, as the others recommended elementary buildings with more than 1,000 students, Ghilani said.

“In the immediate to near future, there's an imbalance in the growth,” Pierce said. “The growth is occurring in all of the wrong places.”

McClellan Elementary has surpassed its 450 student capacity with 475 students enrolled at the school in 2017-18. Gill Hall has nearly reached its 300 student capacity, with 297 students enrolled. Jefferson Elementary is far below its 850 student capacity, with 560 students enrolled.

If nothing is done by 2027, it's predicted McClellan would have 570 students, Gill Hall with 354 students and Jefferson with 570 students.

“With the overcrowding at McClellan, we kind of have to do something next year and I'd rather have as few moves as possible over the course of the next few years and have as little disruption to kids and families as possible,” Ghilani said.

District leaders still are determining how the project would be paid for and what transportation costs would be like for both options.

Overcrowding at McClellan and Gill Hall has forced school leaders to turn closets into conference rooms. When an extra class section was needed at Gill Hall this year, there wasn't space for it.

Class sizes also have become an issue. Some grades have 29 or 30 students, while others have 21.

It varies between grade level and building with no consistency, Ghilani said.

Students at Jefferson also have exposure to added STEAM programs.

Due to space constraints at the other elementary schools, some of the programs need to be planned as day events, instead of worked into students' rotations.

Having all students in the district come together for the first time in third grade instead of sixth is better developmentally for the youths, Ghilani said. Having K-2 and 3-5 schools also would increase efficiency, allowing for more focused special education efforts in the latter.

Simultaneously, district leaders are exploring the option of transitioning from half to full-day kindergarten. Ghilani said the idea is still in its infancy, yet leaders have talked to several parents to get their take on the matter. The issue also will be discussed at the community meetings.

“That's something we would ease into, not just jump into with both feet,” Ghilani said. The plan would be to pilot a program as early as next year — depending on space — to see how it works with a small group of students.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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