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State subsidies to enhance school programs

| Thursday, June 3, 2004

When students return to school this fall, they -- and their parents -- will find changes in store.

Some parents will send their 5-year-olds to kindergarten for the entire day, a change in many districts.

Some students will find smaller classes or more after-school tutors.

The changes result from $175 million in block grants from the state with a goal of helping every district improve its students' standardized test scores.

Some districts will use these Accountability Block Grants to pay for programs already in place. Others have decided to start brand new programs -- most of which are full-day kindergarten.

All are hoping the funds don't dry up after this year.

Ligonier Valley Superintendent Dr. Stephen Whisdosh doesn't want to think about that possibility.

"I don't know at this point what we would do," he said.

Part of Ligonier Valley's $154,420 allocation will support a new, full-day kindergarten program at both of the district's elementary schools. The rest will improve the science curriculum for grades 1-6 and help students who are not doing well on the state's standardized test.

Locally, full-day kindergarten is by far the most popular use of the block grants. Of 21 school districts surveyed in Westmoreland, Fayette and Indiana counties, 16 reportedly will use the money to teach the littlest learners.

Some districts, such as New Kensington-Arnold, Burrell, Monessen, Jeannette, Blairsville-Saltsburg and Homer-Center, will use the funds to maintain full-day programs already in place.

Others, such as Belle Vernon Area, Norwin and Derry Area, will expand their extended-day programs.

But Ligonier Valley will be among districts going out on a limb and using the grants to offer full-day kindergarten for the first time.

Hempfield Area, Southmoreland, Kiski Area, Franklin Regional, Uniontown Area and Connellsville Area are inaugurating full-day kindergarten programs this fall.

"We thought the full-day kindergarten would have the greatest impact on our district," Hempfield Area Superintendent Dr. Wayne Doyle said. "It's a concern of any superintendent who's gone down the route of initiating a program with these monies.

"If the money dries up, then we have some difficult choices to make in the future, and none of those are pleasant choices."

The district will use its $419,512 grant to offer a mix of full- and half-day classes. Like many districts, Hempfield Area first will offer full-day classes to students who, testing shows, need extra help the most. A lottery will be used to fill the remaining slots.

School districts often complain about unfunded mandates. However, this time state officials not only have pushed for full-day kindergartens but also have provided the funds to support them.

"It has been made very clear from the state -- from the secretary of education and through the governor -- that they strongly support and are encouraging districts to do that," said Gail Yamnitzky, director of curriculum and instruction for grades K-5 at Franklin Regional schools. "So much so that they've actually given money for it."

Like Hempfield Area's, Franklin Regional's grant of $177,394 will fund full-day kindergarten for those children most in need and others assigned by lottery. Of a projected 205 students, 80 youngsters will benefit.

"This was a solution that research shows makes a difference," Yamnitzky said.

Although school officials understand the importance of full-day kindergarten, some said they just weren't comfortable using the state funds to start a new program.

"The accountability grant is brand new this year, and the fear that it would not be around in subsequent years was large," said Penn-Trafford Superintendent Dr. Deborah Kolonay.

Instead of offering full-day kindergarten, Penn-Trafford will use its $425,419 to cut class sizes in kindergarten and first grade from 19 to 17 students. Science textbooks and equipment will be upgraded, and the district will hire literacy and math coaches to boost teachers' skills.

Some districts, including Greater Latrobe, will use the grant money to subsidize existing programs.

The bulk of Greater Latrobe's $328,658 will pay for three instructional support teachers for elementary students. They review and develop education plans for students who are referred to special-needs programs.

The district also will fund after-school and summer programs in elementary reading and math. In the past, federal and local funds had supported those offerings.

"We'll use that money so we can continue to maintain those and not have to cut back on any services," said Stephen Sarokon, assistant superintendent. "We didn't feel, in light of the uncertainty of this money being there in the future, that we could expand, although we'd very much like to have full-day kindergarten."

While school officials worry about the longevity of the grants, state Department of Education officials said they plan to keep the funds coming.

"Certainly we do intend for the money to continue with the accountability block grant," spokeswoman Bethany Yenner said. "That's always been in our plans to let it continue."

Schools should know by June 9 whether their grants have been awarded. The money will be released July 29.

Greensburg Salem Superintendent Thomas Yarabinetz said his district decided against expanding its full-day kindergarten program in favor of other programs.

Money will go to elementary and middle school summer programs, after-school programs at both levels, a preschool program, a math tutor, and tutoring for high school students who perform poorly on the state's standardized test.

Money also will go toward expanding an intern program. Certified teachers who are working toward their master's degrees at the University of Pittsburgh tutor individual middle school and elementary students. The program will expand from six interns to 10.

Yarabinetz said the programs will help more than an expansion of full-day kindergarten.

"We think that right now we get more bang for the buck with these programs," he said. "We know they're successful. They've been successful in the past. We'll just reach more kids with this money."

Derry Area's assistant superintendent, Roberta Kuhns, said a pilot program for full-day kindergarten that began last fall proved so effective that the district will offer daylong classes to all students.

During the 2003-04 school year, 60 students -- one class in each of the district's three elementary schools -- attended kindergarten for a full day. The $291,389 grant will allow all kindergarten students -- 160 signed up so far -- to attend both morning and afternoon sessions.

"We have the support of the community and parents," Kuhns said. "It was pretty much a no-brainer to go that route."

Despite fears that the grant program will not be continued, Kuhns said the district is willing to take the risk. Derry Area has a declining enrollment and expects several veteran teachers to retire in a couple of years, freeing up money.

"It's a good gamble as far as what's best for kids," she said.

Staff writer Paul Paterra contributed to this story.

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