Fifth Grade Scheduling Causes Extended School Board Debate

On Monday’s agenda meeting, most members of the Ellwood City Area School Board accepted a fifth grade schedule proposal as the best possible option. However, board president Renee Pitrelli didn’t accept the change, resulting in an extended circular conversation.

Currently, the fifth-graders are divided into two classroom “pods” each rotating between three teachers. Frank Keally, the principal at Hartman Intermediate, felt this was a fine model and several school board members agreed, including Pitrelli, Jeniffer Tomon, Danielle Woodhead and Erica Gray.

Unfortunately, this year’s fourth grade class is smaller than normal and as a result, Keally will have to move a teacher from fifth to fourth grade for the 2016-17 school year. In addition, Keally feels it is imperative that all fifth grade students have Tara Lombardo for writing, whom Keally described as one of the best writing instructors in western Pennsylvania.

Due to these factors, Keally will have to change the schedule so that all fifth graders see all five teachers.

Pitrelli cited studies indicating that seeing too many teachers is detrimental to elementary and middle school level children, as it makes it harder to form bonds with teachers and creates additional stress.

“If it’s working great as is, why would we change it?” Gray said.

Keally agreed that additional teachers is a risk, although he feels there are benefits to having multiple voices explain the same concept to students.

“It’s impossible to keep the current fifth grade schedule the same without hiring another teacher,” Keally said.

Board member Kathy Pansera said that when the board hired a STEM teacher last summer and committed to hiring another this summer, they knew hiring elementary teachers would not be an option financially.

“We could run the district as a business with a bottom line,” board member LeRoy Cortez said, “and then we’d have to make important educational cuts. Some people are fine with that until it’s a program their kids are involved in. Then, they don’t want to cut it.”

When asked, Superintendent Joe Mancini said that fiscally, the board shouldn’t hire a teacher and academically, they should defer to the “scheduling expert,” referring to Keally.

Pitrelli was unsatisfied with this and repeatedly asked Keally why the current two pod system couldn’t continue with five teachers, while Keally repeatedly said that mathematically, the combination of available teachers, classrooms and time didn’t work out.

This continued until Pitrelli until polled the board. All board members agreed with Keally except Matt Morella.

“If the Education Committee had sat down with Mr. Keally a month ago, we may have come up with other solutions,” Morella said. “But this board doesn’t seem to want to put in that time. I think it’s insulting to our intelligence that these are our only options.”

Following the poll, Pitrelli continued to ask about other options, causing board member Mike Nuepauer to interject, “We’ve polled the board. We decided. Can’t we just move on now?”

“I don’t want to be bad to feel bad about holding our administration responsible,” Morella said in an indirect response.

The conversation wasn’t brought to a close until Morella and Tomon, who are on the Education Committee, agreed to sit down with Keally to go over every possible option. This will hopefully be done by tonight’s voting meeting.

Correction: Gray, Tomon and Woodhead had questions for Keally regarding the new schedule, but they didn’t say they felt the change was for the worse, as was previously stated.

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