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Avon Grove School Board seems sharply divided on facilities planning

03/13/2018 03:13PM ● Published by Steven Hoffman

At a public meeting on March 8, the Avon Grove School Board took another step toward making a decision about how it will address the district's long-term facilities needs.

Or not.

The latest in a series of facilities planning meetings of the Avon Grove School District's Committee-of-the-Whole did not produce the results that many were hoping for. Instead of narrowing the number of building options under consideration, or reaching a consensus on educational priorities that would shape the board's decision, or coming together on an agreed-upon amount of money that the district could afford to allocate for the much-needed secondary school building improvements, the board seemed to be more divided than ever on a vision for the district's future. The path forward in order for the nine-member school board to make a decision on facilities planning was not clear.

The administration's stated goal has been for the school board to approve a facilities option in April so that the next phase of work can begin. While a decision could still be made at some point next month, the four-hour meeting at the Penn London Elementary School showed little evidence that there is significant momentum toward reaching the goal.

The meeting began with superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese leading a presentation about how the school buildings must be transformed into 21st Century learning environments, with flexible spaces that allow for communication and collaboration—because that's what students need in order to be prepared for college and the workforce that they will soon be entering.

Avon Grove officials outlined some of the benefits of the 21st Century educational approach that they want to offer to students. This approach is student-centered, with a teacher serving as the facilitator of learning. This in opposition to the 20th Century approach, which is focused on the teacher as a content provider, and the student as the receiver of the content. In 21st Century education, students learn collaboratively, and the learning expands locally and globally through technology and community augmentation. The focus is on what students can do with knowledge once the details are forgotten, which is an active learning model. Communication, collaboration, and creative problem-solving are essential components of 21st Century education.

“Some of these things, we do well. Some of these things, we could do better,” Marchese said. “We have a responsibility to educate our students in a way that prepares them to succeed as adults.”

A group of guest speakers—two students and three teachers—shared their experiences in the Avon Grove schools, and talked about how the secondary schools have limitations.

Shannon Oakes and Tom Mayer, who serve as student representatives to the school board, talked about how the current high school, which was originally built in 1957, doesn't offer the spaces that are necessary for 21st Century learning, especially in the areas of science, technology, and engineering—areas that many Avon Grove graduates want to focus on when they go to college.

Oakes explained that she is one of 55 students who will sometimes have a biology class together. The class, because it is so large, sometimes meets in the school's auditorium. There can only be lectures in the auditorium—no hands-on activities or group assignments. It's also hard to hear in the auditorium. Oakes said that when she toured college campuses, students were learning as they worked in small groups, with the teacher facilitating the discussions—precisely the kind of 21st Century learning that the administration wants to offer to Avon Grove students at the high school level so that they are prepared for college.

Mayer noted that buildings with flexible spaces would allow students to have more freedom and to take on more responsibility—which they will have to do as they transition to college.

Gretchen Young, a social studies teacher at the high school, supported some of the points made by Oakes and Mayer, observing that students need to take college-level courses that will help prepare them for their post-secondary careers.

Young said that, as an educator, she worries about the 80 percent of the students who aren't at the very top or the very bottom, who might not get the individualized attention that they need and deserve. She said that having collaborative spaces that would allow for small-group instruction could help highly successful students to work at their own pace, freeing the teacher up to focus on the other students.

“There are a lot of interactive things that we would like to do, but we don't have the space,” Young said.

Chris Herrman, an industrial arts teacher, said that the students that he works with need additional space so that they can work together on projects. Right now, there's no space for students to work on activities for classes like engineering and computer-aided drawing. These fields require individuals who know how to collaborate.

Clint Jones is the digital media teacher for the Avon Grove High School. A point of pride for the school district is the state-of-the-art television studio at the high school, one that students built themselves out of necessity because it was the only way that the school was going to get a new television studio. Jones said that the television studio has opened up many more opportunities for students because they get to learn real-world skills that are useful in college. It provides Avon Grove students with experiences that students from other schools might not have.

The lack of flexible spaces and collaborative spaces in the current high school is a major limitation for students, Jones explained. He said that, right now, Avon Grove teachers are teaching in isolation because there is no room for any kind of collaboration that reaches across the disciplines.

Next, Marchese and Dr. Michael Snopkowski, the district's director of teaching and learning for secondary schools, talked about one of the administration's main educational objectives—to transition to a middle school configuration of grades 6 to 8, instead of the current configuration of grades 7 and 8.

Marchese said that it's much better to have sixth-graders in a building with seventh- and eighth-graders, rather than having sixth grade remain in the elementary school for an extra year.

“I believe it's a need in the school district,” Marchese said, adding that the only reason Avon Grove moved to having just grades 7 and 8 in the middle school was because of a lack of space in the secondary schools.

Marchese noted that he spent eight years as a middle school principal, and he believes very strongly from his own experience that the grades 6 to 8 configuration works best for students because they have the three years in the same building.

“A 12-year-old is very different from a 14-year-old,” Marchese said, explaining that students undergo many changes between sixth grade and eighth grade.

Snopkowski, who also has experience as a middle school principal, said that there is much more flexibility when it comes to curriculum to have the sixth grade in the same building as the seventh and eighth grades. Having the sixth grade as part of the secondary schools allows students to have access to more advanced instruction for things like science, technology, and world languages. The students are much better prepared to move on to high school.

“The research supports this, but I also see it from my own experiences,” Snokowski said.

Marchese concluded his remarks about the grades 6 to 8 configuration for the middle school by stating, “I believe it's the right thing for the Avon Grove school community.”

Avon Grove officials also talked about overcrowding in schools, which is one of the leading reasons why a Facilities Input Group that spent about 18 months studying the district's building needs concluded that the construction of a new middle school was the best option to address the existing overcrowding in the schools.

The high school is occupied at 141 percent of the rated student capacity. There are currently about 1,797 students in the high school, and the building's rated capacity is just 1,274. There is no space for large group instruction, and there is limited ability to implement professional learning communities. The high school's common areas—the cafeteria, gym, hallways, auditorium, library, and bathrooms—are all woefully overcrowded.

The high school has 12 portable classrooms, and one of the goals is to get rid of all the portables in the district. The middle school has eight portable classrooms. Add in the portables on the elementary school campus, and there's enough classrooms to make up an entire school building.

“The modular classrooms were intended to be temporary,” Marchese told the school board.

When the presentations were finished, it was the school board's turn to have a discussion about the information that had been presented in recent weeks. It quickly became apparent that the school board members are sharply divided about how to address the facilities needs.

At last week's facilities planning meeting, board president Tracy Lisi had asked the board members to come prepared to discuss the level of borrowing that they would support in order to fund the renovation or new construction projects that the board ultimately approves. But at the March 8 meeting, the school board did not easily coalesce around one borrowing option—and the circuitous and sometimes contentious discussion that followed didn't offer much of an indication that the school board was on the path to an agreement on a facilities plan.

One goal of having the school board members discuss the various borrowing levels was to reduce the number of options under consideration. If a majority of the board, for example, wasn't willing to exceed $52 million in borrowing, then there would be no need to talk about new construction projects because they wouldn't be possible at that borrowing level.

However, a significant number of school board members would not offer specifics about the level of borrowing that they were comfortable with, effectively killing any meaningful discussion about the merits of one borrowing option over another.

The school board members talked—and talked—but didn't manage to make any real progress.

John Auerbach, Rick Dumont, and Lynn Weber, a group of three school board members who linked their campaigns when they sought seats on the board, all indicted at various times during the discussion that they were not willing to commit to a specific level of borrowing. Nor did they offer an alternate vision for how the district might best address the issues of overcrowding and aging school buildings.

Auerbach said that he is extremely cautious about putting out a number that he would be in favor of the school district borrowing because once that number is out there, there is no way the project will cost any less than that.

Dumont expressed concerns that the borrowing scenario that would see the district borrow $127 million would likely require the maximum tax increase allowable under the Act 1 Index for a number of years.

Weber noted that the school district might not receive reimbursement from the state through the PlanCon process—previously, school districts could receive 15 or 20 percent of a total project's costs back through the reimbursements. Weber said that the lack of reimbursements should be factored into what the Avon Grove community could afford to spend on the building project.

School board member Charles Beatty talked about Avon Grove's comparative lack of a commercial tax base that would leave the burden of higher taxes on residents in the district.

School board member Bill Wood said that it was very important to consider the financial impact that a school building project would have on the community and its taxpayers, and it is also important to consider the educational needs of students.

“We also have to ask, 'what can our students not afford?'” Wood said.

Wood reiterated a point that he had made at a previous meeting when he encouraged the school board to discuss how the individual building options would increase or limit the academic opportunities for students—because he really wants to focus on how children are being educated, and he wants the facilities to meet the students' academic needs.

“I want us to educate students. I don't want us to just house them,” Wood said.

School board member Jeffrey Billig expressed his concern that some school board members might only support the lowest level of borrowing, and he isn't sure that the facilities improvements that that would allow would be sufficient to meet the needs of students.

Board member Herman Engel questioned the wisdom of spending what will inevitably be tens of millions of dollars on aging school buildings when the renovation work wouldn't add sufficient capacity to meet the future needs of the district. This option might be less costly in the short-term, but more expensive to taxpayers over time because more renovations or a new school could still be necessary.

Doing only renovations and additions to the high school and middle school would also put more pressure on the State Road site, and would probably mean the loss of an athletic field and some parking spaces on the campus.

Lisi said that she was willing to approve a transition to a middle school for grades 6 to 8, and to support a building project that would allow that. She emphasized that she, too, only wants to spend what is necessary to give students the learning environment that they need, and that means a high school that can accommodate 21st Century learning.

“We are not building Taj Mahals,” Lisi said. “We are not building grand palaces. We are looking to build functional buildings that can embody our 21st Century learning environment. If we're going to do this, we have to do this right.”

Engel and Wolff both said that they are also in favor of the grades 6 to 8 configuration for the middle school.

As the conversation continued, the divide between the school board members was apparent. While some favored the grades 6 to 8 configuration for the middle school, others, like Dumont and Beatty, said that they aren not necessarily committed to making that change—especially considering the limitations of the existing buildings.

There were charges that some members of the school board were purposely stalling the progress of discussions, and while no names were mentioned, the comments were directed at Beatty, Dumont, Weber, and Auerbach.

As the discussion continued with seemingly little or no progress, Marchese urged the school board to be more forthcoming with their viewpoints.

The superintendent said, “We have to put the cards out on the table and reach a decision point.”

While the school board didn't reach a decision point on this night, there was something of a bright spot when there was once again general agreement among the school board members that the two dozen or more portable classrooms in the district must all be phased out. Incorporating that goal in the building plans, whatever they turn out to be, is a starting point.

A number of people spoke during public comment. A few people talked about the need to minimize tax increases. More people, including two high school students who had written letters, expressed their concerns about the conditions of the existing buildings, and the need to improve them.

Leslie Erb-Wallace, a resident of New London Township, who is very active in the schools, said that “disappointed” is one word she would use to describe the meeting because of the lack of progress that the discussions seemed to produce.

“Shameful is another word that comes to mind,” she said, explaining that school board members should have a clear understanding of how inadequate the secondary school facilities are by now. She also took the school board to task for ignoring the educational opinions of top administrators like Marchese and Snopkowski, who both advocated for a middle school to be used for grades 6 to 8.

Upcoming facilities planning meetings take place on Tuesday, March 27 at the Penn London Elementary School, Tuesday, April 3 at the Fred S. Engle Middle School, and Thursday, April 12 at the Avon Grove High School.

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