Learning lessons in, out of classroom in 2015

It was a busy year on the education beat.

Most stories came with daily features that highlighted class projects, human interest stories of students and staff at the schools and articles about board meetings.

But some created more attention than the rest.

With a state budget that has yet to be passed, at least one district that serves Centre County took out a loan to help pad its pockets to make up for state funding.

Other district administrators said they’re working with money already in their budget to get through the year — but it’s tight.

This year also came with its share of controversial issues that district administrators said was a learning experience.

It included discrimination, political correctness, state testing and bomb threat issues.

And despite the not-so-flattering news, a lot of good also came from the education beat such as several new programs at State College Area High School, including a new breakfast program and the groundbreaking of the State High project.

One middle school student also went to Harrisburg to meet with a legislator in the fight to get more language curriculum in schools.

Here are some of the top stories on the education beat this year.

State High construction and changes

The first day of the 2015-16 school year was big for State College Area High School, which saw several changes.

It was a new era for students — they’re under the direction of a new principal, a new schedule and in the midst of experiencing construction for the new high school project.

Curtis Johnson was formerly the associate principal at the high school and named interim principal in the summer after former principal Scott DeShong left the district in August to take a lateral role at a high school in Chester County.

State College Area High School students also went back to school with a new schedule that turned eight, 47-minute periods into four, 90-minute blocks on a two-day rotation.

And construction began on the new high school project the public approved last year in an 11,121 to 3,975 vote.

According to a report from the district in May, the cost estimate from Crabtree Rohrbaugh & Associates Architects was $117,486,591 — or 2.16 percent more than the $115 million referendum budget.

The first graduating class from the completed school will be the 2019-20 senior class.

State budget crisis

The state is 185 days without a budget.

And school districts that serve Centre County are feeling the effects.

Public school districts statewide started borrowing money to help cushion the blow from the state budget impasse.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a statement that said some districts, and intermediate units that oversee them, already borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars.

Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District finance director Michael Conte said the district made a commitment for a $4.4 million loan from M&T Bank. The deal was made in August, he said.

It was the first district that serves Centre County to make the move.

The other districts — Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, Penns Valley and State College area — said they’re good until the new year and will then re-evaluate their funds.

PSSA testing

Some state standardized test scores dropped.

And it wasn’t just an issue across the state; school districts in Centre County reported a similar dip.

PSSA results were released earlier in the school year and showed a decrease in scores from 2014 to 2015.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessments measure third- through eighth-grade students. It’s testing that helps the state determine if students are learning what they should be and tests students’ math and English/language arts skills. Students in fourth and eighth grades are also assessed in science.

Last year was the first time the state based the test on Pennsylvania Core Standards — a set of more rigorous standards determined by the state, according to the state Department of Education website.

The 2015 PSSAs were an assessment that reportedly aligned with PA Core. The writing portion of the test was eliminated and incorporated into the reading section that was renamed English Language Arts.

But some district administrators said educators didn’t have enough time to prepare their students for the new standards from the time school districts were aware of the PA Core Standards, and the time teachers had to teach to that level.

They also added that those standards were not addressed to the districts until after the test was administered last spring.

Administrators said they’re working with teachers; looking at ways to improve; encouraging students and their families not to be discouraged; and working with local legislatures to make standards more realistic.

Bellefonte athletics logo

Bellefonte athletics rebranded its department, and it came with a new priority in logos that redefine the athletic department.

Its Native American symbol with a headdress was turned into a secondary logo.

It was a way for the district to be respectful of individuals while also being politically correct, said Athletic Director Deb Moore.

“We’re not phasing it out so much as we are being a little more cognizant of how it’s interpreted,” Moore said.

Moore said Bellefonte athletics will be defined by three emblems — a red block letter “B” as its main symbol, a red “Indian head” with a headdress as its secondary logo and a new secondary figure for the football team of a “B” with feathers attached to it that Moore called a “dreamcatcher.”

“Basically, these three items will definitely be used,” Moore said. “It’s just going all vogue and doing something that’s not what we would consider politically correct, and now that the Washington Redskins have lost their trademark license we want to make sure we are still using our Red Raider name, but being respectful when we do so.”

State College race relations

When a photo of two State College Area High School students wearing shirts that some considered discriminatory went viral, the district decided to use it as a teachable moment.

The incident created attention in October when a photo was posted online of two State High male students who were wearing homemade matching T-shirts with the N-word on them.

A school spokesman said since the incident happened off school grounds, the district’s hands were tied in terms of disciplinary matters — though Student Resource Officer Terry Stec spoke with the teens involved.

A student “race relations” forum was held for anyone in the school who wanted to participate.

Principal Curtis Johnson said he provided the platform for clubs like the Diversity Group and Student Council to facilitate for the student body.

The mission was for students to come up with ideas to prevent similar issues.

PV teachers of the year

Two Penns Valley Area School District teachers, Dina Howell and Michele Shawver, were named 2016 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year finalists.

They were among 12 total finalists from about 500 school districts in the commonwealth.

Howell has been a teacher for 26 years, of which 11 have been at Penns Valley Area.

She was nominated by Penns Valley Area High School Assistant Principal Laura Tobias.

Shawver is in her sixth year with the district and has taught in fourth grade for five years. This is her first year teaching sixth grade.

Penns Valley Area also boasts the 2012 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year with Tricia Miller, an English teacher at Penns Valley Area High School.

American Sign Language

A bill could be reintroduced in state government that would make it a requirement for American Sign Language to be treated equally to other world language graduation requirements in schools where it is offered.

Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Spruce Creek Township, said he plans to study House Bill 572 and push for it to be passed.

And it’s all thanks to Park Forest Middle School student Melody Sharp who brought it to his attention.

On June 23, Melody met with the legislator, lobbying for ASL in Pennsylvania schools.

A bill was introduced Feb. 8, 2001, to recognize ASL as foreign language coursework for high school graduation requirements, which would make it a requirement for some teachers to get certified in ASL.

The bill was passed Oct. 8, 2002, by the House with a vote of 197-1 and was to take effect July 1, 2003.

But the bill died, Irvin said.

The next steps are to reintroduce the bill, get co-sponsors and then re-refer it to the education committee.

Sub teacher shortage

Centre County area schools are coping with a shortage of substitute teachers by having some educators taking on dual roles to fill the void.

It’s a trend that’s been ongoing for about five years, local school administration said, and stretches beyond Centre County.

Some school districts hired a substitute teacher service that provides the schools with teachers when needed, while others have their own process in-house.

The sub teaching shortage can be attributed to a decline in people going into the education field in higher education.

According to Penn State College of Education spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz, the number of graduates with education degrees declined from 499 in the 2004-05 school year to 304 last spring.

Bomb threats

Philipsburg-Osceola Area High School received numerous bomb threats this school year by students that forced the district to press charges against the accused.

It even caused the school to dismiss early after a bomb threat reported in October.

Administrators said they hope a high-definition camera system installed in the building last summer can help them find the culprits each time, if they didn’t already fess up.

In prior cases, students have been identified, charged by police and disciplined by the school, said Superintendent Gregg Paladina.

Discipline within the district varies depending on the severity of the incident.

By the end of the year, there were at least four incidents, according to school and police reports.

Polar Bear Plunge

Two Centre County districts competed in a friendly competition to raise money for a program through the YMCA of Centre County that supports area school districts.

Bald Eagle and Bellefonte area school districts went head to head to see who could raise the most money for the Backpack Food Program.

As part of the competition, educators also participated in the Polar Bear Plunge — an annual initiative for people to take a dip in local waters in cold temperatures and raise money for the YMCA of Centre County.

School district participants included Bald Eagle Area Superintendent Jeff Miles, Howard Elementary School Principal Skip Pighetti, Bellefonte Area Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger and Bellefonte Elementary School Principal Karen Krisch.

Bellefonte Area raised about $1,300. Bald Eagle Area raised about $600.

The Backpack Food Program was started in 2014 in the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District and provides students with food to eat during the weekend. This year, the campaign was expanded to Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, Moshannon Valley, Penns Valley and West Branch area school districts.

SCAHS breakfast program

New items on the State College Area High School breakfast menu could help encourage more students to buy a morning meal.

And a new breakfast cart near the entrance and main office of the high school South Building can also help students get breakfast more conveniently.

The new items and food cart were part of an effort to promote health and wellness and were unveiled in November.

The district’s food service department and agriculture-based programs were showcased to representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new menu items included homemade whole-wheat cinnamon buns, breakfast pizza with fruit and packaged goods like Pop-Tarts.

PV graduation

Some students from the Penns Valley Area High School Class of 2015 took a step back in time, and walked through the doors of Penns Valley Elementary and Intermediate School before they graduated in June.

Their destination was the cafeteria, where they participated in a sixth-grade sendoff art project that turned the cafeteria into an art collage representing every student who graduated from the school.

Each student was assigned a brick to paint in the cafeteria.

It was a project that former art teacher Pat Wolfe introduced to the school in 2005 from the Gregg Township Elementary School in Spring Mills that closed the same year.

Since her retirement in 2006, two other teachers have continued the project.

Art teachers said it’s a way for students to leave their mark on the school.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo