Johnstown approves grouping of grades

JOHNSTOWN -The Greater Johnstown School District is launching what it says will be an innovative elementary school grade-level grouping plan, starting with the 2014-15 school year.

The Board of Education voted 9-0 on Thursday to implement the program, despite some objections from the public.

“Quality instruction has a great influence on school achievement,” board President Paul VanDenburgh said.

Vice President Jennifer Sponnoble said the board didn’t act haphazardly. She said in her three years on the board, she has gotten to know the district administration, which she said will treat the changes professionally.

“I know that their collaborative work will support this move,” Sponnoble said.

With the start of the 2014-15 school year, the makeup of the city’s three elementary schools will be this way: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade will be at Pleasant Avenue Elementary School; grades two and three at Glebe Street Elementary School; and grades four, five and six at Warren Street Elementary School.

The Pleasant Avenue Elementary School building will be reconfigured as an “early learning center” with a focus on a foundation in reading and math, with a comprehensive approach to screening and diagnostics and early intervention resources.

Glebe Street Elementary School will be reconfigured as a primary instruction center housing second and third grades. It would allow “for a focus on young readers and critical thinkers, incorporation of multiple subjects and hands-on learning experiences,” according to the resolution approving the plan.

The resolution stated the Warren Street Elementary School building would become an “intermediate instruction center” allowing for incorporation of a “focus on problem solvers, student project-based learning, and band, chorus and art ensembles.”

Limited costs the district outlined at this point relate to building changes. A?capital building project won’t be required.

Work would be done in two phases. In the spring and summer of this year, there will be a conversion of art and music rooms to three kindergarten spaces. Cost estimates are $20,000, officials said. In the spring and summer of 2014, the district will convert second-grade rooms to kindergarten rooms. High -end cost estimates are within $20,000 for that work, officials said.

The resolution approved Thursday indicated building realignment “provides potential for maximization of educational opportunities for Johnstown students and staff in consideration of current resources.”

Some members of the public didn’t agree, including Salvatore Giarrizzo, who questioned the need for restructuring.

“The evidence clearly says no,” he said.

He later told the board, “This is just a thinly veiled camouflage to close another school.”

The board in 2009 closed the former Jansen Avenue Elementary School, mainly due to declining enrollment.

Michael Long, who spoke at the meeting, said of grade-level grouping, “The cons are guaranteed. The pros are hypothetical.”

Barbara Skoda told the board she thinks further study is merited.

But the board said it has done its due diligence, gathering information and holding public forums. Board members said it was time to make a decision.

“The decision hasn’t been an easy one to make,” said board member Angela Clizbe.

Board member Kathryn Zajicek said education in Johnstown will be “more inclusive” with grade-level grouping.

Board member Anne Cassidy said she hopes the public understands the board is voting with the best interests of students in mind. She said the board is also thinking of the district taxpayers.

“Everyone’s time and commitment to this board’s decision-making process is greatly appreciated,” VanDenburgh said, reading a prepared statement.

Board member Ronald Beck said there will be an increase in the “enrichment” opportunities of the elementary students’ curriculum, including foreign-language instruction.

“I really see how this will benefit music and the arts,” Beck added.

Board member Douglas Dougherty said it wouldn’t have hurt the board to have one more public meeting, but overall, he supports grade-level grouping.

“You could keep a better eye on the students, a better focus on the students,” he said.

Michael Anich can be reached at