ADAMS TWP — Efforts to make schools safer and improve special education programs are under way in the Mars School District.
School resumes Wednesday, with about 3,310 students anticipated to walk the halls of the district’s five buildings.
This is a slight increase from last school year, according to Superintendent Wes Shipley. He said about 18 more students are registered for classes this year, with the district adding one section of half-day kindergarten and one section of first grade to accommodate the increases.
Safety and Security
A new initiative will greet students soon after arrival. The district is implementing the Rachel’s Challenge school culture/anti-bullying campaign for all grades. The program was created by the family of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Using her writings and stories from her life, the program aims to replace acts of violence, bullying and negativity with acts of respect, kindness and compassion. The overall goal is to create a safer, closer-knit school community.
“I believe that Rachel’s Challenge will be a great first step to improve the overall school climate and culture,” Shipley said. “There is a powerful message for everyone to demonstrate empathy and kindness and, ultimately, to create a safer, more connected school.”
On Thursday, school staff heard from Rachel Scott’s father, Darrell Scott, who was the keynote speaker at Mars School District’s 2018-19 Kickoff event. He will return to give presentations to students and to the community later this fall.
The program coincides with a school safety hot line that was introduced in the spring that allows bullying and threats to be reported anonymously. Shipley said feedback on both programs has been positive, but there is still work to be done.
“We cannot change our climate with one professional development or one student assembly — regardless of how powerful the message is,” he said. “We need to take this opportunity to use the messages to develop an overall plan for student connections and safety.”
The district also took steps recently to improve security, appointing Louis Gentile as safety and security coordinator for the district and Jeffery Bitzer as an assistant to Gentile. The moves are part of the state-mandated Safe Schools and Security Committee, with Gentile working with the current security team to assess district security and create a plan of action.
District officials have been diligently working on a plan to improve special education following the release of a state audit last year. The audit showed the district was out of compliance with state rules in a number of areas, including “least restrictive environment,” which is based on a student’s ability to be educated with nondisabled peers to the greatest extent possible.
Other areas of noncompliance included parent training, personnel training and a lack of documentation needed for students to make the transition from high school to college or the workforce.
While a plan of action has been submitted and approved by the state, district officials continued to make improvements by hiring Travis Mineard as the director of special education. Shipley said Mineard is tasked with following through with the corrective action plan, and he believes that plan will be “followed with fidelity.”
“He has already rolled up his sleeves and has focused on efficiencies for program improvement,” Shipley said.
The plan includes administrator and staff training in evidence-based teaching practices for students with diverse disabilities. It also adds supplemental programs for students with specific learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Additionally, staff trainings will focus on inclusive research-based interventions, best practices, co-teaching, differentiation and collaboration. The district also will provide ongoing parent training and networking sessions. The district will continue to use a multitier system of support for English and language arts, which aims to identify reading issues earlier.
A life-skills classroom will soon be up-and-running, offering a chance for students to learn real-world skills in addition to the normal curriculum.
The district saw several key retirements at the end of the last school year, including that of Robert Zaccari as elementary principal. Todd Lape, who had served in the same position at the primary center, was chosen to replace Zaccari.
This created a vacancy at the Primary Center, which will remain open for the 2018-19 school year. In the interim, Elizabeth McMahon, assistant superintendent, will oversee daily operations and work with students and parents as part of her routine duties.
Shipley and members of the Mars School Board said they believe McMahon will continue to do an outstanding job, using her years as principal from 2005 to 2016 as guidance.