Music to their ears Ephrata band parents pleased with school district decision to table proposed schedule changes

By on January 26, 2012

By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Proposed changes which would have decreased the number of class periods per day at the Ephrata High School have been tabled by the school’s administration.

That was the news shared as roughly 50 parents and students were on hand for Monday night’s voting session of the Ephrata Area School Board as discussion loomed regarding a proposed change. The meeting, which was held in the cafeteria at the Fulton Elementary School was a continuation of a discussion first started two weeks ago at the board’s working session.

At issues was a proposal which could have taken effect as early as the upcoming 2012-2013 school year. The new schedule would reduce the number of class periods each day from seven to six, thus increasing the size of each of the remaining periods.

What had concerned parents of especially the music students is the fact that the change might require music instructional classes such as band, orchestra and choir to be moved to the end of the day during the ACT period after the sixth period of the day.

But in a surprise move, Assistant District Superintendent Dr. Brian Troop told parents that the first two of three possible scenarios had been completely discarded from consideration. He also announced that the administration would work toward some improvements to the current seven-period class schedule for the coming school year.

This was a relief to those who had come out to the meeting, concerned that the move to a six-period day was all but a "done deal." Both Troop and Board President Timothy Stayer reiterated that the district had heard the concerns raised and were inclined to take a slower, more deliberative approach to the topic at hand.

In opening comments, Stayer again explained that the discussion at the Jan. 9 school board committee meeting was informational in scope and not the precursor to a pending vote. He stressed that no vote was to be taken on the matter at Monday night’s meeting.

What is being proposed by parents is that an ad hoc committee be created to include parents, students, faculty, administration and the school board to consider the scheduling issue from a number of different perspectives. The administration agreed that would be a good approach, stressing that they value the input of all stakeholders in such a decision. They also agreed with parents that for such a huge change more time, consultation and information would be entirely called for.

Troop explained that the matter was again talked about at length during committee meetings on Jan. 16. In addition, he acknowledged that he had heard a wide range of opinions and feedback in the weeks since this story broke.

District Superintendent Dr. Gerald Rosati addressed parents with his views on the process of considering this change, stressing that the change was always about best practices and the educational success of Ephrata students, and never about finding ways to cut programs or cut staff.

"This schedule was not about how to do more with less," said Rosati. "Through attrition we have not filled nineteen positions over the past several years. In looking at the schedule we are not doing this with the intention to cut staff positions."

Rosati explained to parents that while huge questions about the future of state funding casts an enormous shadow over the district budget, the proposed changed was about efficiency and effectiveness more than cost cutting. He explained that while on one hand the district has taken some criticism for maintaining a fund balance, on the other hand that fund balance has made it possible for the Ephrata School District to pass a zero increase budget for 2011-2012 while also maintaining programs and the level of service to the students.

"We are looking two years out because we do not know what the state numbers will be," explained Rosati. "On one hand we get criticized to have money in the bank, but on the other hand we get criticized if we cut the programs. If the numbers are not in the state they will not be in the local school."

While Rosati conceded the day may come when the district may need to take a hard look at program offerings and make some very difficult decisions, he stressed that discussion did not intersect with the schedule debate.

Troop reviewed the rational behind looking at six longer periods rather than seven periods which would be nine minutes shorter. He explained that the goal was to increase the efficiency of instruction in the face of those shrinking fiscal resources from the state with a focus on getting the most from the district’s investment in all resources. He pointed to the ever increasing needs for the district to produce the most competitive graduates for the workforce as well as for the continuing education aspirations of its students. And Troop explained that especially with the new Keystone exams set to replace the current PSSA’s within the not to distant future the rigors of what would be expected of Ephrata students would be seen to increased.

To date, the state has not officially determined when the full transition to the Keystone exams will take place. That change could be as early as the 2013-2014 school year, or it could be pushed out further due to fiscal concerns at the state level.

"The six-period schedule affords more instructional time for all students, regardless of level of difficulty," noted Troop. "They would all have increased time to score better on AP or awards or general courses. It would help all kids achieve a higher level of mastery of the subject material."

Board member Kay Kurtz expressed her concern about whether a student may have trouble staying attentive for that period of time. Troop responded that extra time is being given to help the students now and that strategies in the classroom would also need to be varied to respond to the needs of the individual students.

Board member Jenny Miller questioned if any electives would be lost and if so, which ones might be. Troop explained that with careful planning no electives would be directly threatened by the new schedule. Currently, some electives are run on alternating years or over several periods per day to give students the optimal opportunity to take the electives they most want to take.

Stayer reiterated for board members and parents alike that typically the board does not get involved with the schedules in each building from year to year, but that the item appeared in the Jan. 9 committee meeting for informational purposes only. He asked that the administration would move forward with consideration of the possible schedule change and report back to the full board on the matter in the spring of this year. He also asked that the board be updated again by November of next year if the administration had any plans of making the change effective for the 2013-2014 school year.

The tone of the meeting was calm and respectful, with a large number of parents sharing their own stories relative to their Ephrata High School students. Some raised concerns and many asked questions, all of which the administration promised to vet in the coming months.

One suggestion raised by parent and EHS alumni Dave Fasnacht was to allow students in extra curricular sports to get a gym credit for that participation. Other parents stressed the importance of protecting electives in the aim of producing very well-rounded students who had been given ample opportunities to explore various possible career paths in the course of their studies.

"I applaud that you are holding off for another year," said parent Lisa Hochreiter. "There is a lot to discuss. Many different groups should be on board with it. Time is not always the right answer to a problem. I agree that opening up a dialogue could help us to come up with creative and effective solutions for our students for many years to come."

While school principal Joane Eby was responding to another question raised by a parent, she stressed that she does maintain an open door policy and is always glad to take time for parents questions and concerns.

So, concerned parents across the Ephrata Area School District are breathing a sigh of relief that, at least for now, there will not be an earth-shifting change in the high school schedule, that their concerns have been heard by the administration and that further dialogue will take place before any major decisions are made either way. More MUSIC, page A17

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