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Cheektowaga Central to expand alternative school programs

Teachers and staff at the Pine Hill Education Center hope to spread the successes of the middle and high school alternative programs to the elementary school level.

During a presentation for the Cheektowaga Central Board of Education earlier this week, representatives of the facility shared information about the 3-year-old center and discussed the introduction of an early-intervention program for those in kindergarten to grade five for the 2013-14 academic year.

The Pine Hill Education Center was founded in 2010 as the Alternative Academy for high school students at the Maryvale campus, and its quick growth resulted in the need for more space, according to Scott Manne, program director and counselor. The following year, the center was formed at 1635 E. Delavan Ave., and middle school programs were added. In addition to Cheektowaga Central, students from Cleveland Hill, Maryvale and Cheektowaga-Sloan attend.

The elementary school program will be similar to those for older students. The children will be placed at Pine Hill through referrals from the Committee on Special Education and representatives of the home schools. The goal is to help students who are having trouble at school for a range of reasons tackle life and learning issues so that they can return to mainstream classrooms.

This year, the school housed three high school and two middle school classes, each with eight students to one teacher, as well as two long-term suspension classes for both middle and high school. Students are given the opportunity to catch up on credits, receive help with personal issues and develop lifelong learning skills.

“We’re providing them with the educational services that they need,” Manne said. “We’ve helped 58 kids graduate over the past three years. We work very, very hard to help these students achieve and reach that stage.”

Manne and school social worker Bernard Huber explained that the school features small class sizes, counseling, behavior modification methods and incentive programs to help students learn while coping with their conditions.

“I’m very proud to be a part of a district that says, ‘We want to care for these kids,’ ” Huber said.

Special education teacher Lauren Hack illustrated nontraditional teaching methods that sometimes are used for students with special needs. One example she offered was the use of desks that are built over treadmills for students who feel a need to move constantly. Another program, “Reading to Rover,” employs the use of therapy dogs as reading buddies to reduce anxiety in students who fear reading aloud.

“That was a phenomenal program we were able to bring in this year,” she said.

She added that the school encourages students giving back to the community, and she highlighted student-run food drives, recycling programs, community cleanups and senior citizens events.

Board President Brian Gould commended the teachers and staff for their work.

“You all should have a lot of pride in what you’re doing,” he said. “What you are doing is truly special.”

Also during the meeting, the board accepted a $15,000 Primary Project Grant from the Children’s Institute to offer a social development skills program to kindergartners. The three years of funding would be used to hire a “play associate” and purchase equipment to enhance learning for the younger pupils, Assistant Superintendent Mary Morris said.

The board’s reorganizational meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, in the board room at the high school, 3600 Union Road. Heather DuBard will join the group after winning May’s election. During Tuesday’s meeting, the board presented a plaque to outgoing incumbent Diane Panasiewicz, who has held the seat for 15 years and decided not to seek re-election. Panasiewicz thanked everyone for their work over the years and shared her top dream as the board moves forward with its goals.

“Keep kids first,” she said.