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Renovations, administrative changes and curriculum updates await students

The start of the school year means summer’s over for thousands of students across Niagara County.

As another year of learning begins, students and parents will be greeted by building repairs and renovations, as well as some new faces in high places.

In some districts, there will be added focus on STEM instruction. Others will have revamped classroom space. One district will even have some new robots.

Here’s a district-by-district look at what students and parents will find new starting this week in their schools in the new academic year:

Barker

Enrollment: 780

Budget: $18.3 million

What’s new: “We’re looking to strengthen our STEM-type initiatives with all of the new and innovative technology that’s surfacing, like the use of drones,” said Superintendent Dr. Roger Klatt. “We want to make sure our students are work- and college-ready.”

Barker continues its shared superintendent agreement with Royalton-Hartland, now entering its third year. In addition, the two schools share a director of technology, football and wrestling programs, and some special-education programs.

“We’re always looking to find functional partnerships with Roy-Hart,” Klatt said.

School starts on Tuesday.

Lewiston-Porter

Enrollment: 2,120, up slightly.

Budget: $41.7 million

What’s new: A new superintendent takes the helm this year when students return for classes on Wednesday. Former high school principal Paul J. Casseri replaces R. Christopher Roser, who retired at the end of June. Casseri was the Lewiston-Porter High School principal for 10 years and prior to that had been a principal for three years and social studies teacher for 11 years at South Park High School in Buffalo.

“I’m very excited. We are beginning a year of planning and are really going to focus on a strategic plan for this year,” said Casseri, who said the plan will carry the district from 2016 to 2020.

He said one the district’s goals is fiscal responsibility, by reducing staff through retirements and seeking grants to remain within the governor’s tax cap.

He said he also is reaching out to local lawmakers to help them understand where they are fiscally.

But he is also reaching out to the community, via Facebook and Twitter and more timely newsletters. He also will offer a “coffee klatch” with open office hours for people to get to know him by stopping in at the district office from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. every third Monday.

The district is in the midst of a $26 million capital project for which ground was broken in June as well as new additions to the gymnasium funded by a $1.2 million federal Physical Education Program grant to promote fitness. The capital project also includes significant improvements to the art room, media technology, new offices and a new front entrance as well as replacements of every door and window. The project will continue into early 2017.

Casseri has personally been involved in a program to bring tuition-paying students from China to the district, which nets the school about $100,000 for hosting the seven to eight students through the Student and Exchange Visitor program. Now in its second year at Lew-Port, the program allows students to get a visa to study in the United States and then go on to attend college in the United States. He said the district also is working with Homeland Security to expand the program to other countries.

“Honestly, I have to turn kids away because I don’t have enough host families,” he said.

Lockport

Enrollment: 4,700

Budget: $90.9 million

What’s new: When Lockport’s roughly 4,700 students return to classrooms Tuesday, those in the elementary grades, at least, may notice that lunch is warmer. Visitors may notice it’s harder to get into the buildings.

During the summer, the district completed a $6 million capital project, the second phase of a wide-ranging package district voters approved in 2013. The main focus of this phase was the remodeling of kitchens at Anna Merritt, George M. Southard, Charles Upson and Roy B. Kelley elementary schools. All the schools will be able to prepare food on-site now, instead of having it brought from a single location.

Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said there also will be new security vestibules. Visitors will be buzzed into the vestibule and then will have to state their reason for visiting into an intercom before being allowed to pass the next set of doors.

There also have been improvements to the heating and ventilation systems at several buildings. New electronic signs were being installed in front of schools that didn’t already have them, and a new wireless network will enable teachers to expand their use of the Internet.

“Digital learning is the theme of the year in Lockport,” Bradley said. Even Board of Education members have been given iPads. Students have been assigned them for a few years, although not to take home.

English and math teachers in the high school have been working on revising the curriculum to comply with the Common Core, Bradley said.

On the administrative front, longtime athletic director Patrick Burke retired at the end of the last school year. Todd Sukdolak, who had been assistant principal at the high school, takes over the sports programs, although his title is interim athletic director. William Agronin will be the substitute assistant principal.

Newfane

Enrollment: 1,600

Budget: $33 million

What’s new: Newfane is expected to hire a permanent superintendent this fall, with a scheduled public forum at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Newfane Early Childhood Center, to meet the three finalists. They are: Michael Baumann, an administrator in the Sweet Home Central School District; Robert Cluckey, an administrator with Orleans-Niagara BOCES; and Dr. Ryan Schoenfeld, principal of North Park Middle School in Lockport.

Wilson Superintendent Dr. Michael Wendt ended his shared superintendent agreement with Newfane on June 30 and Dr. Bruce Fraser has been serving as Newfane’s interim superintendent since July 1.

The district has shifted its kindergarten from the Early Childhood Center to the Newfane Elementary building this year. The Community Action Organization is leasing class space in the center to operate the Head Start program.

The Newfane Athletic Boosters are renting portable lights to accommodate the district’s first evening football game ever Sept. 11 against Tonawanda on its field behind the Middle School. It is a one-time event.

Classes start Tuesday.

Niagara Falls

Enrollment: 7,101 (2014-15)

Budget: $133.6 million

What’s new: The district carried out about $10.6 million in capital improvements over the summer.

The projects included various renovations, including on STEM classrooms and Wi-Fi infrastructure at 79th Street Elementary, Gaskill Preparatory School and LaSalle Preparatory School. An elevator was also installed at Geraldine J. Mann Elementary to make the school compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The projects were among the last pieces of a $67 million, multiyear, districtwide capital project dubbed “Inventing Tomorrow.”

In terms of curriculum changes, the district updated its primary English/Language Arts curriculum and purchased all new materials; expanded STEM course offerings at the high school and integrated coding instruction into the Innovations Lab; and updated high school health curriculum.

There are several schools who have new principals and administrators.

Robert Bradley was named the new chief educational administrator at Niagara Falls High School, taking the place of Joseph Colburn, who retired.

Sheila Smith was appointed as the new principal at Gaskill Prep School, the position Bradley held before moving to the high school. Smith was last principal at Hyde Park Elementary.

Mary Kerins was named principal at Hyde Park Elementary. Her last assignment was as principal of Kalfas Magnet Elementary School.

Italo Baldassarre takes over as principal of Kalfas, moving over from being administrator of the Community Education Center.

Dorothy Brundidge is the new administrator of the Community Education Center. She was most recently assistant principal at Cataract Elementary School.

Classes started Wednesday.

Niagara Wheatfield

Enrollment: 3,664

Budget: $67,965,701

What’s new: Change begins at the top at Niagara Wheatfield, with a new superintendent. Daniel G. Ljiljanich (“the J’s are silent,” he said) took over July 1 with a five-year contract at $165,000 a year.

Ljiljanich had been superintendent at Silver Creek for the past three years, and before that worked in the Williamsville district as assistant principal and later principal of Williamsville South High School.

“The people have been just so welcoming,” said Ljiljanich, who takes over a district that has had serious financial problems and a revolving door on the superintendent’s office. Ljiljanich is the fifth superintendent since 2008.

“We feel we’re certainly in a better spot than we were the last couple of years,” he said.

During a summer retreat, he and the top brass set three main goals for the new academic year that begins Tuesday for 3,664 students and 540 permanent staffers. They included a revision of the district’s academic intervention services; making sure there is a common curriculum throughout the district; and rolling out a renewed emphasis on character education in all grades.

The district’s policy on character education calls for instruction in honesty, tolerance, personal responsibility, respect for others, observance or laws and rules, courtesy and dignity. Also, there will be discussion of “awareness and sensitivity to discrimination and/or harassment” and “civility in relation to people of different races, weights, national origins, ethnic groups, religions, religious practices, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientations, genders or sexes.”

Safe and responsible use of the Internet and electronic communications also is part of the policy.

On the personnel front, Colonial Village Elementary School has a new principal, Kami Halgash, whose last job was as an assistant principal in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district.

North Tonawanda

Students will return to school on Tuesday.

Enrollment: 3,481, down slightly

Budget: $70.5 million

What’s new: Technology classes are expanding with two new robots and coding classes for sixth through 12th grades, according to Superintendent Gregory J. Woytila. He said the robots and software are funded by unused state funds for textbooks. Woytila said the school’s sports teams are known as the Lumberjacks and the robots will be aptly named Jack and Jill. He said software is used to manipulate the movements of the robots, similar to what is used on an assembly line in a factory.

“The state has said we want kids to be college- and career-ready,” Woytila said. “A lot of kids go to BOCES for auto mechanics and heating and cooling and beauty, but no one was teaching coding and we talked to local business owners they needed kids to come in with a little more than Word and Microsoft.”

Technology also continues to be a theme with a new series of video vignettes the school will be producing, which include programs of professional staff development, the Common Core, and welcome videos and tours made by students. Woytila said district parents will be able to access all the videos and even be able to use some of the professional development programs to help their own children in the classroom.

The videos will be professionally produced and are funded with a portion a three-phase $3 million Strengthening Teacher Leader grant.

The district also will have a vote on planned $39 million capital project from noon to 9 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Alumni Center, 405 Meadow Drive. A hearing for public comment will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 14. Due to money coming various funding sources, the project would not result in any tax increase, Woytila said.

The plan is to convert Meadow Elementary School into a middle school. The school already is connected to the high school and Woytila said this would allow the district to have a seventh- through 12th-grade campus on Meadow Drive in two buildings. Students at Meadow Drive Elementary would go either to Drake or Ohio elementary schools after the project is completed in 2017.

As part of the restructuring, the current middle school would become a grades four through six intermediate school and the other three elementary schools – Drake, Ohio and Spruce – would become kindergarten through third grade schools. Woytila said this allows them to “group the kids” and streamline education. He said it is new in Niagara County, but has been implemented in several Erie County school districts.

Royalton-Hartland

Enrollment: 1,365

Budget: $22.9 million

What’s new: Roy-Hart and Barker continue to share a superintendent, Dr. Roger Klatt, as well as a director of technology and some sports and special-education programs.

“Across the curriculum, we are continuing our push for Web-based, digital literacy,” said Klatt said. “We are a Google school now and we continue to place Chromebooks into the hands of our students.”

Klatt said Roy-Hart, along with Barker, will continue its blended curriculum offerings through Niagara University, “and we want to expand to other districts to offer virtual, regional programs through technology.”

He also said that the School Board approved Phase I of the arsenic contamination removal ordered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation on the southeast end of the Middle School campus is nearing completion. It is related to the FMC Corp. cleanup.

School starts on Wednesday.

Starpoint

Classes begin Tuesday.

Enrollment: 2,695, up 79

Budget: $49.4 million

What’s new: Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan called it a “fast-growing district” with 100 new homes built in the last two years, resulting in 79 more students enrolled compared to last school year. He said Starpoint has found parents who had been sending their children to private elementary schools are coming back into Starpoint. He said in the last two weeks the district registered 21 new kindergartners.

Whelan said the district also has added 10 new positions. One position, a requirement from the state, is English as a New Language. Starpoint also has expanded the middle school technology program to include more engineering and science teachers, and added three new remedial teaching assistant positions.

“We have more 21st century skills technology, which we started in the elementary school a couple of years ago. Last year we started more math and science and engineering courses at the high school and now with the additional state aid and some extra money, we are expanding our middle school technology to open more pathways for students,” Whelan said. “We want to give them more choices as they enter the high school and after high school.”

In the spring Starpoint will start its $15 million capital project, which focuses on health and safety. The project also will renovate the football stadium, facilities for soccer, track and hockey and the middle school fitness center.

Whelan said the new capital project was funded by cost savings realized from previous energy management projects to lower the district’s bills.

“We have reduced our utility bills. They are lower than they were in 2003-04, and that was prior to when we doubled our size, adding a new high school. We added over 200,000 square feet, but our utility bills are lower,” he said. “We have focused on the expenses we can control. We have never laid a person off, but we have reconstructed our staff through attrition and refinanced our debt a few years ago.”

He said with all the cost savings that have been put into place and a moderate increase in state aid, the district is “now allowed to move ahead and are placing resources where the students are really going to benefit.”

Wilson

Enrollment: 1,350

Budget: $24.9 million

What’s new: Dr. Michael Wendt, who is beginning his 14th year as Wilson schools superintendent, has decided he will not return as shared superintendent with the Newfane district, a post he has held for the past two years. The arrangement, the largest shared-school arrangement in the state, was “not sustainable,” Wendt said. His last day as shared superintendent between the two schools was June 30.

Wendt said a $4 million capital improvements project continues, adding new roofing to buildings; new lights to the football field; some new classroom flooring, etc. “This will continue without disruption to the classes throughout the year,” he said.

He also said this is the second year all elementary students will attend Wilson Elementary School and “we continue to explore uses for our vacant building in Ransomville.”

Students’ first day is Tuesday.

News Niagara Bureau Reporters Aaron Besecker, Nancy A. Fischer and Thomas J. Prohaska and Niagara Correspondent Teresa Sharp compiled this report. email: niagaranews@buffnews.com