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Back-to-school primer for parents and pupils

Innovative academic programs and state-of-the-art athletic fields.

An infusion of laptops and iPads.

Teacher retirements and staffing demands.

More health guidelines.

Novel new high schools in Buffalo and more capital projects headed to taxpayers for a vote.

You’ll be hearing about those and other issues, changes and improvements during the new school year that you and your kids have put off thinking about during your summer-long hiatus.

Here’s a primer to get you ready.

• Tech tools

Remember two years ago, when New York voters approved a $2 billion bond act to give schools across the state a jolt of technology?

Students will start reaping the benefits.

Money from the Smart Schools Bond Act has started flowing, providing districts with more cutting-edge technology – from new laptops and iPads to rewiring classrooms with broadband for access to high-speed internet. School districts that submitted their applications and had them approved by the state will be fully reimbursed. The early list includes Akron, Lake Shore, Lancaster, Niagara Falls and Starpoint.

That means the purchase of some 500 new Chromebooks in Starpoint.

Smart Schools funding also will provide about 2,000 Chromebooks for students in public and nonpublic schools in Lancaster. Kindergarten students will be working with Android tablets.

“We spent $350,000 on new devices that will be in the hands of kids in September,” said James Przepasniak, superintendent at Lake Shore. “It’s doubling what we had a year ago.”

“It’s a real precursor to getting kids ready for college,” said Mark Laurrie, the superintendent in Niagara Falls, where middle and high school classrooms will see new laptops and devices this year, “and the kids are pushing that agenda as fast as the teachers are.”

• New turf

New athletic facilities are all the rage this year.

Starpoint is putting in a new turf field and lighting before the coming football season.

In Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, the new turf and outdoor lighting at Adams Field on Parker Boulevard is scheduled for an October completion.

Sweet Home will play its first football game on its new turf Sept. 9.

The following Friday, Williamsville North’s new turf field will be dedicated at its home opener, and two more turf fields will be installed at East and South high schools next year.

Cleveland Hill residents will decide in December on a $10.9 million capital project that would include a new artificial turf field.

And in Clarence, the difference between old and new athletic facilities will be like night and day once that project is completed this fall, said Geoffrey Hicks, district superintendent.

“It’s going to be an amazing experience for our community – and our kids,” Hicks said.

• More projects, more to come

Summer construction included everything from new bus loops to renovated classrooms.

Lancaster Central High School students will notice new, light gray metal lockers, and resurfacing of the north and south student parking areas, as well as the remodeling of the cafeteria serving area. At Hillview Elementary, tile was replaced in classrooms and the hallways of two wings.

In Orchard Park, the concrete at the main entrance of the Middle School was replaced, and the auditorium and pool are undergoing major renovations. Work included taking up all the seats in the auditorium, where crews found two pages of a student’s Algebra 2 homework from 1959, a ticket to a 1973 PTA dance and Nehi and Hi-Grade Beverages soft drink bottles.

And in Lake Shore, the district is exploring potential capital projects to put up for a vote to taxpayers next May.

• Health requirements

Every student entering seventh or 12th grade must have received a shot of meningitis vaccine before Sept. 1.

“This is a new requirement, even though meningitis vaccine has been recommended for over a decade. Meningococcal bacterial meningitis can strike without warning. It is dangerous and often deadly,” Niagara County Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said.

One dose of vaccine is required before entering seventh grade, and a total of two doses will be required before entering 12th grade.

Meningococcal disease is a rare but dangerous disease that strikes healthy young people without warning and can cause meningitis and sepsis, Stapleton said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have issued guidance on the Zika virus, which is spread primarily by a specific type of mosquito. If a suspected infection in a student or staff member occurs, the school should continue to try to prevent mosquito bites on school grounds, but need not remove the infected person from schools, according to the CDC.

• Arrivals

This will be the first September heading their districts for several area superintendents: Anthony Panella in Amherst, Mary A. Morris in Cheektowaga Central, Brian Graham in Grand Island, Mark Laurrie in Niagara Falls, Kimberly Moritz in Springville and Sean M. Croft in Starpoint.

• Departures

You may notice more teacher retirements, as the baby boomers have begun exiting the profession. About 35 percent of the teachers in the Buffalo area are age 49 and older, according to figures from the state Education Department.

“It may have hit us big this last year,” said Laurrie, of Niagara Falls. “Twenty-one new teaching staff members is a pretty big number for the district.”

On top of that, there’s concern that not enough people are entering the ranks of the embattled profession. Top state educators, in fact, came to town this summer to raise a warning about a looming teacher shortage over the next several years.

While the full effect of the retirements may not be seen for another three to five years, some districts already have reported a shortage in specialty areas, like the sciences, foreign languages and special education.

But that’s not the case at every level or every district.

Starpoint, for example, posted for two elementary teaching positions this year. The district received more than a 1,000 applicants, Croft said.

• Filling in

Substitute teachers are in demand.

“There certainly are fewer substitutes than in years past,” said Przepasniak, of Lake Shore.

In Cleveland Hill, the district negotiated a one-year agreement with teachers that allows teachers to perform some substitute duties, Superintendent Jon T. MacSwan said.

“Right now it’s scratching to try to fill the classes as it is,” he said.

“There are fewer students graduating looking for positions,” said Dawn Mirand, Ken-Ton superintendent. “We’re experiencing shortages that we’ve never seen before.”

• Help wanted

Schools also have put out the “Help Wanted” sign for support staff, including bus drivers and aides.

In the Buffalo Public Schools, the district is struggling to get people to fill bus aide positions.

“There’s a shortage of applicants,” said Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement.

Ken-Ton also has had a tough time attracting people for bus driver positions.

“We are heavily recruiting,” Mirand said. “The real challenge comes when there are absences. There are days we struggle for substitutes.”

Why the shortage?

School administrators point to the low unemployment rate and the availability of better jobs.

• GPS for parents

Students aren’t the only ones with new gadgets this year.

More school districts, including Ken-Ton, will be offering a GPS app that allows parents to track their kid’s bus, so they know in real time when their child will be picked up and dropped off at the bus stop.

“We’re hoping to pilot a couple of families in September and roll it out to everybody by October,” Mirand said.

• Fresh look for schools

Big changes are in store for Buffalo, which is offering several new innovative high schools and programs to provide students with more high-quality options.

There’s a new partnership between SolarCity and South Park High School; computer science at Bennett High School; a bioinformatics and life sciences program in partnership with the University at Buffalo; a focus on law, public safety, government and public administration at East High School; and an international school at Lafayette High School.

The district also is converting 13 schools into “community schools” that will keep the buildings open after hours and provide students and their families with more wraparound services, ranging from parent outreach and job training to mentoring and connections to health care.

Elsewhere, Ken-Ton – which closed three school buildings at the end of last year – reconfigured the grade levels at its nine remaining schools, making its five elementary schools grades K-4; its two middle schools grades 5-7; and its two high schools grades 8-12.

• New programs

Lancaster and Clarence are collaborating on a program to help prepare students for success in the workplace. Career Development and Occupational Studies will provide coursework and work-based learning opportunities to prepare students for entry-level employment after high school.

Williamsville is expanding its mindfulness program, which it piloted in five schools last year. The program teaches children to be aware of their surroundings and how to increase kindness, acceptance, patience, gratitude and compassion.

There are new AP courses in world government, computer science and environmental science at Lancaster, which also is expanding its Project Lead the Way “Launch,” a pre-engineering program for elementary students, from fifth grade to fourth grade at William Street School.

At Starpoint, the district will begin providing SAT and ACT prep courses to all juniors, while in Niagara Falls, the district will look for more money to expand the pilot program that provided pre-K for 3-year-olds.

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