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McKeesport Area Schools Ready For New Year, New Challenges

By Richard Finch Jr.
The Tube City Almanac
August 21, 2018
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. is excited about the school year and said the McKeesport Area School District will hit the ground running when classes begin Wednesday.

Among new initiatives this year is a pilot program where all third graders will have one-on-one access to an iPad electronic tablet in their classrooms.

Besides enhancing the classroom experience, Holtzman said, the pilot program will help the district decide whether experiments with electronic tablets should be expanded.

“It will be costly,” he said. Because of the expense, deciding when and where to expand access to technology “is not always easy,” Holtzman said.

When Holtzman took office as McKeesport Area’s superintendent in 2017, he and other administrators did a strategic study to look at the core values and strengths of all of the district's schools.

The results of that survey were put into a five-year strategic plan, now in its second year.

The plan is a “living, working document” that will change periodically, Holtzman said. It’s structured on various departments and focuses on what’s going to be happening in the schools as it pertains to the teaching-learning process, he said.

Board member James Brown said Holtzman has become the leader the board hoped he would be. “I think he’s doing a great job,” Brown said.

Outside of the classroom, Holtzman said, the district’s biggest challenges are financial.

“If you look at public education across the state of Pennsylvania and here in the Mon Valley, finance is the number one issue,” he said. The district is “moving through some of the burdens put on us,” Holtzman said, but coming up with creative ideas for education requires teachers and administrators to find creative ways to make them happen.

A mentoring program is doing “outstanding work,” he said, with volunteer adults helping students prepare academically and improving classroom attendance.

McKeesport Area needs to do a "great job” at the basics, Holtzman said. “Discipline, clean schools and functioning technology are meaningful things for any educator,” he said.

In education, Holtzman said, it's easy to get distracted by “the fancy way of doing things, instead of just looking at relationships with kids.” With the right personal relationships, he said, “we will have all the other pieces fall together.”

McKeesport Area is trying to be open with parents and the public, the superintendent said.

“We’re pretty transparent and do our best to keep everyone informed,” he said. “Our school district runs quite well, although our community has its challenges. There are a lot of things that happen at our school that we are very proud of, that aren’t always measurable --- the standardized test (scores) aren’t as high as they could be, and I get that.”

There are many reasons why kids struggle, Holtzman said, but the district is trying to make sure the school environment isn't one of them.

“If you come into our schools and are standing in the halls during (class changes) you’ll be quite impressed at the look and feel,” he said. The behavior and the culture of the schools is good, Holtzman said, but it's not something that's measurable.

School safety is a priority, he said, adding that the district is very strategic about who they allow on campus, particularly at sporting and other events. “There are certain people who aren’t allowed here because of the bad decisions they’ve made,” Holtzman said. “We have been using metal detectors for almost 20 years --- not because we think our community is rotten, it’s because we think it’s in our best interest.”

Sometimes the good things get “lost in translation” when something bad happens in the community, he said, adding that there are areas where the district wants to improve, including on standardized tests.

“But I’m proud of what we do here --- my son goes here --- and I’m proud of what he’s accomplished,” Holtzman said. “I think what we do here is excellent.”

Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who is covering McKeesport Area schools and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at finchr43@gmail.com.

Originally published August 21, 2018.

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