West Branch adding pre, online schools

BELOIT – The West Branch school district will introduce two new services this fall.

The school board last month approved the creation of a preschool program administered by the district and an online alternative school also administered by the district.

Superintendent Dr. Scott Weingart said the school administration has been considering the two programs the past couple years and felt with increasing costs through the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, now was an appropriate time to institute them.

“We see these programs as creative solutions to provide the students and community without spending additional dollars and in some cases saving dollars,” Weingart said.

The district has offered a program for 3- to 5-year-old students or the past several years, but it had been staffed and administered through the Mahoning County ESC. Beginning this coming year, the district will be using its allotted federal funds for a mandatory preschool program to staff and administer its own program.

Longtime kindergarten teacher Kathy Menegay and special educator Emily Gunning will be the two core teachers for the program. They will be joined by school psychologist Allison Krupko. The three will work as a team in coordination with Alana Niemiec, director of special services.

“We believe that we can offer a comprehensive preschool program by hiring our own staff and providing the auxiliary services in house,” Weingart said in a written statement. “While the county model has served us well for several years, we believe that we can have more of an impact on the preschool experience by hiring our own staff and being more involved in the curriculum and teaching methods. We are also confident that we will save some money in the process.”

The West Branch Preschool is open to all resident students in the district as the program requires a combination of students with special needs along with regular education peers. Parents who wish to learn more about the program can contact the Office of Special Services in August at 330-938-9324.

Also for the past several years, West Branch students have been able to enroll in the Mahoning County Unlimited Classroom, staffed and administered through the Mahoning County ESC. However, to enroll the students had to withdraw from the district, meaning the district lost federal funding for them.

Weingart said that last year over 60 students withdrew from the district to enroll in online charter schools. At $6,000 per student in federal funds, the district lost over $360,000. With its own online learning option, the district will keep those funds, he said.

In addition to the obvious financial benefit, though, Weingart said the new online learning option is geared at assisting non-traditional students and allowing them to stay within the district.

“We have needed an online option for some time,” Weingart explained. “The majority of our students attend our regular educational program and are looking for the tradition[al] school experience with a combination of academics and co-curricular opportunities. However, there is a growing number of students who, for a variety of reasons, needs a different educational environment. For some students, the online option will provide all of their academic instruction. For others, the online option may be a temporary situation where the student is able to recover some lost credits while preparing to transition back into the traditional school setting.”

Aaron Bernstein, special education instructor, will coordinate the program. He holds both a special education and regular education license, has had experience working in the online school environment and is currently finishing his degree in education administration at the University of Mount Union. The program will be housed in the area formerly occupied by Beloit Elementary School.

The program will be coordinated through the Office of Special Services and the curriculum and learning management system will be provided and supported by the Mahoning County ESC.

“Our county office has been very supportive in assisting Mahoning County school districts in creating and managing their own online programs,” Weingart said. “You will hear all kinds of phrases such as blended learning and flipped classrooms. At the end of the day, online learning is an option for students that is growing. School districts are going to have to embrace the concept or get lost in the dust.”