School is back in session for many area students, and for some a new school year brings changes, such as upgrades to facilities or new programs and initiatives.  

Here’s a look at what’s new at some local districts as they welcome students back for the 2019-20 school year: 

Bishop McCort 

Change is starting from the top at Bishop McCort Catholic High School, as Tom Smith settles into his new role as principal.

Smith, who previously served as principal of Divine Mercy Catholic Academy, stepped into his new leadership role in July, following the departure of former principal Tom Fleming. 

“The thing I’m looking forward to the most is building a great private school for the people in Johnstown to be able to send their children to, and to have a great option if they are not happy where they are,” Smith said. “I look forward to having the kids in this town be able to reach their fullest potential here at Bishop McCort.”

McCort is now offering more than 60 online courses, Smith said. 

Bishop McCort students will also benefit from a new agreement between the private school and St. Francis University that will allow pupils to earn more than 12 college credits to apply toward the university upon graduation.

“This will be gigantic for our school,” Smith said. “We are creating an university environment at Bishop McCort.”

A partnership between the school and the Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center was also recently formed. 

“Students can come here and get a Bishop McCort education and develop enough credits in their early high school years that will enable them to go out and get a half-day work experience at the vo-tech,” Smith said.

“For example, a student wants to get into culinary. He would be here until lunch time and then check out and go to the vo-tech. 

“And this is all without any increases to our tuition.” 

Cambria Heights 

During the summer, about two-thirds of the classrooms at Cambria Heights High School were renovated, with improvements to the auditorium, cafeteria, and the launch of a new STEAM lab that is expected to be completed by the school year’s end. 

“Teachers and administrators are excited to get back to school,” said Cambria Heights Superintendent Michael Strasser.

“The high school has some major changes with renovations ongoing over the past year. New programs will be instituted, all with our motto for the year of ‘Students First!’ ” 

A new Introduction to Computer Programming course, sponsored by Amazon, is part of the Future Engineer Program, and will enroll about 20 upperclassmen this fall.

“Over the next few years, we hope to introduce more advanced computer sciences courses through this program,” said high school principal Ken Kerchenske. 

The staff at Cambria Heights Middle School are gearing up to participate in a pilot program with Newsela to bring nonfiction current events articles to students at their instructional levels.  

According to middle school principal Jarrod Lewis, the goal of the pilot program is to improve reading instruction in all content areas.

At the elementary school, a School Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Support plan will be introduced this year.

“S.O.A.R. to New Heights” is a comprehensive framework that provides everyone in the school with a positive learning environment, elementary school principal Hilary Yahner said. Teachers and staff will teach – and practice – the expected behaviors in all areas of the building, she said.

The elementary will celebrate its commitment to “SOARing” to new heights by watching a space balloon fly over the school.  The balloon will have a GoPro camera attached to it in order to retrieve the balloon and the footage it captures. 

Forest Hills 

Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) has been a major focus for the district, Forest Hills Superintendent David Lehman said. All Pre-K to Grade 6 students will now have

18 weeks of STEAM.

“They’re expanding their STEAM classes at the junior/senior high school as well,” Lehman said. “I think that’s a real good program.”

Other new programs such as Enhanced Core Reading Instruction (ECRI), a systematic approach to teaching phonics and phonemic awareness, and Spring Math, which provides comprehensive interventions for both class-wide and individual math instruction, will be implemented at the elementary school level.

“I am ecstatic over the energy that the staff has shown this summer,” Lehman said. “Countless teachers have worked hard this summer participating in professional development activities to be ready for the 2019-2020 school year.”

At the junior/senior high school, students will now have the opportunity to earn associate’s degrees thanks to a new partnership with Mount Aloysius College. The district is participating in a partnership with Amazon to provide innovative coding activities.

“We’re really excited about this coming school year,” Lehman said.

The new school year will also serve as the first full year for Lehman as the district’s superintendent.

“That’s fun and exciting, too,” he said.

A $3.7 million reconstruction of the Forest Hills School District athletic fields is nearing its end. The project includes new lighting, a sound system upgrade, new artificial turf and concession stand and other facility improvements.

The renovation also includes a complete resurfacing of the track and upgrades to the baseball field – including adding synthetic turf for the infield.

Lehman said construction of the track facility should be completed by the end of September, following the completion of the multipurpose field, which is expected to wrap up by mid-month.

“That kind of concludes a 20-year vision to upgrade the facilities,” Lehman said. “There’s a lot of hard work and a lot of saving with the finances to make this happen, and they’re seeing fruition now.

“And it’s kind of neat to see a plan come together.”  

Greater Johnstown 

In June, Greater Johnstown School District was a recipient of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Cohort 10 grant, which helps to fund after-school programming in kindergarten through Grade 5.

After-school support services will begin at Johnstown Elementary School on Sept. 30. Fifth-graders at Johnstown Middle School will also have the opportunity to participate in the after-school program.

Students who enroll in the program will be provided with tutoring services, help with homework, meals, recreational activities – and have a chance to hear from community partners such as Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania and the Greater Johnstown Community YMCA.

“This is wonderful because a lot of our families need additional support, after-school activities for their children, especially families that have a work schedule that keeps them working until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening,” said Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio. “Their children now have a place to be. It doesn’t cost them anything, and it’s a safe environment with a lot of great activities.” 

In recent years, due to funding challenges, the school district has only offered the after-school programming to its secondary students. 

“Now our entire district, K through 12, has access to after-school programs here on site at the school, with transportation provided,” Arcurio said.

Aside from the after-school activities, Arcurio said the district has created another addition to its Summit Academy, which is a personalized learning curriculum that allows students to work at their own pace.

“It’s really a deeper, more rigorous dive into curriculum,” Arcurio said.   

The upcoming school year will be the first time the program will be available to fifth-grade students at the middle school.

“It just widens our offerings and allows us to continue to be innovative in making sure that we offer a variety of educational opportunities to our students,” Arcurio said. “We’re a bit diverse, because our students are diverse and their needs are such that we should offer students a variety of ways to access education.” 

Richland 

Seven teachers recently participated in a new employee orientation at Richland High School, which is not typical for the district, according to Superintendent Arnold Nadonley. 

“It’s kind of exciting,” Nadonley said.

“It’s always a challenge to bring them on and get them up to speed. It’s neat to see their excitement as they come in. They’re well-prepared, and it’s a pretty amazing process.”

Nadonley said the need to add seven new staff members is the direct result of some recent turnover and retirements. 

Richland High School principal Timothy Regan welcomes the new teachers and said he is optimistic about the new school year.

“We’re excited about how many teachers we have,” Regan said. “Seven new employees is a lot. That’s more than we’ve had typically in the last couple years. My goal as the principal is to give them the tools and resources they need, and then get out of their way because they are very good at what they do.”

As a recent recipient of a grant by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the school district is working to install a new CyberLock security system to heighten security in all of its buildings.

“This cyber system will improve security here with every classroom being locked,” Nadonley said.  

CyberLock is a key access control system with each key programmed with a specific list of authorized locks and schedules of when those locks may be accessed.

Nadonley said the CyberLock system will be installed and operating in a few months.

Technology improvements within the district also include updates to several classrooms in the elementary school with the addition of whiteboards, and Google glasses for use in the high school. 

Westmont Hilltop 

Early literacy has been a focal point for Westmont Hilltop in recent years. 

This year, the school district has plans to strengthen relationships with Pre-K providers.

“We have several different events throughout the course of the school year planned,” said the district’s superintendent, Thomas Mitchell.

The first Pre-K event will be held at 6 p.m. on Dec. 4, at the elementary building, and will be open to any family that has a child entering kindergarten for the 2020-21 school year.

“We want to get those those families engaged in December,” Mitchell said. “And then we have four programs throughout the spring where we actually transport kids from their Pre-K providers into the school for a small program.”

“We want to make sure that we are focused on Pre-K opportunities for kids in our community,” Mitchell said. “We’re really seeing the benefit of these programs that are paying huge dividends up into the secondary level.”

Plans to erect a cell tower behind Westmont Hilltop High School are still moving forward, despite oppositions from nearby residents.

In recent weeks, Cambria County Senior Judge Timothy Creany denied a land use appeal filed in May by a group of residents who live near the proposed site for the cell tower.

“That’s one of those situations where we want to be good neighbors with the people who live around here and making sure that we’re being respectful of their space, but we also have a responsibility to our students and staff to make sure that everybody is safe,” Mitchell said.

“The addition of cell coverage is going to give us some opportunities beyond the cell coverage – access to the emergency radio system – that we currently don’t have. These things are critical.”

Mitchell said the cell tower will be up and running some time this winter.  

Windber Area 

Eleven advanced placement courses are now being taught at Windber Area High school, all led by the district’s staff.

“Over the course of this summer, we saw some pretty significant administrative transitions, and we’re very excited to start the school year,” said Glenn Gaye, Director of Education for Windber Area School District. “We have a mix of veteran building-level principals and brand new building-level principals.

When students return to school they will see new, but familiar, faces in each of the district’s buildings. 

Jason Hicks has been named high school principal for grades 9 to 12. Jessica Shuster is now the middle school principal for grades 6 to 8. Kevin Edmondson has been named as the elementary principal for grades Pre-K to 5, and Richard Lucas is now the Director of Special Education and Improving Schools.

“At the middle and elementary schools, more technology has been integrated in the curriculum,” Gaye said. “We’re working very hard to provide introductory-level science courses to prepare these young students for what lies ahead of them in their future.”

A renewed focus and emphasis by the district has also been placed on English language arts and math programs.

“We’re very proud that our staff has put in a significant amount of time this summer preparing for our learners this fall, and I think that will pay dividends and continue to help to meet our community expectations,” Gaye said. “The folks here in our community, and in our school district, expect us to do our jobs, and they support us very much.

“We have great partnerships with local business and industry that have helped support our programs,” he said. “It gives our kids opportunities and really brings full circle the school and community connection. We’re very fortunate to have that.”

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.

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