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Cornell Robotics Team Places First At Sharon

Cornell's Grade School Robotics Team took a first place at the Sharon Tiger Tech Tournament to conclude their regular season and send them into the regionals with momentum. This year's regionals are at Sewickley Academy.

The team and Coach Cristy Meinert were recognized at the November meeting of the Cornell School Board Thursday.

The Sharon meet was part of the F.I.R.S.T Lego League Elementary School Robotics Division. F.I.R.S.T. is a national organization which uses robotics to teach various S.T.E.M. skills and concepts. Students use a standard kit to design, build, and program a robot to carry out various tasks and solve various problems. At meets, students also prepare displays and orally explain to judges how and why their team approached the project the way they did.

F.I.R.S.T. also sponsors middle school and high school competitions which require much more sophisticated designs, construction and programming. Students who excel at the high school level often win scholarships to top Engineering programs across the nation.

First LEGO League Team

The other high point of the meeting was the announcement that at the recent Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference Cornell was the only school district which had presenters in every single category.

"We feel very fortunate," Superintendant Aaron Thomas said. "We have a very talented and hard working staff who use cutting edge technology for the benefit of our students."

As one example of the school's emphasis on technology, Thomas went on to review with the Board the recent field trip Cornell students made to the NEP Broadcasting Center in Harmarville.

NEP has one of the nation's most sophisticated beoadcasting facilities. They broadcast the Olympics, NASCAR, the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards, the World Cup, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, People's Court, Sesame Street, WWE Wrestling and The Rolling Stones Concerts, among other events. Cornell students spent the day, including lunch and a tour of the trucks being prepared for rhe upcoming Super Bowl. Cornell has several recent graduates now in college majoring in Film or Broadcast Journalism due to their background in such classes at Cornell.

Mention was made of the Barnes & Noble Book Fair, which had been held the previous evening.

New report cards have been introduced. Dr. Brown pointed out that the number of Cornell students enrolling in Cyber courses has increased, but they are taking the courses at Cornell, rather than enrolling at a separate cyber school.

A Carnegie Mellon University professor met with Cornell teachers to discuss technology in the classroom.

The Board worked its way through a long list of routine items. They included an updated policy on asthma inhalers and epinephrine injectors, a resolution authorizing Dr. Thomas to sign contracts and agreements via an electronic signature, and the resignation of custodian Penny Halstead.

Cornell Teachers Using Promethean Boards

Representatives from F. N. B. Wealth Management spent the first portion of the Cornell School Board October Work Session updating members on the status of their financial assets. They spent the last portion hearing about the new Promethean Boards.

The board learned they are in solid financial shape. Their investments grew by 2.79% and could climb to 3% depending on what the Fed does with interest rates. Laws limit public schools to very conservative investments, so it is difficult to achieve spectacular gains. Investors seeking those high gains take high risks, which schools by law cannot take.

The Board learned that study was underway to address the problem of kindergarten students showing a considerable drop off in skills over the Summer before they enter first grade. Testing data is being examined in great detail to determine exactly what skills are being lost and how that loss can be prevented. Some sort of Summer activity would seem appropriate, but mandating Summer School is not feasible. It was also pointed out that kindergarten students are not the only ones losing ground over the Summer, but different strategies may be needed for different grade levels.

An additional $1500 was approved to put finishing touches on the construction project. Administrators had decided to add another door, bulletin boards and cork strips to the hallways. The bulletin boards and cork strips will be used for displays of student work.

The Board approved $1800 to send Athletic Trainer Jamie Peters to Valley Forge in January for a weeklong workshop. He will earn 30 credits. It is a requirement that he earn these credits every year to remain updated on sports medicine techniques. Peters serves as the Trainer for all Cornell teams. He attends all practices and games except where overlap makes that impossible. He is a graduate of Waynesburg University, where he majored in Sports Medicine and Athletic Training.

The Social Studies Department is working in creating its own electronic textbooks. Students would access the textbooks using their own Chrome Books, laptop computers designed for educational use. If this project can be done, it would allow a much more focused textbook, one that can be easily updated year by year, and one that would save the district $60,000 in hardcover textbook purchases.

The Board learned that the school can now stock asthma inhalers and epinephrine auto injectors for emegency use in students with respiratory problems. It also learned that its latest lead in water testing showed no problems, but that an annual test would continue to be done even though the state does not require it.

Cornell's last State Review of Nutrition was conducted in 2013 and a new one is due. Sara Zrimsek and Chris Hopkins of The Nutrition Group will be at the next bosrd meeting and discuss plans.

Superintendant Dr. Aaron Thomas explained that Cornell teachers are experimenting with different strategies on fheir new Promethean Boards (photo, right). Parents and graduates who remember chalk boards and white boards would be amazed to see these electronic devices. They are fully interactive, full color and even have sound. A teacher or student can create an image on the screen and then move the image around or change it. Workshops are planned to help teachers figure out how best to use this technology, which has the potential to drastically change how students learn and may grab the attention of some disinterested students.

Coraopolis HS Class Of 1953 Gets Together

The Coraopolis High School class of 1953 got together last weekend for their 65th reunion. 19 members of the class participated. Some still live in this area but many came from distant states. Most of the class members are now 82-83 years of age. 12 of those at the reunion were men and seven were women.

During their senior year, Fred Milanovich was the head football and basketball coach. Dr. Davies was Superintendant. They had gone to three elementary schools --- Lincoln, Central and McKinley, all under the supervision of Dr. Harry Houtz. Herbert Snell had been their Junior High Principal. The high school included grades 10-12 and enrolled 410. Next to the high school on State Avenue was a restaurant and student hangout named The Blue Devil. In sports, the school's teams competed in a league with Moon, McKees Rocks, Stowe, Crafton, Carnegie, Sewickley, Leetsdale, Monaca, Beaver and Midland.

Coraopolis High School merged with Neville High School in 1972 to create the current Cornell High School.

Cornell Graduates 44 Before Packed House

Cornell High School graduated 44 seniors Friday evening in a ceremony before a standing room crowd in the school's spacious auditorium.

Only three weeks prior, Cornell had received recognition as the state's most overachieving school. The graduation ceremony showed why. Of the 44 graduates, 40 are going on to either college or technical school, almost all on scholarship, many of them worth $30,000 to $40,000. Many won multiple scholarships. And they're not majoring in easy subjects. Mechanical Engineering, Nursing, Biotechnology, Computer Programming, Biology and Business Administration were heavily represented among the majors. A high percentage of seniors wore honor sashes indicating academic excellence. While they were in high school many won recognition from various institutions and associations in fields ranging from Art to Journalism to Science to Social Studies.

Students also won Cornell's own awards. Liam White McShane (photo below right speaking) swept three : The Dessie Spangler-Martha Willard History and Social Studies Award, The Helen Malter-Donald Cole Math Award and the Nadine McClenahan-Peter Shuty Business Award.

Myka Smith and Anthony Piccolo shared the Frank Letteri - Joe Cassassanta Scholar Athlete Award. Dan Miller won the Mary Crawford - Marie Watters English Award. Myka Smith and Madelyn Gilmore shared the Ruth Horton Foreign Language Award. Jared Messersmith won the Thomas Mohr - Joe Johnson - Elton McFadden Science Award. And Quantaya Unique Reddix won the William Henry-Philip Young-Ronald Klim Technology Education Award.

Each of these award winners received a $50 Visa gift card.

Derric Denniston (photo, left, receiving his diploma from Principal Doug Szokoly), Charles Spencer, Piper Kimble, Reddix and McShane graduated with Highest Honor.

Dae Collins, Cymoni Harrison, Hailey Leitner, Piccolo and Messersmith graduated with High Honor.

Leah Juristy, Shane McCaslin, Christian LaRocca, Madelyn Gilmore, Nysia Miles, Victoria Nottingham, Ashley Connor, Steve Bass, Kalei Dillard, Bill Jefferson, Miller and Piccolo graduated with Honor.


Others graduating were Amira Bethel, Stefan Blackstone, Rianna Brown, Liam Budkey, T'aira Campbell, Jaylin Ciccone, Dan Garcia, Vanessa Garcia, Patience Gipson, Kha'Liyah Grace, Kennedy Jackson, Tom Johns, Karissa Lang, Na-Dhama Luster, David Riley, Desmond Ross, Jennifer Sanchez, Jaelah Smith, Logan Smith, Eric Vestal, Kendra Wade and Zachary Withrow.

Principal Doug Szokoly praised the class for its sense of public service, listing several major community projects various members had carried out.

McShane, in his Valedictory Address, urged each senior to find their passion and grow it. "Each of you will find a different passion, but you must find it," he insisted.

Kimble, the Salutatorian, reminded each graduate not to be afraid. "We each have something to contribute," she said. "It won't be the same, but it will be important."

School Board President Karen Murphy sparked echoes of Hillary Clinton in her book, It Takes A Village. "Look around you," she told them. "Find the people to thank. Your parents, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, even your neighbors. You didn't get this far alone. You won't get any further alone, either. Never forget your success is due to help and support."

The feature speaker of the evening was Cornell graduate Gwendolyn Stevens (photo, left). Ms. Stevens went on to Lincoln University and studied abroad in France. She earned a fellowship to study International Political Affairs. She graduated from Lincoln Magna Cum Laude. That earned her a full scholarship to study Public Administration at Pitt. She is now at Carnegie Mellon and an adjunct professor in Economics at Carlow University.

Stevens used her experiences while studying abroad as a metaphor for all the challenges the graduates would soon face. Leaving home, facing a new environment, having to make new friends, are all a matter of having to deal with being out of your comfort zone, she told them.

"You'll need to restart and refocus over and over," she said. "Don't think you just need to make the big adjustment onc time. It will be continuous. Get used to it. Embrace it. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Do not accept the status quo. Keep pushing."

She also talked about the need to network. "Look outside yourself. Find a mentor. Find several." Everyone has a story, she said. "Learn to Listen."

And, finally, she urged them to always figure out why they were doing something. If There's Not A Good Reason To Do It, Don't Waste Time.

Cornell Restarting Its Drama Program

After a several year lapse, Cornell is in the process of restarting its drama program. You can see its first production, "While Shakespeare Slept," this Friday and Saturday, March 9th and 10th, in the Cornell Auditorium at 7:30. Admission is free.

The new director is Ryan Collins (photo, right). A Montour graduate, Collins went on to major in Film & Theater at Robert Morris University. Cornell Superintendant Dr. Aaron Thomas contacted the RMU Film & Theater Department last October, and they referred him to Collins.

Since graduating from RMU, Collins has supported himself by working at an online merchandising company, but has stayed active in drama. He directed two musicals back at Montour, and has acted in area theaters. He has a role in an upcoming play, Peter and the Starcatcher, at the Comtra Theater in Cranberry.

But since December, he's been working hard at Cornell on restarting the program. And it hasn't been easy.

"Nobody here had ever been in a play," he explains. "I announced that we were restarting rhe program and needed students. One boy and nine girls showed up interested in acting and a few more asked if they could be on the stage crew."

The nine girls were all in middle school. No high school girls were interested.

"So we started working on fundamentals," Collins says. "I didn't dumb it down. I told them from the start that when you step out on that stage in front of an audience, you're an actor or actress, and the audience expects a certain level of performance. And they accepted that and have worked really hard."

But Collins had to find a script calling for nine female parts and one male part, something not too long or too involved, that his inexperienced troop could handle. He finally settled on While Shakespeare Slept. The bizarre play features William Shakespeare and nine female characters. Shakespeare is trying to become an actor but keeps failing auditions. Every night, while he sleeps, various characters appear in his dreams, telling him he isn't much of an actor but is a great storyteller and has a way with words. They plead with him to tell their stories so they can become alive.

The boy playing Shakespeare is senior Jared Messersmith (photo, right). The girls playing the various characters (Lady McBeth, Portia, Juliet, etc.) are played by Allison Ricketts, Angel Matuke, Alana Meitrott, Jada Jenkins, Victoria Cohen, and Heather Stephenson, all in 8th grade; and Malia Langston, Kaylee Kennedy and Heidi Stephenson, all in 7th.

Collins has coached his students on how to project their voices, how to enunciate and use inflection to bring the lines to life, how to always face the audience, not the character they're pretending to speak to, and how to pace a scene so it moves along rapidly.

"We've come a long way," he says. "We've laid a good foundation."

By Tuesday night, they were able to run through the play twice. They were still wearing regular school clothes. Wednesday would be a dress rehearsal, when they would appear as characters in Elizabethan London.

The play calls for only a simple set : a bed, set of tables and chairs, and a bed table. It's supposed to be Shakespeare's tiny apartment.

Collins hopes to attract some interested parents or Coraopolis or Neville residents with an interest in drama that can shoulder the set, costume, props, makeup, lighting and sound requirements.

"We're really fortunate here at Cornell," he explains. "This is a wonderful auditorium. The stage is large, it has a large backstage, and large wings. As we grow the program, and get sophisticated enough to take on larger productions, we have the facility here to allow us to do anything we might want."

Messersmith plans to go to Robert Morris and major in Engineering, but he's already talking about getting involved with the drama program as his extracurricular activity.

Collins is hoping a few of the girls might be interested enough to go to a week or two week summer drama camp where they could focus all day every day on developing their acting skills.

"We do need to get some more kids out," he says. "But I'm hoping once we prove we can actually do a production, they'll realize we're for real and want to join us."

Cornell Board OKs Wall Replacement

At its February meeting, the Cornell School Board approved replacement of the walls in the high school.

When the present school was built in the early 1970s, the architect convinced the board to adopt a radical new idea : a school without walls. The experiment failed. Several years later, the school had simulated walls installed to separate learning areas. But those walls were too thin to be soundproof. Students in one classroom can hear teachers or students in the rooms behind them and to their right and left. Finally, during this Summer, those temporary walls will be removed and replaced with real walls, equipped with soundproofing and electrical circuitry. Clark Con- tractors has been hired for $381,133 to do the job.

The Board approved the hiring of Brian Mihalyi as Baseball Coach, Amanda Haines as Track & Field Coach, and Ryan Collins as Sponsor of the Drama Program.

The Board also noted that the dramatic production "While Shakespeare Slept" will be performed March 9-10.

Board members voted to approve $182,000 for continued participation in the Parkway West CTC for the 2018-19 school year, and $10, 468 for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's program of servicea for the 2018-19 year.

They accepted the audit from Hosach, Specht, Muetzel & Wood, LLC. It declared rhe school syatem "clean," that is without problems.

Superintendant Aaron Thomas announced that the 2018-19 school calendar has been completed and will be submitted to the Board for approval at the March meeting.

The Board accepted the real estate reassessment of Metal Traders Inc. property. It had been assessed too high by Allegheny County so has over paid for the last two years. It will receive a credit toward next year's taxes owed.

The Superintendant announced that Dr. John Collins is coming to the district to help implement his student writing program.

With great regrets, the Board accepted the retirements of Beth Miles as Central Office Secretary and Lore McBain as Junior High Secretary. They will both work through June 30.

The Board will send Maintenance Supervisor Dennis Ferguson to the maintenance conference in Baltimore in March.

Cornell 7th Graders Wrap Up Virtual Reality Semester

Cornell's Seventh Graders this week finish a most unusual experience. They have thoroughly created, explored, had adventures in, completed homework assignments in, and learned all about a Woods that exists only in their imagination.

Working with students from Carnegie Mellon University, these Cornell students under Megan Fuga and Susan Dunning designed the terrain, then created avatars, digital figures representing themselves. Through their avatars, they could then go into their Woods, and do anything that a real person might do in a real woods.

Superintendant Aaron Thomas proudly discussed this program with reporters on a recent morning. Thomas and his staff acquired a $20,000 grant which they used to purchase Virtual Reality headsets and Google pixel phones. The phones fit inside the headsets. Combined with the computers the school already had, this was all the technology needed.

Along with their CMU guides, the Cornell students completed 12 units. Each unit involved studying a different aspect of the Woods.

The Virtual Reality course was part of the regular 7th Grade Science and Social Studies semester. The students devoted one day a week to their Woods, then studied other topics the rest of the time.

Second semester, the students will move on to other topics, but many of them will continue to work on Virtual Reality projects in one form or another. Last year, second semester, a group of five seventh grade girls coded a video game. They placed second in a national video game competition, losing by a few points to a group of seniors. Susan Dunning also coached that group.

Seventh graders aren't the only Cornell students using the Virtual Reality equipment. Science classes use it to explore tropical rainforests, coral reefs, the inside of the atom, the Double Helix Ladder of DNA, planets and other environments.

History classes use it to visit Ancient Egypt, Classic Greece, Colonial America, Medieval Britain and various military battlefields while the battles are still going on.

In January, Cornell students donned the equipment and "traveled" to the Presidential inauguration, mingling with the crowd while the President delivered his speech and was sworn in.

"You can do anything with this," Thomas exclaimed. "Whatever teachers and students can imagine, we can find a way to do. Either there are now programs we can buy, or we can create our own."

The Carnegie Mellon partnership was a graduate research project by the five students. Now that it's complete, Cornell keeps the software and can use it every year for 7th grade classes

It's a lot of fun, but there's some serious learning going on. What the 7th graders were really studying was Forest Ecology. Within the Forest Biome, what plants and animals live? What niches have each of them carved out; that is, what do they eat, what kind of lifestyle do they lead, how do they survive, and what eats them? What microclimates are there --- that is, how is the environment up on the high, dry ridges different from the environment down along the creek? So they're studying the same basic lessons students studied 50 years ago, but doing it in a much more modern, engaging way.

"There are different kinds of learning styles,:" Thomas pointed out. "Yes, there are students who can read a chapter in a book and learn everything in it. But other students need to hear something vocally, or see it, or be able to walk around in it and put their hands on it."

For those other kinds of learners, Virtual Reality may be a huge breakthrough.

"There are some students for whom reading something is just words on a page. They cannot visualize it. But seeing it through these Virtual Reality goggles, suddenly it all makes sense. Something clicks. They understand. If we can save five or six students in a class by this approach, it becomes an incredible advantage."

Of course, Cornell is on the edge of large wooded valley. But hikes down into that woods can be prevented by bad weather. Handicapped students msy not be able to make it. And Cornell is a long way from deserts, coral reefs, glaciers, high mountains and other environments. Virtual Reality can take students to all those.

Local High Schools Win Science Center Awards

Cornell, Moon and Sacred Heart were among western Pennsylvania high schools competing Friday in the annual Contraption Tournament at the Carnegie Science Center.

The "contraptions" are Rube Goldberg devices requiring an unreasonable number of steps to carry out a simple task. This year's task was to weigh something.

Sacred Heart was one of eight finalists. Shown here are (from left) Aiden Wrabley, Jeff Zick, Andrew Polar and Jake Slattery. The Chargers won the Green Award, meaning it was the most environmentally conscious.

Cornell won the Reset Award. After each run, the contraptions have to reset. Cornell's reset faster than any other machine there.

Montour Supt. : "We Can Compete With Charter Schools"

A lot of school officials in the Western Hills are worried about the impact the new Propel Charter High School will have on their districts. Montour Superintendant Michael Ghilani isn't one of them.

"We can compete with charter schools," he declares. "Not only are we not losing kids to them, we're bringing kids from them back over to us."

But that was why Ghilani was hired. Montour was losing students to both charter and cyber schools. Morale was slipping and the district faced a sudden budget deficit because of careless paperwork by the previous administration.

The Montour School Board hired Ghilani to turn all that around. He was Pennsylvania Principal of the Year at Upper St. Clair, a huge STEM advo-cate and someone who had built a career on cutting edge educational technology and ideas.

He didn't lose any time bringing all that to Montour. He partnered Montour with the Carnegie Science Center, where Ghilani sits on the Board. He's also on the STEM Excellence Pathway Committee.

Dean Caliguire, who was Montour Board President when Ghiulani was hired, said "he's already put in place academic and tech initiatives. He's established a spirit of collaboration among teachers."

Ghilani graduated from Washington & Jefferson, earned his Masters degree from Pitt, his Doctorate from Duquesne, and his administrative certification from Carnegie Mellon.

He was almost rubbing his hands together with excitement as he spoke of competing with Propel or anyone else for students.

"First of all," he said, "We're in this for kids. It's in their best interest that we all do the best job possible. And," he admits, "When I got here, we were losing kids. But we've reversed that."

Montour did it by getting aggressive. First they focused their resources. They built a Virtual Reality Lab and other high tech facilities.

"Come spend a day with us," he challenged reporters. "We'll take you inside a chemical molecule, inside a DNA strand. We'll take you to a previous era in history, or to the Tropical Rainforest, a Coral Reef or Antarctica. We'll take you places you can't go on TV, at the movies or in a video game. This is serious 21st Century education here."

"We've got Robotics at every grade level," he states with pride. "Our test scores are among the top 15% in Western Pennsylvania."

Ghilani sends letters to every single Montour student attending a Cyber or Charter school. He invites them and their parents in for a conference with him, the Director of Innovation, and the Principal of whichever building the student would be attending (elementary, middle or high school).

Google chose Montour last year for its annual Google Summit. 80 school districts sent teams to study the technology and teaching methods here. Carnegie Mellon University has an office in the Montour building. The Allegheny County Intermediate Branch holds professional development workshops there.

"Pittsburgh is a cutting edge city," Ghilani says. "We must open doors to that, connect our kids to those resources. Education can't just occur here. It has to begin here and take our kids to resources out in the community."

But Ghilani isn't happy with the whole charter school situation, either.

"This needs addressed at the state level," he argues. "The laws place a public school system at a disadvantage. We have to educate every kid who walks in the door. A charter school gets to cherry pick the best kids, then use their test scores to claim they're doing the better job. Then, when they produce a better average test score, they get financial rewards."

As he warms up to the subject, he gets more intense. "For the last couple of years, we've had the state withholding money from school districts as they debated about exactly how they were going to allocate money. So everyone was short of funds. But all the public schools still had to spend thousands of dollars sending tuition to charter schools and then providing transportation for kids to get there. There should have been a provision saying that if the state was withholding money, then districts temporarily didn't have to send tuition and transportation money to charter schools until they once again started receiving money from the state. I know of several public school districts which this really hit hard. And it's not fair."

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Many Skeptical But New Charter HS Moving Ahead
Second in our series on the new charter high school and the debate between charter and public schools. In future installments we'll interview area superintendants, teachers, parents and students.

The Western Hills' new Propel Charter High School will hold its first Orientation Meeting in mid February at the current Propel Charter Middle School on Bilmar Drive in Robinson Township. At that meeting, potential students and parents can speak to teachers and administrators to help decide if they want to enroll for the August 2017 opening.

The new high school will be housed in the current Burkhart Elementary School on Steubenville Pike just up from I-79. There is no tuition charge. Any student accepted for enrollment will have his tuition paid by his home district, which is also responsible for providing him transportation to the school. Propel will start with only 9th and 10th grades, adding 11th in the 2017-18 year and seniors in the 2018-19 year. It should have an eventual enrollment of about 500, although Braddock Hills Propel HS (in photo at right) enrolls 750.

Propel has already been running a K-8 elementary and middle school on Belmar Drive. That school draws students from Cornell, Sto-Rox, Moon, Montour, Carlynton, Chartiers Valley, Keystone Oaks, Avonworth and the Pittsburgh City public school districts. Kelly Wall, Propel Information Director, says their first priority will be to keep current eighth graders and enroll them in the ninth grade of the new school.


Wall urged any interested parents or students to go to the Propel Facebook Page or website (http://propelschools.org) or call the Central Office (412-325-7305) for information. She expects more to apply than can be accepted, so says Propel will select the students who meet their admission requirements and then conduct a lottery.

Propel is also seeking teachers for the new school. They pay on the same scale as the Pittsburgh City Schools, starting new teachers at $40,000. They provide health, dental and visual insurance for teachers, spouses and children, a 403B retirement plan, tuition reimbursement for teachers continuing their education, short and long term disability insurance, and life insurance. Interested teachers can go to the website to "Careers."

Propel appeals to underachieving students who want to raise their test scores, and to high achieving students who want more experiences in science and high tech fields. Propel students have won numerous awards in Science Fairs, Robotics and other competitions, and its Andrew Street HS won a Governor's Commendation for its Urban Beekeeping program.

Propel was started in 2003 by a group of Pittsburgh City School teachers who were seeking a way to better serve minorities and underachievers. It has received millions of dollars in grants from various foundations and now operates a cluster of elementary and middle schools plus two high schools. The one here will be its third.

Its Executive Directed is Jeremy Resnick (left), who was won a dozen awards for his work in Education. He began as a teacher in Pittsburgh, then became Director of the Charter Schools Foundation at Duquesne University. Resnick is committed to the idea of charter schools and their ability to cut through beauracracy to better serve students.

Resnick's first lieutenant at Propel is Tina Chekan, pictured at right. She's Superintendant and CEO. Checkan graduated from Ball State and Gannon and holds a doctorate from Pitt. She taught at Wilkinsburg before moving to Propel as a teacher, Principal, and Assistant Superintendant.

Under the leadership of Resnick and Chekan, Propel has flourished. It now has schools up and down the Monongahela Valley and the Northside and North Hills. They foresee their Robinson Township venture as the beginning of their expansion into the Western Hills.

But everyone is not as thrilled. Educators see them draining millions of dollars from public schools at a time when dollars are hard to find. If, for example, they actually enroll 500 students at their Steubenville Road campus, they will drain $7 million, 500 thousand dollars from surrounding school districts.

Sto-Rox Solicitor Ira Weiss puts it most bluntly. "We cannot afford this," he tells reporters. "It would be a death blow to our district. If Propel comes in here, within 10 years Sto-Rox Schools will not exist."

Propel had already tried to establish a K-12 school on vacant land between Hillcrest and Elizabeth Avenues in Stowe Township. Sto-Rox sued to block it. They are still in court. Sto-Rox is already paying $600,000 to Propel for students who have transferred from Sto-Rox to Propel schools in Braddock, Munhall, Homestead, and the North Side. Plus the district has to transport those students to and from school every day.

"We're running vans or buses almost to Kennywood Park and across the river twice a day all year," Weiss points out. "The transportation alone is killing us."

And not everyone is convinced Propel schools are as great as they claim. State audits raise doubts. The Western Hills Middle School on Bilmar Drive (photo, at left) has received official warnings from the state for not meeting required academic progress. So, ironically, a school that claims it raises test scores has scores too low. It has also been cited for teachers not meeting certification requirements in English, Biology and Foreign Languages. (www.paauditor.gov/Media/Default/Reports/-schPropelCharterSchool_ 080216.pdf).

Reviews of the schools by parents and students are also worrisome.

"Many of the students here (Bilmar Drive) are discipline problems who were either expelled or forced to transfer from their home schools," several parents noted. "They're bright, so they can make the test scores, but on a day by day basis they disrupt classes so other students can't learn."

"I wasn't very happy there," one student mentioned. "The teachers are good and the classes are smaller. But back at my home school, if you're in the top classes, the academics are a lot better, and the other students shut up and let the teachers teach. The classes are bigger, but you can always go in after school for help. Plus, there was bullying going on, and nobody seemed to care. So I transferred back. to my home school."

Robotics Growing In Popularity In Local Schools

Football, basketball and marching bands have long been the most popular programs in area public schools. They draw the most participants, the most fans, and the most money. A public school almost cannot exist without at least decent programs in all three. When Cornell tried to drop football, students, parents and townspeople would not let it die. Cornell brought it back this year.

But there's a new kid on the block : Robotics.

This 21st century activity fascinates kids of all ages. And while they're fascinated by the building and operating of semi-autonomous machines, teachers find they can teach Physics, Math, Computer Programming and other skills to students who otherwise would be disinterested. And while these are extremely sophisticated concepts, students have shown they can master them. In fact, they surpass the teachers and innovate on their own.

Every Western Hills school system has some sort of Robotics programs in elementary, middle and high school. They rely on Mindstorms, Vex and Next kits at the elementary and middle school levels. High school teams use FIRST part sets or build their own. But each school program is different. Some work on robots in class. Some do it as an extracurricular activity. Not every school travels to competitions.

But it's those competitions that really develop enthusiasm. Already there are schools where it is THE most popular program. Both boys and girls can participate. It doesn't reward size, weight, or any physical attribute. Robotics rewards intelligence, spatial reasoning, manual dexterity, creativity and problem solving.

Robotics is run by several national organizations. FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology), is the biggest. There are grade school and middle school divisions but the real show is the high school competition, shown in the photos here. Newcomers are stunned at how tense and exciting a Robotics contest can bem, and how audiences cheer as if at a basketball game.

FIRST high school teams receive a $7000 kit in August. They can design and build their robots however they wish, but they must use the parts in the kit. These bots are large machines, but there's a box at courtside they must fit inside to be legal.

A Robotics team includes Designers, Builders and Coders. A team will have at least three of each. They're all critical, but Coders are the key. They program robot brains so the machines can go up and down stairs, unlock doors, pick up keys or coins from desktops, shoot basketballs, kick soccer or footballs, or hunt down and disable other robots. Top coders are called "Code Ninjas," and are the rock stars of Robotics.

The brain is called the "brick" because it's about the same size and weight as one. One "brick" contains more computing power than the computers NASA used to put the first men on the Moon.

A school only creates one robot a year. But FIRST competitions occur in three bot teams. In a ournament, each robot will, by random draw, be paired with two teammates each round during eight preliminary rounds. It will never be paired with the same teammates twice. Presumably, a robot will be on strong, average and weak teams over the eight rounds.

An All Star list of 24 bots is then posted. From that list, eight teams are compiled. The #1, 2 and 3 ranking bots form the first team, the #4,5,6 bots the second, and so on. They play an eight team tournament. The winner is champion. So to "win," a robot must earn its way onto the winning team. The #1,2,3 team is, of course, seeded first and expected to win, but often a lower seeded team's bots will work better together and surprise.

The three bot winning team and runnerup go on to Nationals at St. Louis. Carnegie Mellon offers Summer Camps for both students and coaches, where they learn cutting edge Design, Building and Coding techniques.

The tounaments require the robots to play games such as basketball, volleyball and soccer. The photo top right shows bots warming up for a basketball game. The three baskets count different points : three for the highest, two for the middle and one for the lowest. The rules are adapted to the mechanical limits of the bots. For instance, they're not required to dribble a basketball. But they do shoot, kick, or hit a ball over a net.

Robots "see" by laser eyes. They have at least two, which allow them binocular vision. Some teams use as many as six. For $100, teams can purchase a more sophisticated eye which has amazing depth perception. Two of those set about two feet apart give a Robot almost the same vision a human has.

Carnegie Mellon University is a world center for Robotics, so through its encouragement and support, Western Pennsylvania teams are among the nation's best. The Western Pennsylvania Regional draws 90 schools. So far, Western Hills teams have struggled. Several Pittsburgh city schools plus Fox Chapel, Upper St. Clair, Freeport, Shaler, Sewickley, North Allegheny and a number of Catholic schools usually take top honors. Moon Middle School's recent trophies are the best any Western Hills team has ever done. The upcoming high school Regional is at California State University.

It's fun, but Robotics is also Big Time. At tournaments, college scouts look for talent, like sports coaches scouting games for top athletes. Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, M.I.T., Purdue, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Michigan, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Cornell University are among those recruiting robotics students. In greatest demand are Code Ninjas, who are as valued as quarterbacks in football or tall centers in basketball.

Teachers usually serve as head coaches, but every successful robotics team has at least one engineer, a machinist and a draftsman from the community who volunteer their time as assistants.

The robots are powered by Servomotors, very sensitive units which can be fine tuned to 1/16, 1/32 or even 1/64 of an inch movements, and move at extremely low speeds. And all this has to be programmed into the brain. It sounds like an Engineering School assignment, but a Middle School Code Ninja can do it without much trouble.

It takes about two months to design, build, program and work out the kinks in a robot. Teams work every day after school and then spend all weekend either in work sessions or at competitions. A scholarship to a top engineering school is worth over $100,000 so they figure it's time well spent.

Moon Middle School Team Wins Robotics Awards

Moon Middle School's Robotics Team took home three awards from the recent Western Pennsylvania Lego League Championships.

The team was composed of Caleb Kemp, Karoline Roettger, Ankita Somu, Robert Martin and Chancharik Mitra.

92 schools were entered in the annual competition, but Moon was the only participant from the Western Hills. North Hills won the tournament, beating out Freeport in the semis and Fox Chapel in the finals. Three Pittsburgh city schools and Moon reached the quarterfinals.

Moon's awards came in Design, Strategy and Programming. There are a total of 10 categories but only one other team won three of them. North Hills advances to St. Louis for the Nationals. 32,000 schools have registered middle school robotics teams. Thanks to Carnegie Mellon and Pitt, robotics is big in Pittsburgh and local schools are among the nation's most competitive.

First Lego League (FLL) teams purchase a Mindstorms Robotics Kit over the Summer for approximately $300. They have to design their robot, build it, and program it. All three tasks are quite sophisticated, and members of a team specialize in one or the other.

A Mindstorms Robot is extremely powerful. The "brick," which is the "brain" of the robot, has more computing power than the 1960s units which NASA used to place men on the Moon. The robots can see using laser eyes, feel obstacles with pressure sensors, and solve problems.

A First Lego League course is built on an 8 x 6 foot table. It contains 20 obstacles. The robot must fulfill 15 tasks. It starts from a foot square home base in one corner of the table. Once the pilot presses the start button, the robot must leave the base, navigate the obstacles, and carry out each task. Once it leaves the base, no team member can touch the robot or communicate with it by remote control. The robot must perform all its tasks on its own, based on its programming. The robot is timed. It has 2:30 to carry out all 15 tasks. Any mistakes it makes are deducted from its score, and it loses more points for any tasks not completed.

Once a robot is designed, built and programmed, "practices" consist of endless repeats of those 2:30 sequences to refine coding and smooth mechanical operation.

At a tournament, teams first face preliminary judges, where they are evaluated on their design, build quality, and coding. They submit their coding in written form and are graded for how error free, efficient and logical it is. Then they proceed to the actual performance rounds. At this year's event, Moon won its awards in the preliminary judging but was beaten out in the timed performance rounds.

However, this was Moon's first year in the competition. Middle school robotics competition is divided into a Novice Division for first year students and a Varsity Division for those with experience. Moon made the decision in September to "play up," that is, compete in Varsity despite the lack of experience. This cost the Tigers in the highly intense performance rounds. But the Novice winner does not advance to Nationals.

The robotics "regular season" consists of 11 tournaments held through October, November and December. Not all teams compete at all 11, but a team must compete in at least three to qualify for the Regional.

Just like in sports, universities host summer camps for robotics students and coaches, where they receive advanced training in design, build and coding. Eighth graders can create robots to climb stairs, unlock doors, unscrew jartops and pick up coins from flat surfaces.

Even though Moon has the only robotics team in the Western Hills area, very good teams come from schools close by. Chartiers Valley, Canon-McMillan, Sewickley, Avonworth, North Hills and North Allegheny all field strong teams.

Students with experience in middle school robotics move up to the high school level, where they build human sized robots which play soccer and basketball and other sports. Major engineering schools like Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, MIT, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Cal Tech, Purdue and the Ivy League colleges scout high school robotics events just as college sports coaches scout high school games. Designers, builders and programmers are in great demand and receive scholarship offers just as athletes do.

Schools interested in starting a robotics team can contact Regional Lego League Director Patricia Dupra at 412-512-4302, Assistant Regional Lego League Director Katie Dunn at 937-938-4642, or Gordon Walton at GWalton@PaFLL.com.

New Charter High School Will Spur Education Debate

The debate over Charter Schools will engulf the Coraopolis area this Summer as a new high school opens. It will occupy the former Burkett Elementary School on Steubenville Pike near the I-79 interchange, 15 minutes from Coraopolis, McKees Rocks, Moon, Carlynton and West Allegheny. It could draw students from all of them.

The new high school will be operated by Propel Schools, an organization launched by several retired Pittsburgh Public School teachers 15 years ago. Propel opened several grade schools, then a middle school, and finally Andrew Street High School, all near Kennywood Park.

Propel is not an amateur or underfunded group. It includes accountants, grant writers and attorneys. And they now have 15 years experience operating small charter schools. Propel has received major grants from numerous local and national foundations. But the key to their funding is that every student who is accepted for admission has his or her tuition paid by the public school system that student transfers from. What each district spends varies, but is usually about $15,000 a year. So if 10 students from, say, Coraopolis, transfers to a Propel school, Cornell School District will lose $150,000.

Propel plans to begin with grades 9-10, then add 11th in August 2018 and 12th in August 2019. Originally they plan to admit 50 students per grade level for a school of 100. Two years later they'll have a school of 200. The tuition transfers will give them a budget of $3 million. Their grants will add $3 million, for $30,000 per student to invest in teachers, books, field trips, labs, extracurricular activities, etc. They'll have no expenses for transportation. Parents must bring their students to the school.

Propel pays teachers roughly on the Pittsburgh City School scale, which is higher than any of the neighboring Western Hills districts pay. So in addition to luring students, the new school could lure teachers.

Propel has already been operating a charter elementary school for grades K-8 in a building on Bilmar Drive. These students will move to Burkett school so, like Cornell, it will house the entire K-12 system.

Propel primarily serves underachieving students who lag in reading, writing and math; and high achieving students who want more advanced classes and activities, especially in the sciences.

Typical of Propel is their Beekeeping Course, as seen above. The students maintain a group of hives. They harvest the honey and sell it to finance the program. "A good Beekeeping course teaches an incredible number of subjects," says teacher Brandon Keat. "Biology and Entomology, of course, but also Botany, Genetics, Weather, Chemistry, Nutrition, Geography, Economics, Math, Accounting, and even Carpentry." Andrew Street High School won the Governor's Educational Excellence Award for its Beekeeping Program. No school in the Western Hills currently offers Beekeeping. Propel has also partnered with various Pittsburgh agencies to offer Art, Drama, Dance, Photography, Sculpture and Film Making. They offer a full range of sports programs except for football. Cornell already plays Andrew Street HS boys and girls basketball teams.

In the Science area, Charter schools are strong contenders in the various competitive events like Bridgebuilding, Erector Engineering, Robotics (seen at right) and Science Fairs. Western Hills schools have been notably absent from these competitions in the last few decades, since the former Coraopolis and Crafton High Schools were frequent winners. But those winners receive college scholarships to schools like Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Ivy League schools, Purdue, Stanford and Georgia Tech, so the chance to participate appeals to many parents and students.

The reason Propel has been able to guarantee increases in test scores for low achieving students in reading, writing and math is its smaller class sizes and cutting edge technology.

However, everyone is not enthusiatic about this new school. Principals, Superintendants, teachers and school board members of the seven area school districts view Propel with skepticism. They say the school could drain public schools of needed funds. They say the supposed superior academic results come from skimming off the best students and most supportive parents, not from anything actually going on at the school.

This is only a general introduction. Over coming weeks and months, The Record will examine this school from various viewpoints, interviewing students, parents, teachers, administrators and other professionals.

Moon School Board Honors Choir Director

The Moon School Board honored Lori Cole for a career spent as the district's choir director. To mark rhe occasion, Ms. Cole brought along her Moon Honors Choir to sing two Christmas Carols for the Board and audience.

This was Ms. Cole's final presentation to the Board as she will be retiring as of January 1. Over the years she and her students have won numerous music education awards. Ms. Cole has spent 24 years teaching music in Moon Area School District and her final concert will be on Monday, December 19 at the Winter Choral Concert in the high school at 7 p.m.

Former high school principal, Mr. Michael Hauser, presented Ms. Cole with roses from the district as a form of appreciation for her hard work and dedication throughout the years.

The Bosrd also honored the high school soccer team for recently winning the Pennsylvania State Championship, and Chuck Lanna, who came out of retirement to serve as interim Business Manager.

Montour School Board Faces Surprise Debts

One of the primary goals of school boards is to never find surprises. The Montour School Bosrd recently encountered a highly unpleasant surprise when they learned they owed a $749,806 debt they assumed had been paid two years earlier.

Retired Superintendent Donald Boyer (photo, left) had apparently been placing invoices and late notices from SSM Industries in a desk drawer without paying them or telling the Board. The plumbing contractor tired of waiting for its money and contacted the Pennsylvania State Solicitor, Ira Weiss, who investigated. At the November Montour Board meeting, Weiss informed them they owed the original $410,662 bill; $61,599 in interest; $106,679 in legal fees and arbitration costs; and $170,866 in penalties.

Even worse, the Board learned that earlier in the process SSM had offered to settle the case for $300,000 less than it now owes. That letter also ended up in the drawer.

"What you have here is someone who operated in a completely opaque manner just as his way to maintain control," Weiss said. "He had told everyone to communicate solely with him and not with the Board. This is not only arrogant; it's also illegal." Weiss was not sympathetic to the argument that the $749,806 would use up all of the recent Montour tax increase, which it had targeted for other projects.

"We certainly accept some of the blame," admitted Board President Tom Barclay. "But you want to think that people you hire will use good judgement and do the right thing."

The case is a massive violation of a whole set of laws, rules and regulations designed to prevent just this kind of problem. State laws clearly state that a school board is in charge of a school system, with the Superintendant and Principal carrying out policies and actions as directed by the board. Every expenditure must be approved in advance by the Board. Even teachers or coaches proposing a trip must submit requests and paperwork to the Board for approval well in advance. Boards have accountants and attorneys on permanent retainder. They pour over every line of every expenditure and policy to make sure they abide by the thick book of state regulations.

The case is even more puzzling because the work was done at the high school in plain view of everyone as part of a $47 million renovation. At every Board meeting bills and expenditures are presented to the board, discussed, and either approved or disapproved. Yet no one noticed that no bill was ever presented for the plumbing work.

Said board member Darrell Young, "We're now going back and reviewing every contract and bill from the time Boyer was Superintendant. We levied a tax increase last year and now have nothing to show for it."

Cornell Board Names Department Heads

The Cornell School Board named two new department chairs at an otherwise routine November meeting at the Donna Belas Library in the Cornell Education Center.

They named Amy Jaskolski (right) Chairperson of the Social Studies Department. And in the same motion they named Ms. Jaskolski the new Student Council Advisor. Ms. Jaskolski takes over a Social Studies program offering nine courses with three honors options. Beginning in seventh grade, in order, the courses are Geography & Pennsylvania History (7), U.S. Government (8), American History to 1965 (9), American History since 1865 (10), World History (11), American Government (12), and the electives of Economics, Psychology and Broadcasting & Documentary Filmmaking. Honors sections are offered for American History to 1865, American History since 1865, and American Government. The American Government Honors Section prepares students to take the Advanced Placement Examination which can earn them college credit.

The Board named Andy Olisatro Chairperson of the Math Department. Mr. Olisatro takes over a Math Department offering eight courses. Beginning in seventh grade, in order, the courses are Pre Algebra (7), Algebra I (8), Algebra II (9), Geometry (10), Precalculus & Statistics (11), and Calculus, and the electives of Computer Programming and Business Math. The Programming course teaches students to write code in C++.

Mr. Olisantro faces the challenge of raising student test scores. Pennsylvania as a whole has been struggling with low scores for the last decade. Last year, the state average on proficiency tests was 60%.

Cornell's was even lower, at 49%. This hurts students in three ways. First, the ones who go to college usually have to take remedial math courses for no credit before being allowed into regular freshman courses. Second, the students who go into the business world lack the math proficiency to fill the higher paying jobs. Third, those who go into the military do not have the scores to qualify for specialized training.

But how to address this in an age of computer games and short attention spans has befuddled educators all across the nation. Students generally rank math as their least favorite subject, so math teachers face reluctant learners before they even start.

Cornell has certain advantages if Olisantro can figure out how to take advantage of them. As the smallest school in the area, Cornell can provide more individual attention to each student, and hold students accountable day by day, semester by semester. But there is still the challenge of how to teach abstract reasoning to students who are distracted by seemingly endless TV, cell phones and computers.

In other business, the Board approved the monthly minutes, budget and teacher trips to conferences. The December meeting will begin at 6 pm to allow for the annual reorganization.