By JOE PLASKO

jplasko@tnonline.com

The Tamaqua Area School District is considering a realignment in its elementary schools.

The district has three schools that house students in Kindergarten through grade five: Tamaqua Elementary, Rush Elementary in Hometown and West Penn Elementary, not far from the Village of Snyders on Route 309.

At the end of March, the district had 952 students enrolled in those schools. Tamaqua Elementary has the largest enrollment of regular education students with 494, followed by West Penn with 230 and Rush with 121. All three schools also have special education students.

Rush Elementary has been operating at about one-third of its capacity, so the district has been looking for ways to better utilize the empty space. This concern has cropped up over the past five years during budget time, when every dollar gets scrutinized.

A number of options have been mentioned for Rush, including closing it, moving the district's administrative offices there, making it the headquarters for the district's special education program and shifting the boundaries for the school to capture more students. All have been rejected for one reason or another.

Superintendent Carol Makuta is now proposing turning Rush Elementary into a primary center for students in Kindergarten and first grade. She is recommending moving Tamaqua Elementary's K-1 students to Rush and shifting grades 2-5 at Rush to Tamaqua Elementary.

That would help with the space issue, as it would give Rush a K-1 student enrollment of about 230 for the 2010-11 school year. It would also open up room at Tamaqua Elementary, which would send 205 students to Hometown and get 111 back in grades 2-5.

The schools are only a couple of miles apart, so the transportation shouldn't be a major issue.

Makuta also noted educational advantages of the move, such as creating grade and age appropriate planning, optimizing class sizes (in the 21 student range) and uniting grade level teacher teams.

The move would also make Rush eligible for federal Title I funding and programming for special needs students, which it currently isn't.

This would also be a good time for a realignment, since the district is losing eight elementary teachers to retirement after this year, providing an opportunity for consolidation.

Some parents of Rush Elementary students are opposed to the move. They point to the smaller class sizes as providing more personalized attention and note that Rush's PSSA test scores are typically the highest of the three elementary schools.

Opponents also object that West Penn is not being included in the proposed move.

School Board President Larry Wittig said that West Penn is not a sacrosanct "sacred cow" but pointed to the added transportation costs of busing students from the geographically large township to Tamaqua, which is about eight miles from West Penn Elementary. He also suggested adding the West Penn students to Rush could actually overcrowd it.

It appears the district would like to make a decision on the move by June in order to prepare for next year.

Makuta said that parental input is important, and a survey on the subject is now available on the district's website and was to be sent home with the students at Tamaqua and Rush.

There are definite benefits to the realignment, but it appears to be hurried. Perhaps the district should take more time to look over the ramifications of the move. If the status quo has to be maintained for another year, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It will also give the district a chance to reconnect with some parents who are feeling betrayed right now.