The conversion of Rush Elementary School, Hometown, into a kindergarten and grade one learning center is a step closer to reality.

On Tuesday evening the Tamaqua Area School District's education committee voted to recommend the change, which would also include housing students in grades 2-5 at Tamaqua Elementary School.

The move, which had been proposed by Superintendent Carol Makuta, will now be on the agenda for the Tamaqua Area School Board as a whole to consider during its monthly meeting next Tuesday, May 18.

Currently, both Rush and Tamaqua Elementary Schools include students in grades K-5, but Rush is operating at an enrollment that is about one-third of its capacity.

Last month, prior to the proposal being presented publicly to the school board, Makuta met with faculty members regarding the move. The information was then mentioned to some classes by teachers, which then leaked out to parents before the board's committee meetings for April.

About 50 people showed up for the presentation of the proposal to the board, with a number of them Rush Elementary parents opposed to the move. Concerns raised included transportation costs, the impact of the transition and the exclusion of West Penn Elementary School near Snyders from the proposal.

Rush Elementary parents also pointed to higher standardized test scores at the school that at the district's other elementary schools.

In the wake of the proposed move, Makuta had a parental survey posted online on the district's website regarding the switch between April 15-30. The survey was also sent home with students of Rush and Tamaqua Elementary students at the request of parents.

During Tuesday's committee meetings, Makuta gave a lengthy report on the survey, which received about 100 responses, as well as the potential impact of establishing the K-1 learning center in Hometown.

The Education Committee, which is chaired by Wanda Zuber, voted 3-0 to have the elementary switch come out of committee, although both board President Larry A. Wittig and Eileen Meiser did so with reservations.

Wittig explained that most of the information from school districts that have K-1 primary centers is anecdotal rather than statistical, although it tends to be positive in favor of the move. Wittig read some snippets from testimonials from districts such as Grove City, Daniel Boone, Hempfield and Mars, which noted the nurturing nature and protective environments of such K-1 centers. Minersville also has one, among other Schuylkill County schools.

Wittig said he was looking for time to digest the information, as did Meiser, a former elementary teacher in the district, who noted she had her own list of pros and cons for the proposal and would like time to consider Makuta's report.

One parent, Robert Goetz, requested to be on the agenda Tuesday to discuss PSSA scores (Pa. System of School Assessment) scores, particularly regarding information presented last month regarding students in the top 15 of classes in grades 6, 8 and 11.

Goetz noted that while the numbers of each of those classes from each elementary school were relatively close, that did not take into account the percentages of students from each school.

"The Rush kids come from a much smaller pool, and the numbers didn't take into account where they came from," said Goetz. He noted, for example, that for 2009, grade six students that scored advanced and proficient on the PSSA Math test, 26 percent scored advanced from each school as opposed to 19 percent when the numbers were combined from Tamaqua and Rush.

Goetz also presented other data on PSSA scores that showed percentages favoring higher PSSA scores for Rush students in many, but not all cases.

Makuta stressed that each of the elementary schools had students who performed well on PSSA tests, but she noted Rush does not have students who are learning English as a language and those with learning disabilities, which could skew test scores. She noted all three schools have been regularly making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Goetz also asked if the retirement of 11 elementary teachers had anything to do with the move, but Makuta noted the retirement letters were received by April 1, which was prior to the recommendation being made.

Regarding class size, Makuta said that restructuring Rush and Tamaqua Elementary will result in an average of 22 students per class, similar to the current numbers of students in classes in those schools. Wittig noted he would not vote for the switch merely to fill classrooms in either school.

In considering busing, Makuta noted that Mary Ellen Francis, the district's transportation director, estimated busing students from Tamaqua to Rush and vice versa would result in an added time of seven minutes per run. The schools are three miles apart. Makuta said bus runs are continuously evaluated and the district is not anticipating any additional costs with the move, although if students need to be bused in from Tuscarora, that could change everything.

Another issue to consider regarded student performance analysis with multiple transitions between buildings. Currently, Rush and Tamaqua Elementary students switch schools just twice in 12 years. The move would add an additional transition for grade three students. Makuta said there was inconclusive evidence regarding the impact of another transition.

The switch would also have an impact on parent-teacher organization set ups, which will have to be worked out.

Makuta noted that people who are used to neighborhood schools such as Rush are vehemently opposed to changes in that environment.

"People are very passionate about having a neighborhood school, and to be informed that they might not have it is alarming," said Makuta. "We can't accomplish this by ourselves. We need strong parental input to make this work."