The Tamaqua Area School District will proceed with plans to restructure its elementary schools.

The district's board of education voted unanimously Tuesday evening to convert Rush Elementary School, Hometown, from a Kindergarten through grade five school into a Kindergarten and First Grade Learning Center.

Conversely, Tamaqua Elementary School will become a Second Grade through Fifth Grade Learning Center.

The moves, which were proposed by Superintendent Carol Makuta last month and recommended by the district's administration, will take place for the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

The board's vote for the move was 8-0 in favor, with Director Mark Rother absent.

The district's third elementary school, West Penn Elementary, is located near Snyders and, being eight miles away, is not being included in the restructuring.

The move was promoted as making more efficient use of Rush Elementary, which had just 121 students in grades K-5 this year and operated at about one-third capacity, although Board President Larry A. Wittig indicated he wouldn't support it just to fill space in the building.

Wittig suggested the formation of a K-1 Primary Center would create a nurturing, supportive and safe atmosphere for students and teachers.

A number of parents of Rush Elementary students have opposed the restructuring plan since it was announced, noting that Rush students consistently score higher on standardized tests, particularly the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment), that the district's other elementary schools.

Robert Goetz, a Rush parent, noted that Rush was in the top seven percent of 1,064 schools, including a number of districts with K-1 centers that Wittig had referenced during last week's Education Committee meeting.

"This school should be recognized, not dismantled," said Robert Goetz, who also argued those results were being achieved with a larger average class size at Rush, which had classes that averaged six students higher than Tamaqua Elementary.

"It's the close knit group of that 121 kids that makes the difference," he suggested. "West Penn has twice that number, Tamaqua has four times that."

Makuta explained once again that because Rush currently does not have English as a Second Language and special education students being tested, that would have an impact on test scores. "We have high performing students in all of our schools," she noted. "The difference (at Rush) is the caliber of students taking the test."

The restructuring also means that Rush would be eligible for federal Title I funding, since a number of economically disadvantaged students would be transferred to that school. Some parents claim that would lower property values in the area of Rush.

"You are artificially creating a Title I environment by doing this, which will negatively impact our property taxes," said Shannon Goetz. "I hoped we were all coming to the table for the same reason. Schools should not be considered a non-entity. You are dismantling a community. My child is not an experiment. Why is there such a rush to do this?"

Wittig said the restructuring will have no effect on property values. He felt the atmosphere at a K-1 Center would be safer since it would decrease the age difference between students in that school.

"The school board needs to look at our community as a whole," said Wittig. "It is about what the district needs. There is not one person on this board who doesn't think hard and deliberate on what is best for the district ... you are dead wrong that this board has an ulterior motive for this."

"I have no problem with things being done for the betterment of everybody, but this doesn't seem like it's being done for the betterment for everybody," said Lori Lewis, another parent. "Environment is everything in Rush, and it seems like we are being punished for it."

Robert Goetz felt there were other options that could be explored. One that was mentioned was bringing the Kindergarten and first graders to Rush while keeping the rest of the school as it is.

Wittig said that school boards are charged with being fiscally responsible, but when they attempt to do so, they are chastized for attempting to make changes, even when looking out for the overall welfare of the district.

"It's simplistic to say everyone will go where they want to go," explained Wittig. "We try to do the 'bestest with the leastest' and affect the fewest people negatively, but that is obviously not the case here. The administration will do what it can to make this right for those affected, but not everyone of 2,300 students will be happy. We've tried to be fair, but that obviously is not good enough."