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Panther Valley and Jim Thorpe students may be eligible for private school grants

Published July 27. 2012 05:01PM

Students in Panther Valley School District's middle and senior high schools and the Jim Thorpe Area School District's high school may be eligible for grants of up to $15,000 each to attend private schools under the state's $50 million Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program in the upcoming school year.

The program, in which businesses donate the money in return for tax credits, is for students in schools that scored in the bottom 15 percent of schools in combined math and reading in the 2010-2011 PSSA tests. More than 242,000 students in 74 districts may be eligible for the scholarships, according to the State Department of Education.

The Panther Valley middle and high schools were listed, along with Jim Thorpe Senior High School, as among those scoring the lowest on the tests.

Panther Valley Superintendent Rosemary Porembo spoke about the matter at a public school board meeting Thursday. Jim Thorpe Superintendent Barbara Conway said in a telephone interview Friday the school board expects to discuss the issue at length when it meets Monday.

Both superintendents acknowledge their schools' scores were low at the time the "snapshot" was taken by the state, and both said scores have also been improving since then. Both also cited the high numbers of 2012 graduates to be accepted for post-secondary education: Almost 86 percent at Panther Valley and 89 percent at Jim Thorpe.

"We're not proud. We need to work harder," Porembo said.

She said the lowest scores for the middle school ranged from 65.5 percent to 32 percent.

"Our middle school's score was at 64.3 percent. They missed it by 1.2 percent," she said.

The high school scores went from 10.1 percent to 55 percent. Panther Valley was at 54.2 percent, she said.

Porembo pointed out that the district had to give up after-school tutoring and a high school math position for lack of money. She outlined strategies aimed at improving the scores.

School Director David Hiles pointed out that the district has a large number of transient students, those who may only live there temporarily.

"We aren't educating those kids when they take these tests," he said.

Porembo compared the poverty rate in the Panther Valley with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Bethlehem and Reading. Poor students are typically at a disadvantage, she said.

Hiles said that "poorly educated people looking for a cheap place to live are not going to move to the Parkland or Council Rock school districts."

School Director Roy "Mickey" Angst said Panther Valley has the highest tax millage and lowest test scores in the county.

That prompted Business Manager Kenneth Marx to explain to Angst that having a high millage rate doesn't mean the district receives the most money, because the amount of revenue each mill generates in Panther Valley is less that what other districts receive.

In Jim Thorpe, Conway was also concerned that the ranking resulted from a single snapshot of test scores.

"In a small district like this, one, two or even three students can make the difference. The state is painting us with a broad brush of one year, one score," she said.

Conway too, acknowledged test scores were low in 2010-2011. But since then, they have increased by almost 30 points.

"This year, math scores are up 20 points. Reading is up 8 points. Our scores are going up," she said. "But it looks like no progress was made, because the state has taken a snapshot of one test in one year."

Conway is further frustrated by the lack of information from the state. She the school district received the ranking notification by email at the close of the business day on Tuesday, and that the message was not clear. She said she wrote back, asking for clarification, but has yet to receive a response.

The Department of Education released its report Wednesday. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the program into law earlier this month.

The scholarship range from a maximum of $8,500 for students without special needs, to $15,000 for special needs students.

Students are eligible for the scholarships if they meet certain requirements. Through June 30, 2013, their family incomes must not exceed $60,000 annually, plus $12,000 for each additional dependent family member. After that date, the figure rises to $75,000 annually, plus $12,000 for each dependent family member.

Students qualifying may use the money to enroll in private schools, or in public schools outside their home districts.

The program is administered by the state Department of Community and Economic Development. DCED also approves which schools in which the scholarship students enroll.

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