By EMMALEE C. TORISK
For the first time in more than a decade, elementary school students once again occupy the sun-soaked, wooden-floored classrooms of the former Manor Avenue School.
Classes resumed just a month ago in the half-century-old building, and its newest batch of students from the Mahoning County Educational Service Center already have been quite vocal about their feelings of ownership, said Katie Stack, who teaches a group of eight fourth- and fifth-graders.
“There’s a lot of positiveness from students with the move here,” Stack said. “It’s great to see how happy they are to be here, even from the little things, and that our changes helped to bring a smile to them.”
Earlier this year, the Struthers City School District entered into a partnership with the MCESC — one that entailed the county’s moving of three of its special education classrooms to the once-vacant building and leasing it from the school district, just in time for the present academic year. The MCESC has an additional 27 special education classrooms located in other districts.
This move provided the Manor building, which has for several years housed three preschool programs operated by the MCESC, with a full-time principal, secretary and social worker. Perhaps most significantly, it fostered the creation of a smaller, more family-like atmosphere, and gives students and staff the opportunity to “do more things together as a school,” Stack said, adding that students are especially fond of having their teachers join them each day in the gymnasium for lunch.
“It’s absolutely fabulous,” Stack said. “I hope we can stay here forever.”
Previously, all grade levels — all the way from kindergarteners to high-school seniors — were housed at the former St. Matthias School, which the county leased year to year from the Diocese of Youngstown.
This arrangement worked well enough, said building principal Jim Mayberry, but sometimes led to scheduling conflicts.
“Here, we’re not sharing with other grade levels, and there are a lot less headaches with scheduling,” Mayberry said. “Here, there’s none of, ‘Sorry, we can’t have gym today,’ or ‘Sorry, we can’t have recess today.’”
In the Manor building, elementary students have their own playground, gymnasium and cafeteria, shared only with preschoolers.
Norma Sheffield, the building’s social worker, said it’s difficult for children of any age not to have a space dedicated fully to them, adding that moving to the Manor building has been tremendously beneficial for the MCESC’s students. The move has given them a sense of normalcy and consistency.
“It’s nice for them to know that this is our building,” Sheffield said. “We can also focus more on the specific needs of the age group when they’re put together. It’s been a positive all around.”
Each classroom — staffed by a teacher and an educational assistant — has no more than 10 students, all of whom have been identified as having disabilities, said Linda Yosay, MCESC director of early childhood/pupil personnel. Students range from kindergarteners to sixth-graders.
She emphasized, too, that the Manor building — which was in “very nice shape” — is an ideal environment for the children, who can come to the school from not only Struthers but from 12 other local school districts.
Built in 1959, Manor Avenue School originally housed students in kindergarten through fourth grade before it merged with three other neighborhood schools to become Struthers Elementary School in 2002. Since then, the one-story building at 230 E. Manor Ave. hadn’t seen much use, said Dennis Spisak, a member of the Struthers Board of Education.
In 2003, though, the MCESC approached the city’s board of education about leasing the building for use as an alternative school, Spisak said, adding that concerned residents of the neighborhood prevented this proposal from becoming a reality. The alternative education program targeted students who were at risk of failure due to a number of factors, including poor attendance, multiple suspensions and potential expulsions.
The students now housed in the Manor building, however, are students who have had a diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder of a specific duration, Spisak said, adding that many of these students simply have trouble functioning or focusing in a so-called “regular classroom.”
“These kids are not troublemakers,” Spisak said. “The kids are well behaved, and all in all, it’s been a smooth transition, and a smooth start for everybody in that building.”