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Bigger Schools, More Buses

Walking to School a Memory
/ Source: The Standard-Speaker

Thomas Cipriano Sr. remembers walking to school as a boy.The Hazleton man also recalls running home for lunch and recess as well.All the kids did in those days, Cipriano said. Most city neighborhoods, small towns and villages boasted at least one school then, and people chose to live near them.

Times certainly changed since he was a boy, the former school director said.

The Hazleton Area School District today encompasses 248 square miles. Students who drive fill parking lots and side streets near the huge district's high school. And parents dropping off their children at school clog parking lots and main arteries around school complexes.

Few schools remain within neighborhoods and people, given the choice, no longer want to live near them, said Superintendent Geraldine Shepperson.

Many factors contributed to these changes. Aging schools and changing state laws are among them, she said.

Faced with state-mandated consolidation in the 1960s, school districts throughout the state merged. Small school districts lost their identity as the new districts swallowed them. Others lost both their identity and schools.

Pat Capece sat on the Hazleton Area School Board during the consolidation.

It wasn't pretty, he said.

Capece remembers 500 to 600 people coming to their meetings. Some wanted their schools to remain open. Others wanted schools closed. And some didn't care as long as their taxes didn't go up, he said.

The new Hazleton Area district enrolled 13,000 students and inherited 30 buildings, Capece said. The board razed or sold old schools in the city, while it closed the smallest schools in the outlying villages, he said.

"Some schools had to be closed," he said. "We had to consolidate."

New schools went up in their place, said former school director Vic Piazzi of Freeland. Hazle, McAdoo-Kelayres and Freeland elementary schools took the place of the smaller, less populated schools, he said.

Capece saw those schools and Heights-Terrace Elementary in Hazleton built during his tenure on the board, he said. He also saw through the building of the new central high school in Maple Manor, where the board secured a large tract of land for a new stadium and future growth, Capece said.

The new stadium never developed, because city officials feared the lights would interfere with the Hazleton Municipal Airport, a short distance away, he said.

"It was all part of the package," Capece said.

Some small schools escaped consolidation initially only to deal with the problem later. Conyngham and Sugarloaf Township lost their schools in 1991 when the Valley Elementary opened, Piazzi said.

All the new schools went up in the region's most populated areas, said former West Hazleton High School principal Francis X. Antonelli.

"The schools followed the people," he said. "You could see the justice of it."

The state won't reimburse a district for a school building where there aren't any people, Antonelli said. It was an idea that just wouldn't sell, he said.

When the last of the consolidated schools, Hazleton Area High School, opened in 1992, the district found itself with a mix of old and new buildings, Shepperson said.

Given the choice, parents wanted to send their children to one of the new schools, she said. But parents didn't have a choice in most cases, Shepperson said.

Strict, geographic boundaries dictated where students went to school. Some students went to state-of-the-art facilities, while others went to aging schools built decades earlier.

Shepperson dealt with the inequity daily, she said. Newcomers to the area visited her office, and the schools in areas they considered moving into, she said.

"I'd never send my child to that school," parents told her time and time again, she said. "Then, they'd look to the next building."

Areas with new schools, such as Conyngham and Sugarloaf, saw growth as more people moved within their boundaries, Shepperson said.

The district needed to correct the imbalance, she said. And in 1995, it began another consolidation and building program, known as Project 2000 for the year of its intended completion, Shepperson said.

The project eliminated two junior high schools and three elementary schools, while creating five elementary/middle schools. Freeland and Hazleton junior high schools and A.D. Thomas, Locust Street and E.A. Encke elementary schools - all neighborhood schools - closed.

People in those neighborhoods didn't protest the closings, Shepperson said. Times changed from just 20 years earlier when parents mobbed school board meetings following the jointure, she said.

Busing and the proliferation of cars contributed to that change, Shepperson said. Few students still walk to school, and many parents drop their children off at the school. Still others ride buses or drive, she said.

"People who live three blocks from school don't walk," she said. "They drive. People who chose to live in the suburbs, their children are bused."

Parents no longer want to live near schools, Shepperson said. Schools bring more traffic, noise and litter into a neighborhood, she said.

"There are a lot of disadvantages to living near a school," she said. "People want peace and quiet."

But Shepperson, like Cipriano, remembers the days when homes near schools were prized real estate. She and her husband bought a home close to Locust Street School, she said.

"People lived close to schools. That's why I lived where I did," Shepperson said. "So my daughter could walk to school.

"With busing, it doesn't matter where you live," she said.