By HEATHER ZIEGLER, For The Times Leader
Even with the local area's changing demographics, the school systems that educate our children - public, private, parochial - do their jobs when it comes to preparing students for a lifetime of learning.
Public schools throughout the Ohio Valley have faced many challenges including dropping population, reduced government funding and fewer levy rate increases approved by voters. Despite the obstacles, schools in East Ohio maintain more school districts than their counterparts in West Virginia, who operate on a county basis instead of a district.
The student body at St. Michael Parish School in Wheeling attend weekly Mass together.
For example, in Ohio County, one superintendent and one school board govern the county system. In Belmont County, seven superintendents and their boards - one for each school district - and a county superintendent and board run the public education system.
The public school system in Ohio County includes a well-rounded curriculum that boasts academic, athletic and fine arts accomplishments. Ohio County Schools prides itself on being able to offer students courses in any field they choose to pursue, said Ohio County School Deputy Superintendent Dianna Vargo.
And Wheeling Park High School not only prepares students for a higher education, it is where secondary education begins for some students through the "College At Park" program.
In that program, students earn actual college credit while attending high school.
Vargo, who will assume the superintendent's post in the 2012-13 school year, said there are 300 courses offered at Wheeling Park High School that include honors and Advanced Placement programs, career and technical programs and school-to-work programs for students with special needs.
Ohio County Schools begins preparing its students for secondary education in its Universal Pre-K program. That is where the school system's world language program begins. And, the Pre-K program has been so successful that it has expanded in each year of its eight years in existence.
Eighteen Ohio County sites offer 3- and 4-year-old students a program that meets their social, cognitive, linguistic, emotional, cultural and physical needs. There are 276 students enrolled in the Pre-K program this school year.
The middle schools in Ohio County offer high school credit and offer a wide variety of athletics, clubs and service programs.
"The advanced placement courses are so valuable to our students, especially when they are applying to colleges and universities. The college administrators see the rigorous courses these students have taken, and it often results in scholarships," Vargo said. "The AP courses at Wheeling Park are challenging and an exciting part of our curriculum."
The J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center will provide all staff and students with a 21st-century venue for teaching and learning. It will serve as the cultural hub for expansion of the arts within Ohio County Schools and be an extension of the classroom for art, music, theater, speech, television and radio students. The Performing Arts Center will be available to elementary, middle and high school students and to groups in the community.
Also locally, the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston continues its strong presence throughout the state with a number of parochial schools for parents and their children.
The mission of Catholic schools in West Virginia explains its educational approach. "The Catholic school communities of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston are committed to providing quality education in the Catholic tradition for all students in a nurturing, Christ-centered environment. We accompany families in challenging children to recognize, develop and share their God-given gifts and talents."
The Catholic faith is all about reaching out to the less fortunate and giving back to the local community, so many of the educational pursuits of the 18 elementary schools, seven high schools and one university in the diocese all emphasize service to others, especially to the poor.
Students from Wheeling Central Catholic High School are regular visitors to the 18th Street Neighborhood Center in Wheeling where they assist with meals and conduct major food drives to help those in need.
"Catholic Schools in the Northern Panhandle fill a niche because they offer very small classes and individualized instruction, all under the mantle of sharing lived Gospel values in our school communities," said Vincent de Paul Schmidt, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Schmidt added that in addition to the essential faith component, the strengths of Catholic schools begin with the quality, dedication and level of experience of faculty and staff.
"Another strength would be the wide scope of our curriculum, which allows us to be flexible to help meet our student achievement needs," Schmidt said.
"We are currently strong in our educational technologies, and this will only be enhanced through new ground-breaking academic programs which will include iPads, mobile technology and other online resources that will drive student achievement," he said.
Schmidt said that at the core of strengths is our lived faith within our school communities, shared each day with others.
Upcoming plans for progress include looking to create a statewide, systemic framework for our schools, where collaboration is high among all regions of the state with the net result being a "consistency of system," which will allow students to be in an environment that fosters high expectations, strong personal growth and outstanding academic achievement.
Schmidt believes that the ongoing relationship between Catholic elementary schools and secondary schools with Wheeling Jesuit University is very promising.
"Particularly in the Northern Panhandle, Catholic Schools and WJU have a shared vision for the future of Catholic education - to continue to provide a seamless transition between all elements of the Catholic school system, from birth through post graduate education," Schmidt said.
"This relationship will ensure that our youngest Catholic parishioners will start and develop fully in an educational system that highlights student achievement, personal growth and most importantly a rich development in faith and moral character working hand in glove with families to make the strongest community possible."
Schmidt said that a strong curriculum, service learning and gospel values team up to provide an outstanding experience for Catholic school students. "It's easy to say that two plus two is four no matter what school you attend, so what happens within the walls of a Catholic school is why people are willing to pay tuition for a Catholic education."
"Our parents have high expectations for outstanding student achievement and full development of the child within the faith community as a child of Christ."
At the Speiro Academy in Bridgeport and Wheeling, Principal Susan Cline said an education in the fine arts, as well as faith-based curriculum, is prompting parents to choose her school.
Speiro focuses on fine arts. The school offers strings, dance, and choir classes for no extra charge, plus private voice, ballet, and music lessons at a reduced cost, Cline said.
Speiro's school year culminates in a "Grand Finale," with all students participating in recitals for song and dance, speech, and drama.
The Lyceum Academy in North Wheeling offers core courses such as math, science, literature, history and art, but also requires at least a year of violin lessons and foreign languages such as ancient Greek, Latin, German and Arabic. All girls start their morning with fencing lessons, followed by breakfast and then classes. At the end of the day they practice rowing, either indoors on machines, on Belmont Lake at Barkcamp State Park or on the Ohio River.