HAZLE TWP. – Hazleton Area School District dropped a training program provided by Step by Step Learning, a company recently linked loosely to former Pittston Area Superintendent Ross Scarantino. Hazleton Area Superintendent Francis Antonelli confirmed Thursday that the contract was not renewed, and said it was because the program was not providing expected results.
"With money being very scarce, we have to make decisions about program effectiveness vs. cost effectiveness," Antonelli said, "and this just didn't add up for us."
Administrators at several school districts have said Scarantino has called them on behalf of Step by Step Learning, though his relationship with the company is unclear.
Wilkes-Barre Area recently used about half of a $623,733 literacy grant to contract with Step by Step, but Superintendent Jeff Namey said that, while Scarantino made an initial call suggesting the district consider the company, he was not involved in discussions with the company or the decision to contract with it.
Scarantino pleaded guilty to federal charges he accepted money from a contractor in exchange for helping the contractor land district work. He served 13 months in prison and is currently on two years supervised release. His plea led to the loss of his state pension and a substantial retirement payout he could have received from the district.
Antonelli said Scarantino never contacted him or the district. Nor would he need to. The district used federal stimulus money to contract with Step by Step Learning in 2009, under a prior administration, Antonelli said. When the stimulus money ran out, the district used federal money provided under Title I, a program aimed to aid disadvantaged students struggling with reading and literacy.
"To date, the program has cost us $3.25 million," Antonelli said. Not renewing the contract will save the district $234,000.
Step by Step Learning specializes in providing extensive training to teachers and administrators on how to improve literacy outcomes for early grades, focusing on pre-kindergarten through second grade. The goal is to catch and correct problems early, reducing the need for remediation and special education services later.
Antonelli said the district is not discontinuing the effort, but he believes enough teachers have been trained, and any additional training can be obtained from the Luzerne Intermediate Unit, a Kingston-based, state-formed agency providing a variety of services to area districts.
"We're not abandoning this approach," he said. "We just believe we can do it at no additional cost."
Step by Step Learning is a limited liability corporation based in Whitehall, and is not affiliated with Step by Step Inc., a local nonprofit that provides services for children and adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness.