As 2012 draws to a close, the Whitehall City School District continues to focus on its $78 million construction project, reshaping the district as it forges headfirst into a very promising future.

As 2012 draws to a close, the Whitehall City School District continues to focus on its $78 million construction project, reshaping the district as it forges headfirst into a very promising future.

Unlike last year, however, the evolving venture does not cap the list of top stories for the year in Whitehall.

The district began to break free from its academic struggle as it finally earned an "effective" rating on the state report card.

It was a major goal of outgoing Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy, who can retire from the district knowing she accomplished what she had come to do some 13 years ago.

The top stories that made 2012 a year to remember are these:

District earns ODE's 'effective' rating

After more than a decade at the helm of the school district, Dobbert-Meloy was a little more than pleased to announce to her staff in late October that the district finally has earned an "effective" rating on the state report card -- equal to a B.

Facing copious challenges, including a highly mobile and economically disadvantaged population, a growing number of English as a Second Language learners and continual state funding cuts, the district was able to overcome its hurdles. With well-planned interventions and strategies implemented over the past several years, the district's efforts finally paid off.

"I think that everyone in the district was really excited about our progress this year," Dobbert-Meloy said upon learning the news. "We all know that everyone is working hard, and it is nice to know that what we are doing is really making a difference for our kids."

Because of numerous changes to the report card, this year's release was done piece-meal, leaving Whitehall officials reluctant to speculate on their final grade, which traditionally is published in August.

Whitehall had fallen to as far as an F on the state report card in 2002, bringing itself back up to a D and then hovering at about a C for the past several years.

Superintendent to retire

After some 13 years as superintendent in Whitehall, Dobbert-Meloy handed board members her letter of resignation in August, saying she would not leave until the district's construction project is completed and the final building, Whitehall-Yearling High School, has been dedicated.

The new school is slated for completion sometime next summer.

"While this letter is difficult to write, I feel that it is in the best interest of the district to formalize my plans for retirement in order that there will be ample time for you to select a new superintendent for the district and to make a smooth transition in leadership," she said in her letter to Whitehall's board members.

Prior to her move to Ohio, she worked in Michigan as both a teacher and superintendent.

Dobbert-Meloy will leave the district with academic growth and five new schools built and operating.

It is unusual for a superintendent to remain with a district for such a long time, but for Dobbert-Meloy called it a "pleasure."

Construction continues

Construction on the district's multi-million-dollar building project continues.

Rosemore Middle School and Kae Avenue Elementary School were the first to open their doors to students in early January without a hitch. District leaders called the transition to the new buildings a smooth one after an on-time delivery by Ruscilli Construction, which is building the new schools.

Two more welcomed students in September: Etna Road and Beechwood elementaries.

Work on the new Whitehall-Yearling High School, which is holding classes in the old Rosemore Middle School building, is slated for completion next summer.

As students began filling classrooms at the start of the school year, it became apparent to district leaders that there was not enough room to fit them all. Students continued to arrive and enrollment continued to increase throughout the fall months. Dobbert-Meloy and board members had been predicting overcrowding for some time.

At the close of the year, the OSFC began talks with the district, intending to help with the problem by adding new space. Plans for what that space would look like should come to fruition in 2013.

The new builds were made possible with the overwhelming approval of a 6.87-mill bond issue voters had approved in November 2008, as well as through funding from the OSFC. Local taxpayers are paying for 39 percent of the reconstruction project, and the state is funding the other 61 percent.

Dobbert-Meloy expects the overall project to come in a little more than $5.5 million under budget.

Treasurer leaves for Cleveland

On Jan. 12, board members voted unanimously to accept the resignation of longtime treasurer Tim Penton, who announced his retirement from the district after nearly 13 years of service.

Penton moved on to become treasurer in the Lakewood City School District, just outside Cleveland. He remained in Whitehall, though, until October, taking three months of vacation time before his actual retirement date, Dec. 19.

His announcement earlier this year was met with emotion and tears. Penton left the position with a number of accolades and state awards.

After nearly 13 years at his old post, Steve McAfee, former treasurer of the Logan Elm Local School District, was selected as Whitehall's new treasurer.

Kae Avenue principal Johnson retires

Yet another retirement this past year meant more change at the helm for Whitehall.

Whitehall school board members voted unanimously to approve former Kae Avenue Elementary School principal Berta Johnson's retirement in May. Johnson retired from the district in August after eight years at the helm of Kae Avenue Elementary School.

In an email, Johnson said she was retiring to spend time with family. Her daughter and son-in-law were expecting a baby soon, and she had hoped to help in her new role as grandmother.

In March, the school board limited the renewal of Johnson's contract, agreeing to extend it by one year rather than two following a half-hour session behind closed doors.

The board approved Alissa Putnam as Kae Avenue's new principal in July.

Board member charged with illegal concealed carry

Whitehall school board member Brandon Howard has been very tight-lipped about a felony charge he faces stemming from a National Night Out incident Aug. 7.

A Franklin County grand jury indicted Howard on Sept. 28 on a charge of illegally carrying a concealed weapon. The charge is a fourth-degree felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The indictment stems from a summertime incident in which Howard allegedly was carrying a loaded firearm during Whitehall's National Night Out celebration at John Bishop Park.

He was not arrested and surrendered the firearm to police.

Howard entered a plea of not guilty Oct. 2 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Drug-sniffing dogs used for first time

Whitehall City Schools officials began using drug-sniffing dogs this year as a deterrent to keep students from bringing drugs to school.

Board members witnessed a demonstration in April and were pleased with the results. Support for the dogs' use was unanimous among board members.

The dogs were brought into the high school twice this year. Each time, the school went into lockdown in an effort to facilitate the search.

Dobbert-Meloy said the decision to use the dogs is in response to increased drug activity in Franklin County but not necessarily in Whitehall.

"No one -- not even the superintendent -- knows how often or when they will be coming to the school, so I would think that would make anyone think twice about having anything in the building or in their vehicle that could be 'hit upon' by the dogs," Dobbert-Meloy said. "It is our plan to continue this practice, as it is one of the ways we can ensure a safe and productive learning environment for our students."

Accident sparks change

An 11-year-old student was struck and seriously injured by a vehicle while trying to cross Hamilton Road at Langley Avenue in November.

As the sixth-grader continues in his recovery, fellow classmates now can cross at the same intersection with more confidence, thanks to the persistence of the school's principal, Mark Trace.

The city of Columbus, which operates the traffic signal at Hamilton Road and Langley Avenue, added more time to the light in response to the accident so that children in the area could cross more safely.

The quick response and change were all thanks to the due diligence of Trace. Less than 24 hours after the accident, the signal was modified.

Trace said although he and other staff members frequently remind students about the dangers of crossing busy streets, the injury of a fellow student had a very sobering effect.

The student injured in the accident continues to recover but is back at school.

Etna Road Elementary School earns big cash

Etna Road Elementary School was one of only 50 schools in the nation to receive a $100,000 grant from Target in January.

The $100,000 grant was part of a $5 million donation from Target to K-12 schools in 31 states across the country, as part of the company's commitment to learning, which includes plans to give $1 billion toward education by the end of 2015.

Based on the nominations received, Target selected 48 schools and two school districts to receive grants. All grant recipients were chosen based on a number of factors, including Title I eligibility.

Technology, literacy, field trips and special programs are the target of the cash windfall at Etna Road.

The school's principal, Julie Kenney-Smith, told school board members earlier this year that after listening to teachers and students, the school decided to divvy up the majority of the money among four main areas.

Whitehall-Yearling High School slated for new track

Whitehall-Yearling High School will get a new track to match its new high school next year.

School board members voted unanimously this year to spend $207,821 to replace the old and outdated track, which has been in disrepair for years.

According to Mike Ferguson, the district's athletics director, because the track has been in such bad shape for such a long time, track meets no longer are held at Whitehall-Yearling. In fact, it has been about seven years, he said, since the district has hosted the Whitehall Invitational, which in previous years would attract athletes from throughout central Ohio.

Athletes have the district's new construction project to thank when the new track is installed, although that's not where the funding is coming from. Because of the new buildings, maintenance costs have dropped significantly in the district, freeing project funds usually set aside each year for more pressing needs.

Third-grade reading is worthy of mention

Finally, worthy of mention is the state's new Third Grade Reading Guarantee -- specifically, Whitehall's response to the new requirement.

The Third Grade Reading Guarantee is part of Senate Bill 316, which was approved last summer and mandates that districts retain students in third grade who do not meet set literacy benchmarks.

Whitehall City Schools officials say they are confident that they already are on the right track in laying the foundation for the state's new commitment.

According to Dobbert-Meloy, Whitehall's elementary school principals have been screening students and providing intense intervention for two years as part of the district's Ohio Improvement Process.

"We may actually be a little ahead of the game because we've already started putting these things in place," Dobbert-Meloy said earlier this year.

Districts are being given one year to put a plan into action that would address the new law.