HERMITAGE — When students return to class Tuesday in Hermitage School District, they’ll find a few changes.

One of those differences will impact special needs students who will no longer have to be transferred to outside programs to meet educational requirements. Instead, Karen A. Ionta Elementary School will have a new special needs classroom for special needs students in kindergarten through seventh grades.

“We have always had those programs available to us, but we’ve never had a classroom in the district,” Bell said.

Previously, Hermitage students with special needs attended programs offered at other area school districts or Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV in Grove City.

By offering an in-house program, the Hermitage School District can save funds normally used for off-site programs and transportation, and allow children to remain with fellow students and teachers in the district instead attending classes away from home, Bell said.

“A school district is a huge part of the community, so to offer specialized programming like this for students in their community’s school with their peers — it’s a great step forward,” he said.

Hermitage, which opens the 2019-20 school year Tuesday, is the first district in Mercer County to resume classes. Mercer starts the year Wednesday, followed by Commodore Perry, Greenville and Lakeview on Thursday.

Another project — Hickory High School’s auditorium stage — won’t be completed by the start of the year, but the work won’t be disruptive. Bell said the stage doesn’t see much use at the beginning of the school year. But activity quickly picks up after the first couple of months, with the senior class play in the fall, high school musical in the spring and weekend rentals by local dance studios for dance recitals.

Work will be finished by then, he said.

The stage hasn’t been renovated since the late 1990s and Bell said the stage’s tongue-and-groove fir flooring was showing signs of age, with pieces snapping off and gaps. The district has replaced 5,000 square feet of the stage with maple tongue-and-groove flooring, with work expected to be completed by the end of September.

“There is a front apron of stained light maple that transitions to a matte black finish, but the fir has not held up, so we selected to go with a hardwood finish,” he said.

Bell said he expects parents to continue registering children as the school year begins, but enrollment remain around 2,100 students, in line with totals from previous years.

“It’s been pretty steady over the past 10 years,” he said.

Hickory High School has 69 student clubs including Aevidum, a new club for students at Delahunty Middle School. The club, which has “We’ve got your back” as a slogan, peer-group organization for members to support fellow students, Bell said.

The program is being implemented county-wide under the Mercer County Communities that Care umbrella, with the club aimed specifically at students in sixth and seventh grades, Bell said.

“It’s a very important transition period for those students and there are several clubs like that at the high school, so we wanted to get the program started at middle school,” he said.

Hermitage also has added Pre-K Counts, a state-funded preschool program, at Artman Elementary School. The program was made possible through a grant received by Mercer County Head Start, who will partner with Hermitage School District.

Mercer County Head Start will provide staff and curriculum. Bell said the preschool will use the school’s facilities, such as a kindergarten-age-specific playground.

“It caps at around 15 or 16 students, and last I heard there was about 12 students enrolled, so we anticipate it being full this year,” he said.

Like David L. Dye on Facebook or email him at ddye@sharonherald.com.