Children gather at Goode Elementary School for a back-to-school event last week. The York City School District is making a concerted effort to convince the
Children gather at Goode Elementary School for a back-to-school event last week. The York City School District is making a concerted effort to convince the parents of charter school students to bring their children back to the district's schools. (John A. Pavoncello)

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Her self-imposed deadline just days away, the stress of a looming decision was visible on Shannon Foraker's face.

Two years ago, Foraker enrolled her daughter at the York Academy Regional Charter School, which draws students from the city and suburban districts, to avoid the large classroom sizes at Goode Elementary, now a York City K-8 school.

Those two years have been OK for 8-year-old Dayijahnae. But, Foraker said recently, she's been back on the fence about whether to enroll her fourth-grader in the academy or in the York City School District this year.

Dayijahnae was also torn.

She's excited about the reading and gardening clubs offered at Goode, where teachers and administrators hosted a back-to-school party earlier this month as part of a districtwide effort to build excitement about the upcoming school year and woo back charter students with promises of improvement.

But the 8-year-old's best friend is enrolled at the academy.

"It's a hard decision," Foraker said. "I want her to be happy, but I have to do what is right."

The future of the York City School District

may depend, at least partially, on the decisions of parents like Foraker.

Losing students: The district is on the cusp of its first year operating under a state-mandated recovery plan, developed and approved after the district was deemed to be in moderate financial distress last year.

That status is indisputably tied to one key fact: The district has been hemorrhaging students for more than a decade.

When a student enrolls in a charter school, the York City School District pays that student's tuition out of its budget.

Over the past 20 years, the district's enrollment peaked at 7,612 students in 1997-98.

Enrollment has steadily declined since, picking up speed in 2000, according to data provided by the state Department of Education.

That's the year Lincoln Charter School opened with 710 students. The York City School District's enrollment dropped from 7,485 in 1999-2000 to 6,718 in 2000-2001 -- a difference of 767 students.

Last year, the number of students enrolled in the district fell below 5,000 for the first time.

Since the 1993-94 school year, the district has seen its enrollment decrease by almost 30 percent.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the city's five charter schools -- New Hope Academy, Lincoln/Helen Thackston, Crispus Attucks YouthBuild and York Academy Regional -- is skyrocketing, especially as schools continue to add new grades.

New Hope Academy educated just 164 students when it opened for the 2007-2008 school year. Last year, the charter school's enrollment numbered 763 students.

Lincoln and Helen Thackston charter schools will serve grades K-11 beginning this fall. Last year, serving K-9, the schools educated more than 1,250 York City students.

At York Academy Regional, nearly 70 percent of about 370 students enrolled for the upcoming year are city residents.

The goal: In the midst of all this, the York City School District is aiming to not only plug its bleeding enrollment numbers but to actually add 250 current charter students to its ranks this year.

Their pitch has earned them at least one new student.

Foraker ultimately decided to enroll her daughter in Goode, bending to Dayijahnae's final request.

At Goode, the fourth-grader will have a shorter walk to school and access to an advanced reading program, Foraker said.

Days after finalizing enrollment, Foraker said she's confident in her decision.

"Regardless, my child's going to learn," she said.

Superintendent Eric Holmes said he knows the district may not reach its 250-student goal before school starts Monday.

Recruitment efforts will continue through the coming months, he said.

"Parents can transfer students any time they wish," Holmes said.

The district's decreasing enrollment cannot be attributed to fewer students living in the city, as the resident population has actually increased since the 1990s, Holmes said.

"I think parents are exercising their freedom of choice," he said. "It's our job to influence that decision in a positive way. That's up to us."

Funding problem, too: Two years ago, Gov. Tom Corbett recommended and the state Legislature approved a budget that discontinued subsidies to districts for charter-school tuition reimbursement. In York City, that decision immediately cut about $7 million from the district's budget, sending the district plunging toward financial disaster.

In 2011, the district's school board hiked taxes by more than 5 percent, froze wages, laid off workers and drastically reduced student programs to combat a $25 million budget deficit.

According to Holmes, district officials knew a day of financial reckoning was on the horizon, but the state's decision to pull the subsidies drastically sped up the process.

"It was coming, but it wasn't coming that quickly," he said.

Now in financial recovery, the district is attempting to re-create itself. If significant progress is not made this year, any of the district's seven schools could be converted to charter schools.

Parent's view: Sherry Massey said she's determined to see success at Goode, where 6-year-old Nasir Massey will begin his year as a first-grader Monday.

A graduate of the district, Sherry Massey has taken on the role of Goode's parent liaison.

With one year under her belt, Massey said she's aiming to add after-school sports, parent/child outings and fundraisers to the offerings at Goode. But she's had a hard time getting other parents involved.

"There's a lot of parent complaining, but parents don't want to put in the time to change anything," she said.

Nonetheless, Massey said, she's sticking with the city school district, which, she said, is more authentically diverse.

The stakes are also high for people like Randy James, the new principal at Goode, who's spent nearly 30 years as an educator for the district.

In early August, he and dozens of teachers hosted the back-to-school event complete with bouncy houses, snow cones and clowns juggling on the school's lawn.

"We're trying to change the face of the district. We're trying to become community-based," James said. "The city schools have to step up."

-- Erin James may also be reached at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.