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York City schools Superintendent Eric Holmes visited The York Dispatch Thursday to discuss the state of the district and its future.

The district has faced hard times the past few years as the student population dwindled due to competition from charter schools that sucked funding and students away from the traditional public schools.

Here are five big points from the meeting:

High school: Incoming ninth-graders at William Penn Senior High School this year are taking part in a new academy-based program as part of a plan to restructure teaching at the school, Holmes said.

"They are learning the process of being a high school student," he said, adding students are offered tutoring during the school day as part of an effort to make them more successful.

The students will then select one of three to five programs, such as the arts, health and science, they are considering as a career when they enter 10th grade.

"We want the students to have a focus in high school," Holmes said. "We want kids to graduate from high school with a clear understanding of what they want to do."

Students would be able to change from one area to another if they so choose, he said.

K-8: Change is also coming to the district's seven kindergarten-through-eighth grade schools.

The district will put in place a "looping" concept starting next school year and will have it fully up and running for the 2017-18 school year, he said.

A teacher who teaches a group of first-graders will follow the students to the second grade and will teach them there. The same will happen at the third- and fourth-, fifth- and sixth- and seventh- and eighth-grade levels, Holmes said.

New this year, the district brought back physical education, music and foreign language classes to the schools.

"We're excited about offering those courses to our students again," Holmes said.

Students are also going to school for an extra hour of each day as part of a new contract with teachers in which they agreed to stay an extra 40 minutes each day, he said.

Teacher attendance: One problem the district needs to address is the 88 percent teacher attendance rating, Holmes said.

"No excuses," Holmes said "That number is unacceptable and we need to change it."

Holmes said district officials are working with the teachers' union to increase attendance.

"We have to figure out a way to increase it and increase it this year," he said. "Teachers are the backbone of what we do. We need them there."

Finances: The district was able to bring back the K-8 classes, and to fill other positions partially because of the influx of charter school students returning to district after New Hope Academy was shuttered last year, Holmes said.

He estimated 300 to 400 New Hope students returned to the district, bringing with them public funds once destined for the academy.

The district is also banking on receiving additional funding as part of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed budget, he said.

All told, the district could see a $5.6 million increase in funding over last year but has planned to received half that as GOP lawmakers and Wolf are in a locked-horns battle over the budget, Holmes said.

"We're fine for the time being," Holmes said of the impasse, adding finances could get tight if it lasts until October or November.

The district โ€” which the state deemed financially distressed in 2012 โ€” has been improving financially over the years and hasn't been distressed for two years, he said.

As such, Holmes said he doesn't see a need to increase taxes for the foreseeable future.

District chief recovery officer Carol Saylor will remain on the job until the district improves on the academic front.

Information: A recently released report on the district showed the district needs to improve on communicating with parents.

The district last month hired former York Dispatch reporter Erin James to serve as the district's information specialist, at a salary of $50,400 per year. One of her first tasks is to improve the district's website, Holmes said.

She is also producing monthly newsletters for parents, as well as weekly internal newsletters to let staff know what's going on in other schools in the district.

"Communication was an issue," Holmes said. "We are trying to address that through this position."

โ€” Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.

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