'Substantial progress' in York City schools, education firm says

Davis Elementary teacher Angie Harman has her first day of class with her 'Loop' students, Monday, August 22, 2016. Part of the pilot program at York City Schools, Harman and other third and fourth grade teachers have the same students for two years. John A. Pavoncello photo

York City School District has made "substantial progress" on its financial recovery plan, according to a nonprofit education firm.

Boston-based Mass Insight Education, which helped inform the district's state-mandated plan to free schools from moderate recovery status, returned to city schools in March to re-evaluate.

"On nearly every element of the plan, the district and the individual schools have done what they committed to doing, and in most cases, there is evidence that the work has made a difference," according to the firm's report.

Mass Insight pointed out the leadership's commitment to following the recovery plan without trying to take on other initiatives, citing trust from faculty, staff and administration.

More:York City schools: End of state oversight near?

Teachers are recognizing, "It's going to take a little time," but "we're on the right track," the firm's April report states, while also noting that some community leaders still question whether the district is progressing.

Lack of funding has held the district back in some areas, chief recovery officer Carol Saylor acknowledged, such as expanding Communities in Schools, which it has partially completed — moving from five to six schools, with a seventh, Ferguson K-8, planned in 2018-19.

But annual funding increases from the state have made an impact.

The state initiated a new funding formula two years ago, and Gov. Tom Wolf gave an additional funding increase that year and each year since.

"New state funding resulting from the 2016-17 increase has been used to pay for nearly all of the Recovery Plan priorities," according to the report, which notes shifted federal funds have helped.

The current plan was implemented in 2015, with a revision in 2016, and is due to expire in June 2019.

More: Amended recovery plan shifts focus to York City district structure

Progress: Of the recovery plan's 23 strategies, 11 have been fully implemented and 12 are moving toward completion, according to district Superintendent Eric Holmes.

The amended York City School District recovery plan includes a graph of many of the district's priorities plots them by urgency and ease of implementation.

Mass Insight noted some of the following changes in its report.

The district has implemented leadership coaching for principals and training for the school board, resulting in more stable school leadership, with "a substantial increase in teacher retention."

Teacher looping, which allows students to stay with the same teachers for two consecutive years, was enacted in all K-8 buildings in 2017-18.

The Freshman Academy program has reduced the number of students with one or more course failures from 35 percent to 15 percent in 2016-17. And behavior incidents were reduced by 47 percent.

"Research from across the country indicates that students who pass their freshman year courses graduate from high school at much higher rates than students with freshman course failures," the report states.

The school also is starting to develop a credit recovery plan to help failing students catch up.

The district's K-12 English language arts and math curricula was described as the first solid curriculum in York City in 25 years, according to the report.

Holmes stated that PSSA performance assessments show students are growing academically, with districtwide growth for math and ELA in grades four through eight exceeding the state standard in 2017.

More:State report card: York City schools improving, most other districts see drop

But special education and English learner studies continue to be in progress.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland after hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Caribbean island in August and September. The week of Oct. 30 to Nov. 6 saw 50 students from the island enroll in York City schools, an official said at the time.

"This year, an influx of Puerto Rican students and referrals by parents stretched resources," the report states.

A new office has streamlined the enrollment process but "has had no impact on reducing the number of student transfers between schools," according to Mass Insight.

Next steps: Over the next year, the report states, the district can begin planning a shift from curricular coaching to instructional coaching, moving from "what we teach” to “how we teach."

Another goal within the plan is to have all school principals complete the University of Virginia development program — the top in the nation — and get teachers more involved in the development of curriculum and assessments.

The district now has a behavioral specialist and social worker in every school, bringing behavior incidents down across the district, but the report states that these incidents still interfere with instruction.

The graduation rate in William Penn dropped from 82 percent in the 2014-15 school year to 70 percent in the 2016-17 school year, according to the report, but in most schools, behavior has been improved thanks to measures such as replacement of in-school suspensions with restorative justice practices. 

School board President Margie Orr said one of the changes she's most proud of is the STEAM Academy, located at Edgar Fahs Smith Middle School, which will accept ninth-graders next year, adding an additional grade level each year. 

York City School Board President Margie Orr, left, is introduced to Jackie Dell-Shearer, Martin Library after school program manager, by Paula Gilbert, center, the library's director of youth services, during a tour Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. The school will be open for classes starting Monday, Aug. 21, for students in grades 3-8 for the new school year. Bill Kalina photo

More:Students, parents get first look at Smith STEAM Academy

More:York City district prepares to take about 500 Thackston students a year early

"We implement programs that move our children forward," Orr said, citing the importance of keeping students in the district instead of moving them to charter schools.

Almost all schools have dropped in enrollment over the last three years, but the district is expecting a jump in enrollment with the closing of one or more charter schools in the fall.

“The most ambitious school recovery plan in Pennsylvania history is working," Holmes stated in an April 27 statement on the district website, while recognizing that there is a much more to be done.