On the Brink: York City kids need 'more than just academics'
Ashley White eases into a seat, her eyes scanning for any signs of trouble in a room of two dozen 5-year-olds.
It's the first time she's sat down in hours.
To her right, a table of introverted kindergartners quietly sculpt towers out of wooden blocks. To her left, at the "kitchen," a giggling girl wrestles plastic food away from a classmate.
For the next 40 minutes or so, White will keep watch as little boys and little girls learn as little boys and little girls always have — through play.
These kids are among the youngest of about 5,400 students attending the York City School District, a school system struggling so profoundly in both finances and academics that the district recently found itself in the middle of a statewide debate over education reform.
Almost as suddenly as it emerged late last year, a state-backed plan to convert the district into privately operated charter schools has evaporated in recent weeks. Where anxiety once dominated the hallways, a sense of calm has settled in.
Eight weeks remain in the district's 2014-15 academic year. The district's future is unmapped.
But, in classrooms like White's at Hannah Penn K-8, the work to educate York City's children goes on.
So do the fundamental differences between a York City school and a school just a few miles away in York County's suburbs.
In York City, about 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to roughly 10 percent of York County's total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey.
For the nearly 12,000 children who live in the city, that percentage skyrockets to more than 50 percent living in poverty.
In White's classroom, the socioeconomic influences are subtle but present.
"A lot of these little ones come in with a lot of baggage for a 5-year-old," she said.
Kindergarten life: The day begins at 8 a.m., with a horde of bundled-up kindergartners parading into White's classroom and then promptly collapsing onto the carpet, where they wait for their teacher's instructions.
The smell of cigarette smoke follows them into the room, then slowly dissipates.
For the first of many times that day, a little boy in a red sweatshirt clings to his teacher's waist, basking in every bit of attention she is able to give.
The room falls silent for the playing of the national anthem, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. When the ritual is over, boys and girls line up at White's desk, each waiting for their turn to capture a moment of their teacher's attention.
One by one, in a soft voice, she coaxes them back to their assigned tables.
Breakfast arrives, a subsidized meal of packaged waffles, milk and fresh oranges that little hands struggle to peel. White encourages her students to help each other with the oranges, and some eagerly take the chance to show off a skill other classmates don't have.
The tables wiped clean of juice and pulp, White calls the kids to a color-coded rug. She uses YouTube videos of sing-along rhymes, projected on the classroom white board, to grab their attention.
"Awesome start to the morning," she tells them.
Crisis triggers turnover: White has established a deliberate routine for her students. Still, she said, "No day is typical."
Hers is one of three kindergarten classrooms at Hannah Penn, a school the district reopened this year to accommodate an influx of students from the former New Hope Academy Charter School.
But only the students in two of those classrooms — White's included — have had the luxury of consistency this year.
In the third classroom, White said, students have had six teachers this year — just one example of a districtwide crisis ironically triggered by the financial recovery process.
Not all of the kindergarten teachers were full-time teachers, Superintendent Eric Holmes said. Some were substitutes, he said.
But there's no avoiding the fact that, this year, teachers have been resigning at an alarming rate. Compared to 51 resignations and retirements during the same time period last year, 78 teachers have resigned or retired since July, Holmes said.
"I believe it was the lack of clarity. People need to feel secure in their careers and in their futures, and our situation did not allow for that to take place," he said. "And so people have to make the best decisions for their families and for their future finances."
For those who have stayed, "we can't appreciate their commitment enough," Holmes said.
The same issues have made it tough for the district to recruit new teachers. Meanwhile, substitute teachers are in short supply nationwide, Holmes said.
"Because of the lack of clarity over the last couple of years as to where the district was headed and whether or not we would have a district that didn't consist of charter schools, people have been reluctant to come and work for us," he said.
As teachers leave, "we have been finding ways to make sure that all of the kids are getting what they need," Holmes said.
Holmes invited "educators from around the state and from around the country who are interested in a challenging but very, very rewarding experience to come and work for" the district.
More than academics: At age 29, White is in her seventh year as an educator, her first with the York City School District.
She'd never planned to teach kindergarten students from the city. But that's where life led her, and it seems to fit. The job is rewarding, she said.
"These kids need a little bit more than just academics. I don't just teach them their ABCs," said White, a York College graduate. "I teach them how to be little human beings and care about each other."
With a few years of post-college life experience, White said she's learned not to limit herself.
"You have to go in with an open mind," she said.
White said her ultimate goal is to get her kids ready for first grade. But she can't ignore their other needs. So when a kid needs a hug, she gladly gives it.
"That could be their only hug that they get all day," she said.
White said many of her students are children of single moms. Others — whose parents are incarcerated or distracted by their own poor choices — are being raised by grandparents.
As mandated reporters, teachers cannot ignore possible signs of child abuse. However, things aren't always that simple — like the cigarette smoke that wafts into White's classroom most days.
"I can smell it on some of their folders. That's how heavy I know the smoke is in their house," she said. "It's one of those tricky things because it crosses the line of a lifestyle thing."
While exposure to cigarette smoke may fall into a gray area, the York City School District has always found ways to address a child's physical, social and emotional needs, said Holmes, who's been with the district since 1987.
For example, he said, district employees regularly supply warm clothes to kids who arrive at school under-dressed in cold weather.
New this year is a district partnership with Communities in Schools, a group that works to connect students and their families with services they need.
"Because of our population and because of the need that we see, we will do whatever's necessary to get our kids the resources to be successful," Holmes said. "In order for our kids to be successful in school, in the classroom, they have to have their social-emotional needs meet."
However, he said, "we've never been given the resources to do this type of work."
"We're an education system. We're supposed to teach kids the fundamentals and the basics and teach them how to be successful," Holmes said. "But we see the kids every day, and so we take on those roles and those responsibilities. Because we have to. We must."
Dance, followed by math: Kindergarten looks a lot different than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but the basic structure remains.
White's students are connecting their ability to count "1, 2, 3" to the real-life concept of numbers. White is teaching them the alphabet in sign language.
"We use our hands to communicate," she said to the kids. "How cool is that?"
To help them spell words like "play" and "do," White uses YouTube's cache of teaching videos. The kids, no doubt accustomed to a world of screens, eat it up.
Resources are lacking in the district, White said, so she uses what she can.
"If it's available, why reinvent the wheel?" she said. "It's one of those things where you have to get creative and find the resources so you can do some things outside the box."
The kids dance every day, mimicking the figures moving on White's modern-day chalkboard. Afterward, they do math.
"Studies have shown that movement and exercise keep the brain moving," White said. "I definitely can tell a difference in them after we (dance)."
People tend to think that kindergarten is nothing but playtime for students and babysitting time for the teacher, White said.
But then they visit and see 27 kids learning, including a handful who might exhibit extreme behaviors, she said.
Parents of those students sometimes get upset when their kids are recommended for intervention services, White said.
"They often blame it on the teacher and say the teacher's not doing enough," she said.
That happened recently with the mother of one of her students.
White said she invited the mother to her classroom.
After a few hours, the woman left with the understanding that White cannot always pay exclusive attention to her son.
The mom told White: "You really do have your hands full."
— Reach Erin James at firstname.lastname@example.org.