On the Brink: York City schools' champion for the children


A young girl emerges from a closed-door meeting, her cheeks still wet with tears.

She walks slowly to her father, who's been waiting in the main office at McKinley K-8. Behind the girl is Dawn Squire, who leans in to deliver a message.

Squire tells the man his daughter needs more help to boost her disappointing grades. She suggests the district's after-school program and summer school.

"This is hurting her heart," Squire tells the father. "For her to be upset like this is a good thing. It tells me she cares."

Squire's official title at the York City school is family involvement coordinator, a job made possible by federal funding for which McKinley is eligible because of its status as a priority school.

She is a chauffeur for students who live far from the school and need a ride in cold weather. She's the tour guide for the dozens of families who enroll their students mid-year. She's the coordinator of a new group designed to get dads involved in school.

And she's an adult with an office in a school of 600 kids where students can go, close the door and unload their problems.

Yet, Squire insists McKinley would be "fine" without her.

"I would be the one that would be at a loss," she said.

Challenges: The mother of two step-children, two adopted children from South Africa and one biological child, Squire and her family arrived in York City eight years ago in search of diversity and stability.

They discovered something for which they were unprepared — poverty.

As former "military brats," Squire's family moved often. (To this day, she refuses to relinquish her phone number with a Hawaii area code.)

"I know how challenging it is to move when you have every support in the world," she said.

But the families she meets through McKinley usually move because they are poor. And they don't get an extra month's pay to haul their belongings from one place to another, she said.

District officials, Squire said, estimate that about 800 York City students are homeless at any given time. Kids that are living in a shelter or couch surfing count toward that number.

On the job since December, Squire said she wants to know more about this unfortunate phenomenon. She's hoping to collect data on transiency rates within York City next year.

In March alone, Squire welcomed 35 new families — some with multiple children — to McKinley.

The number of children who leave during the school year is harder to track, she said. About 600 students attend McKinley, but the number fluctuates constantly.

Squire estimates that about 25 percent of the school's students fall into the "highly transient" category, which means they move between three and four times a year.

Squire said most of the parents she encounters just want the best for their children. They might be poor, but their kids come to school clean and with their homework completed.

But, she said, about 10 percent of the parents are dealing with mental health or drug-addiction issues. And they tend to consume many of the school's resources, she said.

"We see a lot of people with absolutely no support system," Squire said. "And that's why we try to create this team atmosphere."

Support: She is "wonderfully curious," Squire told the father of a young girl who was floating around the colorful cafeteria in her new school.

The girl is a first-grader who'd been attending West York schools until a "forced move" brought the family to York City, the father, DaShawn Harrison, explained.

Harrison was nervous about sending his "baby girl" to McKinley.

As a child, he attended McKinley in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After a meeting and a tour with Squire, Harrison said the school "seems better."

Before the tour, Squire explained everything from the girl's lunch schedule to the dress code to the truancy policy. She warned Harrison about street-sweeping tickets on nearby streets and encouraged him to serve his daughter breakfast before school — even though the students get a light breakfast at school.

But Squire talked mostly to the girl, who clearly loved the attention.

"We're all here to support you, but you're the one who has to open up the books when you get home," Squire said.

She asked the little girl to recite with her a list of rules about arriving on time, completing homework, listening to instructions and asking questions.

If you encounter a "prickly-icky" person, tell an adult, Squire told her. Don't engage.

"You need to know that the adults in this building have your back," Squire said.

Squire told the girl's father that he is welcome to join his daughter for lunch any time — which earned a huge smile from the little girl.

Limits: When she hears words like "forced move," Squire sees an image of garbage bags packed with belongings in the middle of the night.

And it's probably not the first time. That's why, she said, she recites a sobering statistic to the parents of new students.

Every time a family moves for a negative reason — such as a job loss or custody battle — the child's chance of graduating is reduced by 10 percent.

Squire has brought a philosophy to the job: "Nothing for you without you."

Her office is decorated in Post-it notes, inspirational sayings and a rainbow of Hi-Liter colors.

Last year, Squire and her husband — concerned the district might be converted to charter schools — pulled their 14-year-old daughter out of Jackson K-8 and enrolled her in Logos Academy.

It was a "heartbreaking decision," Squire said.

"She was furious with us for about four months," she said, adding her daughter adjusted well after some time.

Two of the family's teenagers attend the York County School of Technology, and the other two are adults.

Even though her children no longer attend district schools, Squire is deeply bothered by the negative perception of York City schools.

Tears welled in her eyes as she talked about comments she's read about district children on social media sites.

Those negative messages affect the kids, who internalize feelings of worthlessness, she said.

District teachers also have taken a heavy dose of criticism in recent years. According to Squire, many of those teachers work 12-hour days. They provide clothes to kids and take food to their homes, she said.

"The give is there, almost to the point of breaking," Squire said.