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On the Brink: York City schools depend on volunteers for STEAM power


Check below for information on STEAM's production of "Alice in Wonderlande."

A middle-school boy in a white polo shirt bounced across the stage and shouted: "Let's burn those abs! Let's feel the pain, baby!"

His teachers didn't flinch. His classmates, hunched over laptops and giant poster board, kept working. Pastor Bob Tome nodded in approval.

This wasn't the class clown's attempt at capturing a laugh from his classmates.

This was a fairly normal Thursday afternoon scene at Ferguson K-8, where a group of ambitious students have spent the past few weeks putting the final touches on a play they've been rehearsing since December.

On Thursday and Friday, that same boy in the white polo shirt will once again bounce across stage. But this time, he'll be dressed much more like fitness icon Richard Simmons.

The quirky twist on "Alice in Wonderland" is one part of the York City School District's STEAM program — an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math — which serves about 100 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Students voluntarily enter the program, which offers a more rigorous curriculum and higher standards.

They also get to work with Tome, a man who's not on the district payroll but whose commitment to Ferguson students has earned him a key to the building.

Partnerships: Tome is among the most active volunteers supporting the district, but he's far from alone.

The list of community organizations and individuals contributing to the district with time and money is long and growing. In recent years, district officials have sought the help of more community groups as York City schools work to recover financially and academically.

The district's allies include nonprofits like The Salvation Army and Crispus Attucks; health groups like WellSpan and the Byrnes Health Education Center; higher-education institutions like HACC and York College; and religious organizations like Temple Beth Israel and the Living Word Church in Red Lion.

And, of course, Grace Fellowship — a North Codorus Township congregation that sent its pastor into York City nine years ago with a mission to serve the northwest neighborhood.

"A lot of times, in this part of the city, for whatever reason, people feel forgotten," Tome said. "I think it just helps them realize somebody cares."

At the beginning, Tome and other volunteers hosted a "parent cafe" once a month at the school.

His involvement kept growing to include assemblies, after-school programming and — most recently — his role as the director of the STEAM program's annual theatrical production.

A new role: Grace Fellowship members pay Tome to spend a significant part of his week at the school.

Tome said he's found a role for faith-based organizations in public schools, and he'd like to see more local churches get involved.

They might not have the money of a large congregation like Grace Fellowship, he said, but "they have the talent."

For example, Tome can coach students on how to memorize their lines and move across the stage. But he's not a vocal coach or a choreographer.

The artistic part of the STEAM program allows the students to apply what they've learned in classrooms to a long-term project, Tome said.

The actors are just one spoke on the wheel. STEAM students are also building the set, operating the sound system and using graphic-design skills to market the show.

They build confidence, and they learn to work as a team, Tome said.

"I just want them to know that they can do something," he said.

Getting ready: At a recent rehearsal, Jim Sieling stood back while a group of mostly sixth-graders operated a power saw — with safety equipment attached — to build part of the set.

"It's always test scores, test scores, test scores," Sieling, a social-studies teacher, said. "There's a lot more to education than just test scores."

Students are learning as they work, he said. And it's not just about dimensions and angles.

"When I make mistakes, they see how to work out the mistakes even their teacher makes," Sieling said. "They need to see that adults don't always make the right choices."

Meanwhile, on stage, students performed the courtroom scene. Alice has somehow become a defense lawyer.

The prosecutor — a rabbit — calls various "witnesses" to the stand to ask them trivia questions. It's punchline after punchline.

The rabbit asks a witness: "Who was the first president of the United States?"

"I don't know. George Jefferson?" the witness responds.

The play concludes, and Tome takes a moment to check on set design.

A few minutes later, they start all over again.

Show tickets: Ferguson K-8 students in the York City school's STEAM program will perform an urban version of "Alice in Wonderland" Thursday and Friday.

The event, which includes dinner, starts at 6 p.m at the school, 725 N. Newberry St. Tickets are $5.

For more information, call the school at (717) 849-1344.

— Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.