On the Brink: Students as part of solution in York City schools
Do not tell Tania Collazo she cannot do something.
She does not like it, and she will prove you wrong.
On Thursday, Collazo and about 200 of her classmates will graduate from a York County high school in a York County school district plagued as much by its reputation as by its financial struggles, low standardized test scores, high rate of poverty among students and a high-profile political drama that directly affected the Class of 2015's high-school years.
Collazo, 18, is the president of that class.
She also is the youngest of six siblings, all of whom she saw attend and graduate from a William Penn Senior High School far different from the one that greeted her and her classmates back in 2011.
That was the year the York City School District school board faced a $25 million budget deficit, caused mostly by a major drop in expected state funding.
That was the year the school board cut 140 staff positions, drastically reduced the district's music, library, gym and arts programs and closed the high school's deteriorating pool. Completely eliminated was the high school's popular performing-arts program.
Fast forward to the Class of 2015's senior year.
During the later months of 2014 and the early part of 2015, former Gov. Tom Corbett's administration tried to seize control of the district — catapulting teachers, administrators, parents and students into a mid-year political drama that threatened the very existence of the York City School District.
Many staff members, including one of Collazo's favorite teachers, left the district this year to dodge the potential state takeover and conversion to charter schools.
In her role as class president, Collazo said she has tried to motivate her classmates "to not accept 'no' all the time."
"We get told that a lot," she said.
Determination: Collazo is one of the lucky ones.
She said her parents, who learned English after moving to York City from Puerto Rico many years ago, "always told me that I was so intelligent, so smart, that I could do whatever I wanted."
Teachers also noticed Collazo's potential and placed her in high-achieving classes as far back as elementary school.
But Collazo, who received her entire K-12 education in York City schools, also has encountered the doubters.
Just a few months ago, she scheduled a physical required by a new job. She told the doctor she was planning to major in biology.
"He literally said I was going to waste my money. He said that I wouldn't be successful and that biology majors are like a dime a dozen," she said. "I was kind of insulted, and he made me want to do it even more. I don't like being doubted. I feel like I have a lot of potential."
That self-esteem is hardly commonplace among her classmates, Collazo said.
"Once we feel insulted, the students at our school give up," she said. "That's why scores are low. It's not because we have dumb kids. It's because they're not motivated."
And, in many cases, students are not motivated because the district and the city are caught in a cycle of low expectations, Collazo said.
The situation is complicated by a high rate of poverty and urban crime, and some students find themselves more focused on family and work, she said.
"They're worried about that stuff over homework, and it kind of makes sense," she said.
Many York City students "didn't get the support that I got," she said.
Moving on: The senioritis was palpable in Jill Anderson's classroom of college-level English students.
Just two weeks of school were between York High's seniors and their graduation.
The pressure of GPAs and college acceptance letters had begun to subside, making room for the stress of graduation parties and prom dresses.
Anderson, who will retire after this year, said she decided to finish the semester with a focus on public speaking — a requirement at most colleges and yet another course cut years ago from the William Penn curriculum.
She gave the students a choice of delivering a eulogy or a celebratory speech. Hilarity ensued.
Adulthood, just around the corner, found its way into 18-year-old Abigail Davila-Aragones' celebration speech.
The soon-to-be East Stroudsburg University student decided to celebrate the "marriage" of two classmates, pretending the groom was her brother.
She channeled every wedding speech theme. She called on another classmate — her "father" — to join her in the toast.
Darren Stephens wasted no time delivering an imaginary guilt trip to his "son," C.J. Boxley.
"I'm telling you now, son ... you owe me a lot of money," Stephens said.
Collazo delivered a eulogy speech but still managed to inject humor into her remembrance of Franklin, her pet turtle.
"I had to figure out if he was a boy or a girl," Collazo said, pretending to choke up and pull tissues from a box. "I named him Franklin. And then, if he was a girl, I was going to spell it with a 'y.'"
(Franklin is alive and well, by the way.)
For Collazo, the public-speaking practice couldn't have come at a better time.
"I have to give a speech at graduation," she said. "I am so scared."
Listen to us: The threat of a state takeover and a charter conversion has passed. The York City School District, at least for now, is intact.
In a few months, another school year will begin.
But Collazo will be at Albright College, where she's committed to studying biology and Spanish.
Despite her Puerto Rican heritage and her ability to understand spoken Spanish, Collazo lacks confidence in her ability to converse in her parents' native language.
She's determined to find her voice in Spanish.
In a few weeks, Collazo will leave her career as a York City student behind. Her stake in the district's transformation goals will end.
She will take with her the perspective of a student — a high-achieving student — who rarely felt heard by the adults who ran her schools.
If the York City School District is going to overcome its challenges, then its leaders need to include students in that process, Collazo said.
Students need consistency — something the Class of 2015 has sorely lacked, she said.
"I feel like they need to listen to our opinion," Collazo said.