York City school district making strides toward recovery

Jessica Schladebeck

At this time last year, the York City School District was actively fighting to remain a public institution.

Now, as it reviews its progress in a state-mandated recovery plan, student achievement and communication rank high on its list of priorities.

The background: The district at the time had been in recovery status for two years — its fiscal problems had been exacerbated by state budget cuts — and the state Department of Education's leadership under then-Gov. Tom Corbett, had just won a court battle that stripped the school board of it's power and passed it over to local businessman David Meckley, who was serving as the district's state-appointed chief financial recovery officer.

Meckley's plan for the district called for a full conversion to charter schools, but an appeals court overturned the state takeover, and Meckley resigned as chief recovery officer, saying he would be unable to move the district forward because newly elected Gov. Tom Wolf opposed the charter option. Meckley was replaced by Carol Saylor, who was tasked with updating the district's recovery plan.

"When the leadership changed, when the state changed their focus with the district and started looking more at the curriculum as well as our financial state, that's when things started to take hold for us," said school board president Margie Orr.

A new plan: York City schools have several obstacles to overcome on the road to recovery, including low test scores and financial woes. In July, Moody's Investor Service downgraded eight Pennsylvania school districts, York City among them, to a junk bond rating category in its report “Small Group of Troubled Pennsylvania Schools Unlikely to Recover Soon.”

York City schools have also under-performed on standardized tests, and on this year's PSSA exam had less than a quarter of its test-takers scoring proficient or higher in English and even fewer doing so in math.

Saylor over the summer walked the school board through the detailed findings of a Mass Insight report, an analytical look at district data that outlined findings and recommendations key to overcoming the obstacles.

A four-phase plan was developed based on the report, and Saylor said during the board's last meeting of the year that the district is making strides in completing some of the outlined initiatives.

Communication: The city school district has been battling a perception of "incompetence," said district spokeswoman Erin James, and adjusting that impression within the community is among one of several initiatives in the first phase of the district's recovery plan.

James, who was hired this past summer, has been working to bolster the district's social media presence to keep the community abreast of district improvements. She also sends out a weekly memo — which in addition to going out to administration and staff is also delivered to the state Department of Education — to foster better internal communication.

The school district is updating its website, as well, James said.

Superintendent Eric Holmes said perception will change over time, "once there's a level of success that is both visible and consistent."

Early stages: A key initiative to help students succeed is updating the district's curriculum to align grade levels and state standards, Saylor said, noting a committee has been discussing the overhaul, which should be complete by this summer.

The district at the start of the school year also rolled out its Freshman Academy at William Penn High School, a program designed to ease the transition between middle and high school. In addition to the academy, freshmen will also benefit from the new mentoring program, which pairs ninth-grade students with a local role model.

Both initiatives, parts of first phase of the recovery plan, will be under review with the intention of growing and improving them in the future, Saylor said.

Under phase one, the district has also taken steps to stabilize its leadership. All principals and assistant principals have agreed to remain with York City for the next three to four years to help the district retain a consistent administration during the recovery process. The school board at the end of October also extended Holmes' contract for another three years at $143,500 annually, a 2.5 percent increase.

Next steps: Leadership is as important as stability when it comes to the district's administrators, Saylor said. Therefore, phase two of  the recovery plan also calls for ongoing training for those in key positions.

For example, William Penn Principal Brandon Carter this week will travel to a high school in Reading that has overcome obstacles similar to those York City is currently facing.

Also as a part of phase two, WestEd, a nonprofit education research firm, is visiting the city schools to talk to staff about the academic data they will be collecting to develop a plan for the upcoming school year. This is to ensure the data collected is being used in the most productive way.

The director of educational technology at the Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, Jared Mader, will also be evaluating the district's technology, an initiative under phase three.

As a part of phase four, members of the school board will receive  training in the coming weeks. New board member Juanita Kirkland recently attended new board member training, and Orr in January will attend board president training in Harrisburg.

The district has also organized a committee to discuss the implementation of teacher looping — when an instructor stays with a group for more than one year — and Saylor said they're hoping to begin and review the program in the upcoming school year.

Educating kids: At the top of Orr's to-do list is to look into the development of additional programs for students and "doing a better job in getting our kids educated," she said. "Of course finances are a concern, but these children need to come out of school knowing how to read and write, how to do math."

Developing new programs are on hold for the most part, pending a state budget but the district is "moving along," she said.

Orr said the recovery plan has the district back on track.

"My perception is that the district is moving in the right direction," she said. "We have achieved so many partnerships and are working hard to grow that relationship with our community."

Funding: The financial aspect of the recovery plan has yet to be updated because of the late state budget, Saylor said, noting it would not make sense to update the plan without knowing the exact amount of state funding.

"But we'll have an operating deficit, plain and simple," Saylor said of the school's finances. This becomes clear when considering factors including current state funding, the current charter school funding formula and the potential of opening more charter schools. Under the charter school funding formula, charter schools are to receive a payment from the home district of its enrolled students.

Saylor noted there are some items that could create savings including the review of the overlap between English Language Learners and Special Education students and addressing cyber school deficiencies.

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.