Helen Thackston appoints interim principal amid problems

Junior Gonzalez
  • Melissa Achuff was appointed interim principal during an executive session earlier this month.
  • Principal Denise Butts is officially on leave from the charter school.
  • Board members were concerned about student grades and attendance in order to pursue community service projects.

Helen Thackston Charter School's principal is on a leave of absence, and the school board has hired an interim replacement — the latest staff shake-ups as the embattled school fights to keep its charter and as a higher-than-normal number of its students are reportedly transferring to the York City School District.

Helen Thackston Charter School, 625 E. Philadelphia St., York. Amanda J. Cain photo

The hiring of Melissa Achuff to temporarily replace Principal Denise Butts was done in an executive session of the board at a meeting earlier this month, according to school solicitor Brian Leinhauser. However, the board only made the news public at Thursday's meeting.

Achuff comes from Lancaster School District, where she taught for 10 years. She has a master's in education from Lock Haven University and received her principal certificate from Edinboro University.

“I know some of your faces, and you maybe have seen my face around,” Achuff said to the board that appointed her. She said she wanted to “take this opportunity to tell (the school board) a little bit about myself and my background.” She only disclosed her education experience.

EDITORIAL: Time for answers about Thackston

Board president Danyiell Newman said Achuff was “highly recommended for the position” before ending the meeting and asking members of the public to vacate the room in order for members to start an executive session.

Leinhauser said the school is allowed to meet behind closed doors to discuss and vote on personnel matters such as the approval of an interim principal, litigation and real estate issues under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

The solicitor also said the school hired CEO Carlos Lopez during its Feb. 23 board meeting.

Charter at risk: Thackston's personnel moves come as the school is under public scrutiny for allegedly not following its charter with the York City School District and not being transparent with its financial information.

The York City School District held a public meeting in February during which administrators outlined several issues they've had with Thackston over the past year or two. The problems included troubling test scores, a lack of transparency regarding finances and little programming related to homeland security, a focus of the charter school.

At the meeting, the district presented a resolution to the York City school board that outlined each problem in detail and assigned recommendations and due dates for corrective action. If Thackston does not cooperate with the resolution, which the York City school board approved, it is at risk of losing its charter next year.

During the York City School District board meeting Wednesday, Goode K-8 school principal Randy James told board members that the school has seen 15 to 20 Thackston students transfer to the district school in just the past month.

However, Leinhauser said enrollment at Thackston has been holding steady.

“There has not been an exodus of students,” he said, adding the school has had a “fairly steady” population of more than 500 students for “most of the school year.”

Other agenda items: The Thackston board discussed other matters, including development of an evening diploma attainment program, which allows high school dropouts the opportunity to receive their diploma by attending night classes twice a week at the school.

School board members floated the idea of implementing Saturday suspensions for students with discipline, academic and attendance issues.

Lopez said the idea is popular with parents but not students, which he said is a good thing. Board members said the city's Lincoln Charter School has a successful Saturday suspension program.

“I think it’s going to be a deterrent,” Lopez said.

Lopez also said the school is ready to move forward on creating class course descriptions, including classes pertaining to homeland security.

Curriculum and programming partners relating to homeland security were among the documents requested under a resolution passed by the York City school board in February. The charter school has until July 1 to provide documents of homeland security partners.

Students walk out, protest at Thackston Charter

York City gives Thackston Charter School deadlines

Leinhauser said the school district has delivered “a number of documents” to the York City School District, and the school will continue to submit any documents requested by the district.

Service projects: Toward the end of the meeting, a discussion emerged around early dismissal of students looking to complete community service projects, which are a requirement of the school.

Students are required to complete 100 hours of service by graduation. Several board members were concerned about allowing early release for some students they saw as unfit to leave class.

Board member Lisa Kennedy questioned Achuff on several students she saw on the list who had a grade point average below 2.0 and had an attendance rate of 60 percent.

Achuff said the attendance number was a mix of both full-day absences and class tardies.

The board agreed to revisit the early release policy at its meeting next month.

Achuff and the board members were advised by Leinhauser not to comment to the media on anything regarding the school.