Urban policy expert lauds York Academy, urges focus on economic diversity

David Weissman
York Dispatch
Renowned urban scholar and policy expert David Rusk presents his analysis of York Academy's progress, Wednesday, January 17, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

York Academy is performing so well that an urban policy expert who inspired its creation is warning that its biggest potential problem is "too much of a good thing."

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and author of several urban development books, wrote a pair of reports in 1996 and 2002 focusing on how to improve York City.

A recommendation in his 2002 report directly led to the creation of the regional charter school in a collaboration between York City, York Suburban and Central York school districts.

As the downtown York K-8 school expands to include high school grades with the construction of a new building, Rusk was asked to write an opinion piece in support of the school's fundraising campaign.

Before doing so, Rusk reviewed the academy's student performance metrics compared with other York County school districts and presented his findings to a group of invited guests Wednesday, Jan. 17, at the school.

Rusk compared students' English language and math test scores based on the sending school district, race and economic status — specifically whether a student qualified for free and reduced-price meals (FARM).

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Rusk's analysis found that students attending from York City School District — which represents a majority of the academy's enrollment — were, on average, vastly outperforming students at York City schools.

Meanwhile, students sent from York Suburban, Central York and other school districts were about on par with how students in their home districts were performing, the analysis showed, though Rusk noted the sample size was fairly small.

Renowned urban scholar and policy expert David Rusk presents his analysis of York Academy's progress, Wednesday, January 17, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

Looming issue: That small sample size could spell trouble for the future of York Academy, Rusk said, because his research has found economic diversity to be a key factor in educational performance. 

Accepting too many kids from the city — where families tend to be more economically stressed — could lead to fewer middle- and upper-income families willing to send their children to the school, he explained.

"Yes, York Academy is a great opportunity for students from York City School District, but if you accept too many, the benefits are being lost," Rusk said. "Your very pursuit of the good thing nullifies it."

Dennis Baughman, CEO of the academy, explained that state law requires charter schools to accept students through a lottery system, meaning they can't prioritize students from other districts. More students from York City apply, resulting in a higher percentage of students from the city, he explained.

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The school's strategy, Baughman said, is to increase marketing in other districts in an effort to increase the number of applicants from middle- and upper-income families.

Rusk suggested advertising that the academy's students from those other districts are performing similarly on the tests, while the school's International Baccalaureate program offers an additional benefit their home districts might lack.

Rusk graphed out York Academy versus other elementary schools throughout the county based on test scores in relation to percentage of students eligible for FARM.

His graph showed that the academy was performing better than would be expected, and he said that positive outcome could likely be attributed to great teaching and rigorous coursework.

Rusk's policies: Increased regionalization and economic diversity are central to Rusk's proposed methods for improving cities in all types of policy, not just education.

By tearing down the barriers separating cities and surrounding suburban areas, all economic groups end up with increased opportunities, he said.

For example, Rusk explained that two schools in an economically stressed part of downtown Albuquerque had a policy to only accept half of their student bodies from the local neighborhood, while the other half were the children of downtown office workers.

By offering later hours of operation, the schools became popular with the downtown workers — typically in better economic situations — and led to more middle- and upper-income families moving downtown, he said.

Meanwhile, Rusk said, the lower-income families benefited from the increased tax base and better educational opportunities.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.