West York lunch program sparks dueling petitions

West York Area High School in West Manchester Township, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

A petition calling for West York Area School District to end next year's Lunch and Learn program is circulating among community members, but students have responded with a counterpetition.

The program would offer students an unstructured 80 minutes where they can eat, meet with teachers or participate in group activities. Many of those hoping to kill the free time say it lacks educational value and will exacerbate fights and bullying. 

Jennifer Myers created the original petition — up to 537 signatures as of Friday, May 24 — calling for the program to be put to a stop.

"There have been numerous issues raised regarding the physical and emotional safety of the students, lost instructional time for students, and disregard to the consequences of giving high school students 80 minutes of free time each day," she wrote.

The same goals can be accomplished during the district's existing "flextime" without the added issues, Myers went on to say.

Lunch and Learn would be a pilot program in the 2019-20 school year, with no classes held during two 40-minute blocks in the middle of the day. Instead, students would be given access to a number of options for school work and activities.

A student-led counterpetition, with 266 signatures as of Friday, supports keeping Lunch and Learn, according to district spokeswoman Cindi Greco.

West York Area High School Principal Carrie Jones presented the program to the board May 7 and sent out a letter to parents the following week.

A committee of high school teachers and staff learned about a similar program at Lenape Regional High School District, in New Jersey, last summer, according to the letter.

The block periods would include silent study areas; time for work, clubs or exercise; and opportunities to meet with teachers, counselors and social emotional support staff. They would help improve school climate and encourage choice and accountability, proponents argue.

Dissenters are especially concerned about what the scheduling change means for athletes. 

Jones did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

Back in April, board member Donald Carl noted he disagreed with Lunch and Learn being part of the budget, saying it would be a major policy and scheduling shift.

He expanded on his dissent when reached Friday, noting that he was speaking only as a parent and taxpayer, not a representative of the board.

"I’m not against change," he said. "What I am against is change for the sake of appearances without fully appreciating the unintended consequences."

Though the program seems good on paper, he said, many teachers would be on monitoring duty and have less time to meet with students than in daily flex periods, he said.

Commenters on Change.org were concerned about unstructured time and, in some cases, discipline issues that could arise from that format. Carl agreed.

Though not the only school district with bullying problems, West York was put in the spotlight earlier this year when multiple parents came forward to discuss persistent issues that had been a pattern over a number of years in the district.

Kerry Mateljan and her granddaughter Krystyna Strausbaugh, a fifth grader at Trimmer Elementary School, attend a public meeting for parents to voice concerns about reported bullying in West York School District, Monday, January 28, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

More:West York parents claim lack of response to bullying in district

More:West York school district responds to bullying claims

A number of changes — set in motion before and after recent concerns — have been implemented, but Superintendent Todd Davies has said they will take time.

But in her letter, Jones touted safety as a benefit of the program, since there would be adult supervision throughout the 80-minute block. She wrote that the program's privileges would be taken away for students who don't follow the rules.

FAQ's on the district website included concerns over student athletes missing class time and the aforementioned safety concerns — which the page addressed, citing increased supervision from the current ratio of 47:1 to 28:1.

Myers also created a closed Facebook group — WY Lunch and Learn Parent Forum — the day after the program was presented to the board, and more than 471 members joined in the last 30 days.

Some parents in the group supported the idea of the program but wanted more details. Others said school climate and demographics put the district in a different boat than other schools doing it.

A few complained that they did not feel heard by the board and administration when they asked for a vote on the program and it was denied. At the May 7 meeting, Davies said that it was more of a "managerial issue" than a board issue, Carl said.

On Friday, Carl added that he would have supported a the board voting on the issue.

Implementing the program without first addressing its potential pitfalls first is "like trying to build an airplane that’s already in the air," he said, suggesting, "You plan things out and get with the community at the front end."

In her letter, Jones noted that she'd heard support for the program but was also aware of concerns. As a pilot program, she wrote, it would be open to adjustments during the year, if needed.

More information will be presented and parents will have the opportunity to comment at a meeting in the high school auditorium at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, district officials said.