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We have passed the halfway mark for the 2015-16 school year and would like to update the community on our progress since we last communicated in August.

We have taken giant steps forward toward the implementation of several high-stakes reforms at both the District and individual school level. These initiatives have been our primary focus during the year. Change at this level is never easy, and the challenges that our children, our school district and our city face will not disappear overnight. However, we refuse to fail.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the school year, we are focusing on six initiatives that we believe will eventually lead to growth in student achievement.

I am especially proud of our district’s commitment to early childhood education. Since the 2007-08 school year, the district has offered high-quality Pre-K to this city’s 4- year-old children.

With help from our partners at Community Progress Council, the district continues to expand this worthwhile and important program. This year, more than 225 children in 12 classrooms are building the foundations of successful lives. We hope to add a 13th classroom in the fall.

We know Pre-K is working. A recent analysis of district test scores found that students who attended Pre-K through the School District of the City of York are scoring significantly higher on standardized tests. We continue to move toward our goal of offering Pre-K to every 4-year-old child in York City.

We are no less committed to our older students, those soon-to-be graduates who attend William Penn Senior High School. This year, we introduced the Freshman Academy, a program structured to aid ninth graders in their transition from middle to high school. Studies show that a student’s performance in ninth grade is a strong predictor of future success, and we want our students surrounded by the supports they need to reach their full potential.

This community more than answered the call when we announced plans for a mentoring program and asked for volunteers. We have since paired about 20 of our ninth-grade students with caring and committed mentors from the community. Among them are local business owners, educators, technology professionals and both the chief and deputy chief of the York City Fire Department. We are working on plans to recruit more mentors and host training sessions. If you are interested in this opportunity, email Information Specialist Erin James at jameseri@ycs.k12.pa.us.

In every way possible, we are emphasizing literacy. By third grade, students should be reading to learn — not learning to read. That’s why, at the beginning of the school year, we asked the community to donate new and gently used books for our students. We collected more than 500 books, which were sorted by grade level and distributed to students for classroom and home libraries. We will gladly collect and distribute more. All you need to do is bring the books to our administration building at 31 N. Pershing Ave. and say: “I’ve got books for kids!”

One of the most important endeavors for the future success of our district has been accomplished entirely behind the scenes. A devoted team of teachers, with the help of colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Kutztown University, have completely rewritten math and English curriculum for grades K-8. I charged this team with the task of writing a curriculum that delivers high-quality education aligned to the Pennsylvania Core standards. We now know for sure that when our students take the PSSA in the spring they have been prepared for the material on the test. Pacing is especially crucial when you consider that students are expected to master specific content between the start of school in August and the time they take the test in April. Work is under way to align the science curriculum with the same goal in mind.

Our after-school program, offered to all K-8 students through a partnership with Martin Library, is exceeding expectations. More than 800 students are enrolled. These students receive tutoring, homework help, enrichment activities and a nutritious dinner every evening. We encourage site coordinators to get creative with enrichment activities and cater to the interests and needs of their students. This is also another opportunity for the community to contribute. If you have a talent or area of expertise that you could share with our students, please get involved. Our students are endlessly curious and eager to learn. What they sometimes lack is exposure.

Speaking of exposure, we are working harder than ever to share the district's story with the community. The district added the information specialist position this year in an effort to improve communications within our organization and to foster a more productive relationship with our community. Please visit our Facebook page or our website at http://www.ycs.k12.pa.us/ for copies of our newsletters and for district updates.

On March 16, the Board of School Directors approved an amended recovery plan. We anticipate Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera’s approval in the coming days.

That’s not to say we are starting over in any way. On the contrary, the amended plan builds on our years of hard work. The academic goals of the plan are to eliminate the gap between the district’s third-grade reading scores and the state average by 2019. We will reduce, by half, the gap between the district’s PSSA reading and math scores and the state average by 2019 for grades 4-8. We will do the same for the Keystone exams. And we will eliminate the gap between the district’s graduation rate and the state average by 2019.

The amended plan emphasizes educational quality through improved core functions. We believe the power to achieve positive change exists within our schools and within our Bearcat family.

That’s why we produced a video presentation that we hope inspires our staff, students, parents and community to take ownership of this school district and embrace its goals. The video, which you can view by visiting our website, describes our theory of action in an easy-to-understand concept developed by the talented students of the William Penn Performing Arts Institute.

The message in our theory of action is simple. Everyone in this community has the capacity to positively influence the lives of York City’s children.  If we truly want to improve our schools and our community, then each of us must make a commitment to do our part. “It starts with me.”

Dr. Eric Holmes is the superintendent of York City schools.

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Read or Share this story: https://www.yorkdispatch.com/story/opinion/2016/03/25/oped-update-york-city-schools/82262760/