OPED: Authentic improvements, not quick fixes, for York City schools
Anything worth doing is worth doing right. With this philosophy, the School District of the City of York has completed one more mile of our journey to realizing full financial and academic recovery. We do this not because we were placed in financial recovery status by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We do this because our students deserve nothing less than the very best educational experience possible.
The implementation of the initiatives outlined in our Recovery Plan has been, and will continue to be, our primary goal as a school district. We are focused on authentic, educationally sound improvements – not quick fixes. The initiatives that support this philosophy will take time to bear fruit, but we are committed to real, sustainable and positive change.
Our District Theory of Action, which describes our academic goals as well as how we plan to accomplish those goals, states:
- Principals lead school-wide efforts to support teacher collaboration and increase students’ readiness to learn; and
- Teachers work together to provide instruction that is aligned with standards, consistent with the district’s scope and sequence, and differentiated to meet individual student needs; and
- Other school staff contribute to a school environment that fosters effective teaching and learning; and
- Central office staff work together to support school principals by setting clear expectations, providing needed resources in a timely manner, tracking and reporting on progress toward goals, and facilitating communication with all stakeholders; and
- Students attend school prepared to engage in purposeful learning; and
- Families are engaged in supporting their students’ learning
- Student learning will increase and all York City students will continuously graduate prepared for college and careers.
The purpose of this summary of our year is to share with you, our community, the success we’ve achieved by believing in and following our Theory of Action.
Principals lead school-wide efforts to support teacher collaboration and increase students’ readiness to learn
The district’s teachers voted last year to commit significant time toward the implementation of the Distributed Leadership model, which encourages a team-based approach to problem-solving at the building level through the collaborative efforts of teachers and administrators. Approximately 40 teachers and administrators were required to undergo nearly 80 hours of professional development. At each building, a team of educators has been working all year to address the specific needs of their school and this work will continue in 2016-17.
This commitment to collaboration is also driving our efforts to overhaul the district’s outdated and ineffective discipline policy. We have identified a problem, and we are working toward a solution that will benefit students. A committee of about 45 teachers and administrators has been working to transform the district’s approach to discipline by adopting proactive strategies that focus on positive reinforcement rather than negative consequences. The district will have a rewritten discipline policy for approval by the board at the end of the 2016-17 school year. A primary goal of this effort is to reduce our external suspension rate. We want students in school so they can learn.
Teachers work together to provide instruction that is aligned with standards, consistent with the district’s scope and sequence, and differentiated to meet individual student needs
Our teachers have demonstrated their commitment to York City students this year in more ways than we can count. The district extended the school day by one hour at the K-8 level, maximizing students’ time on task. Teachers drove the district’s efforts to rewrite math, English and science curriculums so they are completely aligned with state standards – an extensive project that we completed in one year. Our Board of School Directors has committed $1.4 million to the purchase of materials that support this teacher-selected curriculum.
We want our students to have a well-rounded education and the opportunity to learn from passionate educators in all subjects, so the district reinstated music, art, physical education and foreign language instruction to the K-8 level this year. We are committed to maintaining these crucial opportunities for students.
After a year of planning, a group of 46 teacher volunteers across the district will pilot an initiative in 2016-17 that will transform student achievement. Through a process known as “looping,” these teachers will follow their students to the next grade level. The district is scheduled to implement looping district-wide in 2017-18.
Finally, we thank our teachers for their enthusiastic embrace of the district’s focus on literacy.
Other school staff contribute to a school environment that fosters effective teaching and learning
At the School District of the City of York, we believe everyone can and should play a role in helping students achieve. That’s why we were so pleased this spring to celebrate the William Penn Senior High School food services staff, which was recognized in the state’s 2016 School Breakfast Challenge with an award for increasing breakfast participation by 14 percent, to a total of 35 percent of students eating breakfast daily. These dedicated workers know that students cannot learn if they are hungry.
The district’s successful collaboration with Communities in Schools, a nationwide dropout-prevention initiative, will continue in 2016-17. In five buildings, Communities in Schools site coordinators handled a caseload of 280 students who received specialized services and resources this year.
Also continuing in 2016-17 is our partnership with Martin Library to provide a free after-school program for students in grades 1-8 that offers tutoring, enrichment activities, recreation and a nutritious dinner. An average of 750 students attend the program daily at our seven K-8 buildings.
Central office staff work together to support school principals by setting clear expectations, providing needed resources in a timely manner, tracking and reporting on progress toward goals, and facilitating communication with all stakeholders
In an effort to stabilize our leadership and provide consistency, all administrators have made a four-year commitment to the district. We have hired an information specialist tasked with improving internal communications systems and sharing important information with the community about the district through newsletters and social media. A dramatic overhaul of the district’s website is under way, and we will launch the new site by Sept. 1.
Similarly, the district purchased a new, more efficient student information system and launched it for 2015-16. The Sapphire system also features a Community Web Portal that allows parents to enroll their students in the district, view grades, discipline and attendance records and make changes to contact information. Using this system, teachers can post assignments, track and post grades, collect electronic assignments and create online assessments that can be auto-graded by the system.
Students attend school prepared to engage in purposeful learning
The district is committed to providing every student the tools he or she needs to be successful in life. Our Office of Special Education serves 20 percent of the district’s 5,775 students with a wide variety of specialized instruction and services from gifted education to emotional support classes. Our Office of Special Programs serves more than a quarter of the district’s total student population who are learning English as a second language.
Research shows early childhood education can make a huge difference for students, particularly students in districts with high-poverty rates. That’s why the district has offered Pre-K to York City 4-year-olds since 2007 through a partnership with Community Progress Council. We have expanded this program to 12 classrooms, and we are committed to realizing our ultimate goal of making this opportunity available to every 4-year-old in the city.
At the high school, we have enhanced our focus on college and career readiness through a partnership with the College Advising Corps. The new Freshman Academy emphasizes a college-going atmosphere to students on their first day of 9th grade. To bolster these efforts, we piloted a mentoring program we hope to expand in 2016-17.
And for those students who prefer an online education, we now offer the Bearcat Cyber Academy at the high school level. These students learn primarily online but remain a part of our Bearcat family. They live within walking distance of local educators and a physical space at the high school devoted to them. They participate in extracurricular activities and graduate with a William Penn Senior High School diploma.
Families are engaged in supporting their students’ learning
We are working hard to directly involve students’ parents and guardians in the educational process. Teachers across the district are expected to contact at least two parents every day, resulting in thousands of teacher-to-parent exchanges that might not otherwise have happened.
We have increased the number of parent-teacher conferences to three every school year – held in November, February and March. At Central Administration, a dedicated parent liaison works to connect families and schools. Each school also has a volunteer parent liaison who works with the staff liaison to plan events, host meetings and serve as a connection between school and community. In partnership with the United Way, the Youth Court Alliance offers truant students and their parents the opportunity to get back on the right track without involving the court system.
This year, we celebrated the 10th annual Education First Parade and Rally, an initiative of the district’s Parent Advocates for Children group. Each month, our Board of School Directors recognizes hardworking students and their parents, guardians and siblings during the Celebrating Families initiative.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right. At the School District of the City of York, we are focused on addressing structural issues that hamper student achievement – costly and time-consuming though these efforts may be. We are working diligently and urgently.
A complete overhaul of curriculum would normally take two years, if not more. We’ve done it in one.
Most districts issue newsletters on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. We’re doing it every week.
It would be tempting to address concerns about the discipline policy with minor, cosmetic changes. We’re committed to a completely new approach, which will require collaboration between teachers, administrators and the community to be truly successful.
Our Recovery Plan establishes goals for the next four years. Surely, we cannot expect overnight success.
But, if we stay the course and continue to implement this ambitious plan with fidelity, then we believe student learning will increase and all York City students will continuously graduate prepared for college and careers.
— Dr. Eric Holmes is superintendent of the York City School District.