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OP-ED: York City schools on the right track


The beginning of the school year is undoubtedly an exciting time for the entire community. Parents are snapping "first day of school" photos and sharing them all over social media, teachers are easing the students' transition from summer to school, and students are meeting new classmates, learning new hallways, picking up an instrument or trying out for sports while generally figuring out where they fit in. Parents are meeting teachers, checking on homework, shopping for supplies and amazingly firing on all cylinders while simultaneously running on fumes.

These traditions and rituals occur in homes and school across our entire commonwealth. It does not matter what school district you are in, private, public or charter, the back-to-school season is a time of anxiety, excitement, optimism, new horizons and certainly a great deal of angst.

All of these moments, memories and practices, regardless of school district, provide a renewed sense of energy and focus towards the upcoming school year and the challenges that rest ahead. That level of interest, excitement and involvement on the part of student, teachers and school district serves as an early benchmark of what to expect for the school year that follows.

Like the school year, and any process where you look to see growth and development, it is important to have benchmarks that you are on the right track. The same holds true for the York City School District's (YCSD) recovery process. The district's preparation for this school year has been immense, and we're confident that it is on the right track and will continue to show growth and progress and will change perceptions through actions and results. Here's why.

In August 2015, the Century Foundation — a research foundation that undertakes critical analyses of major economic, political and social institutions — published an article, Five Things Successful Turnaround Schools Have in Common. The author, Greg Anrig, identified the common threads of successful turnaround schools. Anrig did this by looking at five years of results from National School Improvement Grants (SIG), which were established in 2009 and intended to revitalize the nation's lowest-performing schools. To determine progress they looked at test scores, student attendance, discipline measures, grades and graduation rates. 1

The commonalities identified are:

•A laser-focus on classroom instruction,

•Data-driven collaboration within schools, led largely by teachers,

•Safe and orderly school environment,

•An expansion of time devoted to instruction in and tutoring of core subject areas,

•Strengthening connections with families, community groups and local service providers,

•Limited support from consultants to jump-start changes.

Using these traits as our bright-line indicators and cross-referencing them with the Mass Insight diagnostic report 2 of the district, as well as the initiatives now underway, the York City School District is on the right track. It should come as no surprise that in order to fix a struggling school of any type, having the right principals and teachers is of the utmost importance. A school's fate ultimately depends on those who are on the front lines. Superintendent Holmes and his team have spent the past several months restructuring leadership to ensure that the right people are in place to lead this recovery.

Internally, we need the right people; externally, we need a supportive community. These two factors are not mutually exclusive. An authentically engaged community, such as ours, can significantly assist a school's turnaround. Support is not just participation in school events, but also helping to shape and demand perpetual improvement of the district, and to hold a collective high expectation of success.

Internally, recovery is underway. With valuable support from the University of Pennsylvania, YCSD's English language arts and math curriculums are being re-written to align with the PA Core Standards — a more rigorous set of standards aimed at better preparing our students for postsecondary success. This critical work began this past summer and will continue throughout the school year.

This year YCSD teachers will have time to work in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to jointly develop lesson plans and assessments based on the new curriculum. Importantly, that time will be used to analyze data and student work from their classrooms. To facilitate this collaboration, over the summer teams of teachers from each building were trained in Distributed Leadership, a system designed to support curriculum implementation and review. Distributed leadership has shown success in education but also in the private sector, specifically designed to foster collaborative leadership and evaluation processes.

Many are surprised to learn that our York City school day has been extended by 40 minutes to allow for more instruction and tutoring in English and math. Any educator will tell you adding 10 minutes, let alone 40 is no small task. Our sincerest gratitude to our faculty and administration for extending the school day and developing the plan to do so from day one of this school year.

While many are surprised to learn we've added 40 minutes to the school day, we'd venture most are completely unaware that routinely students remain in the school buildings daily from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. That includes early morning arrivals to ensure students have a solid breakfast, to extending the school day, to after-school care, focused instruction and tutoring assistance, to simply providing a safe and comfortable environment conducive to learning.

We understand that our results depend on our actions throughout our academic and financial recovery; we need to do a better job keeping our community informed. As such, YCSD recently hired an information specialist that among many things will distribute a monthly newsletter designed to inform parents and the community-at-large of the latest YCSD happenings. Communication is a two-way process as will our successes be if we all are contributing. YCSD staff will continue to make phone calls to parents, and the district's website is being redesigned to be more user-friendly and provide a portal for parents to access daily updates about their child's performance. The director of student services has undertaken a revision of the district discipline policies. Further, the district's Freshmen Academy has established the PRIDE program, designed to give students a good start on the life skills needed for high school, college and career success.

We cannot stress enough the need to celebrate student achievements and accomplishments. People overwhelmingly respond better to positive reinforcement. As a community and a district, we need to reinforce, positively, that we are incredibly proud of our student achievements. Not a day goes by that there isn't something positive to celebrate. We plan to do that. This was no more evident than the first day for our Freshmen Academy, when over 100 supportive members of the greater York community turned out at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning to welcome the incoming freshmen class as they crossed the threshold into their high school career. These are great first steps. None of this is intended to belie the urgency of comprehensive education reform. That is absolutely imperative. But ultimately, we think, that much of the district's improvements will be driven from the bottom up as much as top down structural reform.

We know that our city and our greater York community ultimately will be judged not just by the strength of our businesses, or the beauty of our architecture, or our thriving parks, neighborhoods, culture and recreation. We will be judged by our moral commitment to our next generation. We will be judged by the next generation of leaders we create and ultimately depend upon. This commitment extends beyond the invisible lines that geographically bound one district or municipality from another. This extends to all of us as York countians, and ultimately as Pennsylvanians.

We would be remiss if we did not encourage more people to be involved. Attend the school board meetings; visit your neighborhood school buildings; volunteer or adopt a classroom; and be part of this massive undertaking. We need you, parents and community members, to be part of this narrative, and change that we advocated. Walk through a school building and see the faces of our first graders who are brimming with hope and optimism and limitless potential. Walk the halls of our high school and you will come to find the enthusiasm is exactly like every other high school hallway in America — it is full of bustling teenagers moving from one class to the next, catching up with classmates, friends and occasionally sneaking in a text message or two. Meet with our middle-schoolers, provide them the face of an adult who they may otherwise have never met but who positively reinforces that we believe in them. Recognize that like any middle-schooler they are struggling to find their place in our world and our community. As a resident and believer, come share your story or profession with our students; they need this exposure to gain a better understanding of the opportunities that exist. We need mentors. We need believers. We need people to recognize that our young people understand "love" sometimes simply as time — time spent supporting them, helping them, believing in them and sometimes just listening to them.

Based upon the common traits identified in successful turnaround districts and the many initiatives now underway with more to follow, we're confident that the York City School District is on the right track to recovery. We will have successes and failures; we will exceed expectations and some days fall short. We firmly believe that we will recover financially but importantly, we will succeed academically. That is our obligation under the law. That is the challenge laid forth by Gov. Tom Wolf. That is our moral obligation as citizens of York County and Pennsylvania. We welcome your participation and belief, it truly takes a village — or a county.

Yes, the new school year is indeed ripe with excitement and optimism.

— Kim Bracey is the mayor of York City and Kevin Schreiber is a Democrat representing the 95th House District, which includes York City.