OP-ED: York City school kids are the solution to an unfair world

Eric B. Holmes
"Goode News Crew" member Aaliyah Ushry, left, backpedals as she records Governor Tom Wolf's visit to Goode K-8 with co-member Ni'lee Mariche, both sixth-graders, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Wolf, left center, talks with York City School Superintenent Dr. Eric Holmes while touring the school. Bill Kalina photo

Life isn’t fair.

Every child’s natural contempt for injustice is eventually confronted with these three words, usually uttered by a well-meaning but frustrated parent or teacher.

Life isn’t fair. Accept it. Life isn’t fair. Get over it.

These are worthwhile lessons for children to learn if they are going to be resilient adults capable of navigating a world where unfairness lurks around every corner.

In my final act as superintendent of the School District of the City of York, I want to send this message to the children of York City and every other child whose circumstances of birth have deprived them of access to equitably funded public education:

The American education system is unfair not because of some existential, insurmountable obstacle. It is unfair because our society chooses to tolerate a political system that ties the quality of a child’s education to the relative wealth of their parents, neighborhood and community.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and the proof is right here in the City of York.

Turnaround: With an infusion of resources thanks to Gov. Tom Wolf’s commitment to increasing educational funding, an unwavering commitment to a strategic plan and some old-fashioned determination, the School District of the City of York has earned its claim to an unprecedented turnaround story.

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This story is a testament to the resiliency of urban education and the dedication of people who truly care about kids.

Just six years ago, charged with educating an increasingly impoverished student population but starved of resources necessary to meet this most important of obligations, the School District of the City of York was brought to its knees.

Struggling to stay afloat, district leaders slashed hundreds of teacher and non-instructional positions from the budget. Sports and arts programs taken for granted in the suburbs were taken away from York City children.

Eric Holmes, superintendent of the York City School District.

None of those decisions were rooted in financial mismanagement, as some political agents have claimed.

It was simple math.

Haves and have nots: Because public education in Pennsylvania is funded by property taxes, wealthy communities have more money than poor communities to fund their schools.

The effect of this system on children in York City is not just unfair. It’s unconscionable.

The taxpayers of York City are burdened with the highest local school tax effort in Pennsylvania. But because property values are so low, that effort only generates about $26.9 million annually. Altogether, local revenue sources accounted for just 26 percent of the district’s $143 million budget in 2017-18.

Dependent on the commonwealth for 68 percent of its funding, the School District of the City of York and other poor school districts have been reduced to political footballs tossed carelessly by politicians and bureaucrats who unashamedly send their kids to schools with more than enough money to implement 1-to-1 technology and maintain the high school swimming pool.

In 2013, a political appointee predicted the School District of the City of York would have a cumulative deficit of $55.8 million by 2017-18 and, therefore, should be converted to charter schools.

If not for a last-minute change in the political winds, this public institution would have been dismantled and its parts sold to a for-profit company with no connection to the community.

In the six years since, here’s what happened instead.

We created a system of Distributed Leadership that harnesses the uniquely valuable perspectives and insights of our teachers. We empowered school-level teams of educators to address the specific needs of their buildings and students. We prioritized a productive relationship between the teachers' union and district administration based on a genuine shared commitment to do what’s right for children.

We partnered with the University of Virginia to train district principals in research-based leadership strategies designed to “turn around” struggling schools.

We invested in a school-based safety net of social workers, behavior specialists and community liaisons who serve the physical, mental, emotional and social needs of students and their families, half of whom live below the federal poverty line.

We created a 20-person school police department charged with ensuring the safety and security of all staff and students, combating the effects of security threats both perceived and real, and working proactively to build relationships with students who otherwise lack positive experiences with law enforcement.

We overhauled an ineffective discipline policy to implement research-based strategies that incentivize positive behavior and proactively combat the root causes of negative behavior — resulting in significantly reduced numbers of discipline incidents, suspensions and expulsions.

We restored the programs and positions cut during the district’s most financially desperate years. Today, York City students once again have access to art, music, physical education and Spanish classes. They can try out for the baseball or softball team.

We confronted the fact that most York City students start kindergarten already academically below benchmark with an expansion of the district’s free Pre-K program. This award-winning program now serves 265 students in 14 classrooms throughout the city annually, and data repeatedly show significant positive effects on students’ long-term academic achievement.

We implemented an ambitious district-wide teacher looping program that keeps elementary students with their teachers for two consecutive years. Among the many benefits of this program is the simple but meaningful effect of consistency in the lives of students whose home lives are often unstable.

We opened the Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy to give York City students access to a project-based learning experience that emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving skills. We introduced career academies to the structure of William Penn Senior High School to give our students meaningful experiences and incentives to graduate.

We empowered teams of district teachers to overhaul district curriculum in every subject and every grade so that it aligns with state standards and prepares students for a successful academic future. As a result of this initiative and all the others listed above, students throughout the district in every grade level have exceeded academic growth standards for two consecutive years as measured by the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment (PVAAS).

Not only did we avoid the 2013 prediction of a $55.8 million deficit by 2017-18, we built a healthy fund balance of about $12 million without a single tax increase.

More to be done: After 32 years as an educator in the School District of the City of York, six of them spent as superintendent, I will retire June 30 proud of these accomplishments but still unsatisfied.

There is so much more that could and should be done to give York City children the same shot at a happy, healthy, productive future as the children who go to school just a few miles away in wealthier communities.

If we are truly committed to the American Dream, then every child in America should have access to that dream. Yet, in reality, we are becoming more segregated by race and class.

If we are to have a great American society, we have to fix that.

Or, we will continue to produce the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the less educated, the ruling class and the working class.

This is not a battle over curriculum and technology. This is a battle over who will control the destiny of this country — some of us, or all of us.

If public education is to survive, then the status of one’s birth and their address should never ever determine the quality of their education or the possibilities of their future.

There are those who say: “Life isn’t fair, so stop throwing money at the problem.”

I say this in response: City kids, poor kids — my kids — are not the problem.

They are brilliant, compassionate and resilient, and they are growing up in a world overwhelmed with injustice.

As an educator, I will be satisfied when the world finally knows what I know.

My kids are the solution.

— Eric B. Holmes is superintendent of the York City School District.