School District Of The City Of York
Superintendent: Academic growth means a ‘new normal’ in York City schools
By Dr. Eric Holmes, Superintendent
(originally published Nov. 4, 2018 in The York Daily Record)
The School District of the City of York has been under the heat of intense public scrutiny for the last 10 years. We have persevered in spite of draconian budget cuts and massive staff layoffs. Formal designation as a District in moderate financial recovery brought state oversight. Just four years ago, we survived the attempt to convert the District into for-profit charter schools.
The implementation of our second Recovery Plan gave us a chance to stop focusing on politics and start focusing on the realities of life for the children who live in York. We stopped arguing about who had better ideas and, instead, began putting the best ideas into practice.
While I have many reasons to be proud of our students and staff, I have not often publicly written about their accomplishments for fear of inviting the critics to interrupt our momentum. That hesitation ends today. A new era for the School District of the City of York has begun, and we want everyone to know about it.
The results of the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment (PVAAS) were released last week. The PVAAS measures student growth from one year to the next, while the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) measures grade-level proficiency.
The PVAAS data allow us to determine if students are growing academically and, if so, to what degree.
I am proud to report that we have achieved positive growth results again. Across the District, we are setting high expectations for our students and they are rising to the challenge.
For the second consecutive year, standardized testing data show that our students are making gains across both grade and subject areas in PSSA grade-level proficiency and PVAAS academic growth. In 2018, our students in grades 4-8 exceeded the standard for PA Academic Growth in English Language Arts, our students in grades 4-8 exceeded the standard for PA Academic Growth in Math, and our 11th grade students met the standard for PA Academic Growth in Literature and exceeded the standard for PA Academic Growth in Algebra 1.
These achievements are difficult to parse from the raw PSSA scores that have traditionally drawn the most attention – and the meaningless apples-to-oranges comparisons among school districts.
Because those scores use grade-level proficiency to define achievement, there is no celebration of the student who arrived in 6th grade on a 3rd grade reading level but who ended the year reading on a 5th grade level. Most likely, that student’s ELA score would register as “below basic.” But that student and his teacher were able to achieve two years of learning/growth in a single year, and that is the kind of success increasingly reflected in our PVAAS results.
As I have said many times and expect to say again, we have a long way to go on our journey to narrowing the achievement gap between children in York and children throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Our hard work, commitment to our community and perseverance through the difficulties mentioned earlier has established a new normal in the School District of the City of York.
Our new normal is a culture of bold innovation.
Now in its second year of operation, the Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy is a place where students and staff are redefining public education in the City of York.
Systemic change – especially in the world of public education — takes time. But the STEAM Academy, with its focus on critical thinking, hands-on learning and problem solving, is equipping our students with the skills they will need to enter the job world or attend a post-secondary institution.
At William Penn Senior High School, we are moving from a traditional high school to one where students can choose a career path designed to prepare them for the real world. Our new career academies will allow our graduates to leave high school with a sense of direction and confidence in their futures.
In addition to the STEAM Academy — which will add a grade each year until it serves grades 3-12 – we offer a Fine Arts Academy and a Public Safety Academy at the high school. We are currently planning to create a healthcare-focused academy that would open in 2019 or 2020.
Our new normal is a focus on data-driven instruction.
With the help of the staff in our newly established data department, District educators are taking advantage of all the information we are able to collect through curriculum-based assessments and standardized test measurements.
Several times each year, students from kindergarten to 8th grade are tested on grade-level material. The results empower teachers to make instructional decisions that serve the individual needs of students.
There are no more mysteries or surprises about how our students will perform on the PSSA in April. We know where our students are academically, and we are using that knowledge to push them toward proficiency.
Our new normal is commitment to proven leadership strategies.
We continue to refine our Distributed Leadership program, which we introduced in 2015. This program has greatly improved relationships among co-workers and between administration and staff. It has also greatly contributed to a culture of teamwork and collaboration in our buildings, which is essential in order to realize any successful school reform. The people needed to solve our issues as a District can be found from within our existing staff. Programs like Distributed Leadership allow the ideas and suggestions of those staff members to be recognized.
During the past two years, we have also enrolled five District principals in a school turnaround program offered through the University of Virginia. We have plans to continue this partnership.
Our new normal is consistency and commitment to programs that work.
There is no better example of this commitment than the District’s Pre-K program, now in its 12th year and serving 14 classrooms throughout the city. Free to the families of all York City 4-year-olds, the Pre-K program narrows the achievement gap before kids even arrive in kindergarten.
Our new normal is advocacy for the children of the City of York and disadvantaged children everywhere.
As we work to improve our own system of education, we must also work to educate the public about the circumstances in which we teach and our students live. The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by his or her ZIP code, yet that is the system we tolerate in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Our community has one of the highest tax rates in the commonwealth, and an overwhelming number of our children live in poverty. We cannot continue to expect more tax dollars from this community. That is why the District’s administration has never asked the Board of School Directors to increase the property-tax rate during my six-year tenure as superintendent.
While the state funding on which we depend has increased in recent years, our allocation still falls far short of meeting the needs of our students. On a per-student basis, York City is the most under-funded school district in the state with a per-student deficit of more than $6,500, or $51.7 million.
Without drastic improvement to the socioeconomic circumstances of poor children or a significant infusion of resources to eliminate educational poverty, there will always be a significant achievement gap between the cities and the suburbs.
Last year, I invited the community to extend its enthusiasm for rejuvenating downtown York to the rejuvenation of the city’s school District. In ways big and small, I have seen this community respond to our new normal with a sense of genuine optimism. It’s in the crowds of fans who pack the bleachers at a Bearcat home game. It’s in the neighborhood association members and community philanthropists eager to tour the new STEAM Academy. It’s in the District’s enrollment numbers surpassing 6,400 students for the first time in many years.
Over the past six years, I have watched this community’s skepticism dissipate and its hope build. We have built a new normal of transparency and accountability. We have created a new normal of research-based learning opportunities for the children in this community. We have practiced a new normal of good stewardship of the public’s money through sound fiscal management principles. Today, let’s celebrate the new normal of the School District of the City of York.
This time next year, I will report again on the progress of the District. In that report, our goal is to take the “new” away from normal.