Seeing the Whole Picture

How Harrisburg School District is Piecing Together the Academic Puzzle

Harrisburg School District. The words conjure images of turmoil and poor achievement. But behind the curtain, countless moving parts are working to raise achievement, promote stability and engage families. Is it the Wizard of Oz at work, frantically spinning wheels and pulling levers to maintain an illusion? Or is it, in the words of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, “many different pieces,” fitting like a puzzle to prepare students for success?

This is a district operating under state oversight, with a recovery plan that has restored financial health and has now turned to academic achievement. The Cougars, say district officials, are ready to roar.

The Academics PiecePast generations believed that the three Rs of education were reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Today, the three Rs are rigor, relevance and relationships, says Ross Berger, coordinator of the district’s ROAR College and Career Academy Program.

ROAR puts education in a real-world context, says Berger. With rigor, students are expected to rise to the challenges put before them. Relationships call on forces outside the district to provide support, perhaps with work-related learning experiences. Relevance introduces children, even in elementary school, to careers and provides guidance as they enroll in courses tailored to their interests.

“These are all motivators for keeping students involved in their education, involved in a pathway and hopefully creating a post-secondary plan,” says Berger. “We want to get them to the end goal, which is that high-school diploma, but also, we want to prepare them for whatever comes after.”

In recent years, word emerged that the district lacked curricula, the basic plans directing teachers in delivering lessons with consistency. However, the district now “has developed and will have, by the end of the school year, standards-based curriculum for all four core content areas – science, social studies, English-language arts and mathematics,” says Jaimie C. Foster, school improvement administrator for curriculum and instruction.

The curricula are aligned to state achievement tests and Common Core standards, says Foster. They also assess student knowledge and understanding at the end of every unit, with time for re-teaching built in for those students who just have not grasped the concepts yet.

Those same curricula are aligned with experiential initiatives – back to the relevance piece – such as the new STEM Hub in Hamilton School. Here, students put their science, technology, engineering and math lessons into practice. One recent group was challenged to balance the widest series of blocks they could with only one block touching the table. The younger students “wanted theirs to be the highest, but that wasn’t the goal,” says STEM Coordinator Cheryl Capozzoli.

“We talked about the engineering design process and the need to be precise,” she says.

Students were applying math and science concepts from the classroom, “but you’re embedding that in something that’s fun and engaging.”

The students’ response?

“This is awesome! Can we come back?”

The Stability PieceIn school board races and news stories about teacher contracts, the buzzword is “stability.” Low pay and discouraging conditions prompted an exodus of teachers around 2013-14. But the district has learned that “different ingredients contribute to the recipe for success,” and turnover is now down to about 18 percent, says Interim Human Resources Director Lance D. Freeman.

When Freeman recruits new teachers, he pitches the “exciting things going on,” seeking those with a desire to teach there. He doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges, he says. Teachers must “work through resistance.” But word of the STEM initiative, plus its corollary STEAM – that’s STEM with the arts added – resonates with today’s young educators.

“We’re looking for those who not only have the excitement and the passion, but someone who’s willing to come into a district where we allow you to be creative,” he says.

Once here, teachers experience “differentiated professional development,” says Foster.

“We learned a long time ago that the one-stop shop doesn’t work.”

New teachers are assigned a mentor. Teachers recognized for their leadership give up their Saturday mornings to convene and create “professional development strategies that directly correlate to what’s going on in their classrooms,” says Knight-Burney.

Much of the work teachers do is supported by the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation. The foundation helped launch the Teacher Leadership Academy – that’s the Saturday group – from an idea of Knight-Burney’s. It raises funds for “Adopt A Classroom,” which helps teachers buy needed equipment and supplies. It’s the conduit for donations that support summer science programs, athletics, career learning, early childhood education and other educational efforts.

The Family Engagement PieceShaina Higgs/Carter remembers when parental involvement in education meant dropping kids off at the school door. But the parent of three Harrisburg School District students – a 13-year-old in the Marshall Math Science Academy and a 7- and 5-year-old in the Downey School – learned from dynamic teachers the importance of parental engagement. She and a teacher founded a Downey School Parent-Teacher Organization that started small in the fall of 2015 but is now growing.

Her message to parents and family members of students: “We need you guys.”

“Parents don’t understand that if they’re involved, their voice is really valued, and the more voices, the more things we can get done,” she says.

The PTO organizes block parties, health fairs and neighborhood clean-ups. Members are teaching other parents how to write résumés. The school’s IT guy offered to teach computer skills to school parents. It’s a way to deal with challenges with a “focus on the solutions, instead,” says Higgs/Carter. “By focusing on the solutions, we eliminate some of the challenges.”

Family-involvement efforts run district-wide. In partnership with area health organizations, students and community members receive broad-based health services. Parental engagement specialists help parents “connect the dots to support learning,” says Knight-Burney. Social workers include English as a Second Language specialists to support families in a district where 30 languages are spoken. One wait-listed, grant-funded program offers adults writing instruction and financial support to continue in college.

“As long as we have parents learning with their children, it all fits very well together,” says Knight-Burney.

The kindergarten-to-fourth grade Downey School, tucked behind Cameron Street, is creating a model for other district schools to follow, says Knight-Burney. Much of it is emerging from Together for Tomorrow, a federal initiative in partnership with Messiah College. The complex initiative promotes “capacity building” by creating partnerships among area businesses and institutions, says Chad Frey, director of Messiah College’s Agapé Center for Curricular Service Learning.

Under the initiative, Messiah College is tightening the focus of its service-learning courses, student-teacher placement and other teacher-education programs on the needs of Harrisburg school kids, says Frey.

At Downey, Messiah personnel work with administrators, teachers, area businesses and organizations and volunteers, such as Higgs/Carter, to “build capacity” – essentially, apply available resources toward shared goals of student achievement. That includes Messiah’s winning a grant to place an AmeriCorps Vista staffer in the school “to partner together on student goals and objectives relative to student achievement,” Frey says.

One measure of success is the skyrocketing rate of parent attendance at parent-teacher conferences, from 36 percent in year one to 95 percent by year three.

Downey is also home to “Leader in Me,” a program instilling kids with appropriate behavior and the character traits of success.

“There are certain things that need to be satisfied before kids markedly improve,” says Frey. “You’ve got to be in school. You’ve got to be able to behave in school. You’ve got to have an environment that’s safe for everyone to learn in, and once that happens, those scores start to come up.”

Urban schools require partnerships that serve the mutual needs of everyone involved, he says. And until poverty is resolved – an issue currently being tackled by city and economic development officials – the academic payoff will be delayed.

“Kids’ basic needs need to be taken care of,” says Frey.

In the meantime, Higgs/Carter is doing her best as a cheerleader for learning. Leadership traits, good behavior and attention to schooling pay out in academic achievement because they “stress the importance to the kids of being their best,” she says.

“Most of the kids who come in that building, their outlook on life is not really positive,” she says. “Some of them feel worthless. Some of them feel this is just today. They have no goals for the future. This gives them some pride in who they are and who they can become.”

Common CoreCommon Core! It’s Big Brother worming his way into classrooms filled with impressionable minds.

Or – Common Core! It’s a list of the concepts that children should know at each stage of their academic growth. And it wasn’t even developed by the Feds but by states working through the National Governors Association, with federal funding awarded to incentivize its adoption.

Whichever, it’s here.

Pennsylvania adopted Common Core in 2010. Adaptations in 2013 created what’s now known as the Pennsylvania Core Standards. Applied to language arts and math, the revisions gave the standards “a Pennsylvania flavor,” says Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

The theory behind Pennsylvania Core Standards is that students graduate from high school with the real-world knowledge needed to move on to college or career training.

With standards now in place statewide, attention has turned to a pending contextual change in their implementation, says Buckheit.

In December 2015, the U.S. Congress actually came to bipartisan agreement and replaced the reviled, test-driven No Child Left Behind with ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act stressing college- and career-readiness for all students.

Under ESSA, student-performance targets, achievement tests and supports for struggling schools are all state-driven. At some point, probably in 2017, states will have to submit an ESSA implementation plan to the Feds. To prepare, says Buckheit, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is reaching out to educators, parents and other stakeholders for guidance on implementing ESSA.

Does this mean that achievement tests will be a thing of the past?

Nope, sorry – states must still test reading, math and science at elementary, middle and high school. However, ESSA gives states some flexibility in administering those tests – perhaps lessening their size and length or replacing the high-school Keystone Exams with the SAT or ACT.

“All those things are on the table about exactly how we test, but in terms of the number of tests, that can’t be changed,” says Buckheit.