locally owned since 1854

Superintendent outlines Steel-High challenges in light of parents’ petition to send children to MASD

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 2/28/18

Steelton-Highspire School District Superintendent Travis Waters wasn’t surprised when the Pennsylvania Department of Education rejected a petition from a group of Highspire parents to let their …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Superintendent outlines Steel-High challenges in light of parents’ petition to send children to MASD

Posted

Steelton-Highspire School District Superintendent Travis Waters wasn’t surprised when the Pennsylvania Department of Education rejected a petition from a group of Highspire parents to let their children attend Middletown Area School District.

“It’s a much deeper issue than school choice,” Waters said. “There are a whole host of issues that go along with growing up in poverty.”

In 2014, the Highspire Education Coalition filed a petition with the court, at the time asking to transfer 229 students living within the boundaries of Steel-High to MASD.

In its decision filed earlier this month, PDE Deputy Secretary Matthew Stem concluded that while students may benefit educationally from transferring to MASD, the transfer would negatively affect Steel-High students and the district’s finances.

Waters acknowledged that there were disparities between the two districts — one of the biggest, he said, was the early childhood education offerings. In the past, Steel-High used to have all-day kindergarten like MASD, but budget cuts led to reducing the kindergarten program to half-day.

Currently, Steel-High has six half-day kindergarten and three Headstart — a program targeted toward children ages 3 to 5 that is designed to help a child’s literacy, cognitive and socio-emotional skills.

Students are going to benefit more from all-day kindergarten, Waters said, and the district is working to bring it back.

“There is a disparity there, and what are we going to do to address that,” Waters said.

According to PDE’s decision, 30 percent of families with children living in Steel-High borders earn wages at or below the poverty line. Stem noted that this number is almost double the rate compared to MASD and Dauphin County.

Generally speaking, Waters said there are challenges for students who grow up in poverty compared to those who come from affluent families. For example, he said the students are more likely to be exposed to lead-based poisoning, alcohol or drug abuse and unhealthy eating habits.

“Steelton-Highspire is a food desert,” Waters said. He explained that if a parent does not have reliable transportation, the family might be getting their food from convenience stores.

In his own experience, when his daughter was 5 years old, she had been on a plane several times and knew what a tarmac or airport taxi was. Students in poverty, Waters said, are not exposed to similar vocabulary levels and may not come into school at the same academic level as his or her peers.

According to Stem’s report, from 2013 to 2015, MASD students scored an average composite SAT score of 261 points higher than their Steel-High peers. Additionally, Middletown students scored higher on the ACT and Advanced Placement exams. During the same period of time, MASD performed better in every grade and subject area on the Pennsylvania System School of Assessment — a standardized test measuring students’ proficiency in math, English language arts and science from grades three through eight.

What is Steel-High doing to address these issues? Waters said the district is taking a holistic approach — hiring a school social worker who can connect families to resources, meeting with expectant parents and discussing healthy eating options.

In the schools, school leaders are adding socio-emotional curriculum, which Waters said could improve school climate while also addressing bullying complaints and class disruption.

“If you can improve the climate, you can improve the achievement,” he said.

Stem also concluded that transferring the students would negatively impact the Steel-High students who remain in the district.

The transfer, Waters said, would move the tax base away from Steelton-Highspire.

“It would devastate the school financially,” he said.

According to Stem’s report, Steel-High was identified as a “financially distressed school district, and in 2013, Steelton-Highspire was placed on financial watch. Waters said the district’s financial situation has improved. In 2017-18, for the first time in six years, the district had more revenue than expenditures.

However, coalition spokesman Ken Becker said in a press release that PDE’s decision solidifies the coalition’s view that students would benefit academically from transferring to the Middletown district.

On Feb. 12, coalition lawyers requested an administrative hearing with PDE in Commonwealth Court.

“If this decision is not reversed, it will force Highspire children to remain in a school district that district officials and the department both recognize is failing academically,” Becker said.