Harrisburg Schools aim to improve “worst” grad rate in Pa

HARRISBURG, Pa (WHTM) – The newly-selected Harrisburg Schools Chief Recovery Officer will have her plate full as the district aims to improve an abysmal graduation rate.

Outside Downey School, teachers were getting the students pumped up for the first day of school.

“Together we lead and our boys and girls are ready to go and we’re fired up to have a great school year!” shouted one teacher.

Educators are hoping to inspire students early in efforts to get them to graduation day, which has proven to be a challenge in Harrisburg.

According to the latest Pennsylvania Department of Education statistics, (2012-2013 academic year) the overall statewide four-year graduation rate improved to 86 percent from 77 percent ranking our state 15th in the nation.

However, the largest urban school districts are well below the average.

DISTRICT                   GRAD RATE

ERIE                                     76%

PHILADELPHIA                   65%

PITTSBURGH                      62%

READING                             61%

ALLENTOWN                       52%

HARRISBURG                     38%

Harrisburg had the worst rate for that school year. By comparison, Upper Darby Schools had the best urban district graduation rate and matched the state average.

Dr. Audrey Utley, who took over for Gene Veno in July, is the newly selected Chief Recovery Officer for Harrisburg Schools. The former educator in Steelton-Highspire and Middletown will bring her expertise to develop new programs under the Act 141 academic recovery plan.

“Urban districts must implement more extensive intervention, enrichment, and support programs for these students,” she said.

With the start of the new school year comes a new lesson plan. Students will learn a new, updated curriculum this year as agreed upon by the school board earlier this year.

Dr. Utley said there is a new program that offers positive learning support in classrooms as well as parent liaisons assigned to schools to ensure education continues at home.

She said the Hamilton School will begin a second change program, which will allow former students to return and earn credit towards a high school diploma. These programs among meetings with parents hope to bring a community-sense of responsibility towards improving education.

“The Harrisburg School District has challenges, there’s no question about that,” Dr. Utley said. “At its core, it has children that need to learn, it has teachers that want to teach, and it has parents and community members that want to make sure that their children succeed.”

Harrisburg Police Chief Thomas Carter traveled to four different schools on Monday to show support and boost morale to students heading to class. He said he wanted to show people that city students can accomplish great things with a proper education.

“Education is free for you — so take advantage of it,” he said.

Dr. Utley said she has already met with Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, State Representative Patty Kim (D-Dauphin County) and State Senator Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin County) in efforts to utilize every resource available to improve academics.

As Gene Veno helped settle the district finances in a fluid manner, Dr. Utley said academic recovery must be flexible with change as well. Part of the problem was the exodus of teachers during pay cuts and times of frozen salaries.

ABC27 reported earlier this year that at least 171 teachers left the district over the past two years. The scenario left an education gap with overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers trying to serve a population with a high volume of special needs and learning disabilities.

Dr. Utley said with the programs and added resources focused on specialized teaching, there also needs to be more student employment programs. She said the district will develop avenues to illustrate the different career opportunities available with a high school diploma, showing strong value in education.

Dr. Utley recognizes the challenges may be a tall task, but believes the changes can make a difference.

“Remaining in high school is going to be the best choice that they make,” she said.

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