14 SDL schools on state's 'low-achieving' list
BY BRIAN WALLACE, Staff Writer
School District of Lancaster is well-represented on a list it would rather not find itself on: the lowest-achieving schools in Pennsylvania.
Nine SDL elementary and five district secondary schools are among the 406 schools across the state named to the "low-achieving schools" list, compiled to determine student eligibility for a state-funded scholarship program.
Last summer, two other Lancaster County public schools -- Pequea Valley High School and Columbia Junior/Senior High School -- also made the list. But those schools were removed for the 2013-14 school year after improving their students' PSSA math and/or reading test scores.
While scores for some SDL schools also improved, the district still has 14 schools on the list, which includes the lowest achieving 15 percent of schools in the state, based on students' average PSSA scores in the two subjects.
SDL Superintendent Pedro Rivera defended his district's schools, saying Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores are "simply one indicator of achievement."
In a prepared statement, Rivera pointed out that SDL schools have made progress in other areas, including improving graduation rates and literacy achievement and increasing the number of students taking advanced-placement courses, earning International Baccalaureate diplomas and attending college.
"Being identified as 'low achieving' does not capture the true essence of what the School District of Lancaster and other urban districts provide," he said in the statement.
SDL has challenges that are largely unique to urban districts, including large numbers of refugees (3 percent of all students), immigrants (4 percent), English language learners (18 percent) and economically disadvantaged students (82 percent), Rivera said.
"Given the diverse needs of our families and students, we are proud of the many ways in which we have enriched our students' lives academically, socially and emotionally," he said.
The list of low-achieving schools determines who may participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which provides scholarships of up to $15,000 for tuition for students to attend private schools or other public schools.
Students living within the low-achieving schools' attendance areas may apply for the scholarships, which are funded by businesses that receive state tax credits for their contributions.
The state set aside $50 million for the first-year program this year, but businesses have applied for a mere $13 million in credits so far, said Steven Katz, spokesman for the state Department of Community & Economic Development, which runs the program.
How many students have received scholarships won't be known until scholarship organizations file renewal applications in May, Katz said.
According to the state Department of Education, as many as 240,000 students statewide could benefit from the program next school year.
Students living in "low-achieving" school attendance areas can qualify for scholarships in 2013-14 if their household income is no more than $75,000, plus $12,000 for each dependent member of their household.
The program, which began in August, has had little impact on enrollment at the low-achieving schools here, according to district officials.
SDL spokeswoman Kelly Burkholder said her district has not experienced enrollment declines at any school that could be attributed to the scholarship program.
Columbia Superintendent Barry Clippinger said his district also has not lost students as a result of transfers by pupils using Opportunity Scholarships.