Overseeing 11,000 students on a daily basis requires great balance.
That’s particularly the case considering most of those students come from low-income households and about one-fifth are English language learners.
That’s one of the significant challenges facing leaders of Lancaster County’s largest school district: determining which services to provide, and which to cut, with a limited amount of resources.
School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau and school board President Edith Gallagher both described how they deal with the struggles the district and its students regularly face, as well as what makes the district special, during an interview Tuesday with the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board.
Here’s three takeaways from the conversation.
Lancaster is facing a potential $10 million budget deficit this upcoming year. To close it, administrators and school board members are contemplating raising taxes, program cuts, increasing class sizes and leaving vacant positions unfilled.
But Rau and Gallagher suggest the district wouldn’t be in this position if the state offered more support.
Rau said only 8% of the state’s funding to the district goes through the basic education funding formula. Enacted in 2016, the formula accounts for objective measures such as enrollment and poverty. But only new money since the 2014-15 school year flows through the formula, leaving districts in need behind.
“If we had fair funding, our schools wouldn’t be in such disrepair,” Rau said.
Lancaster is involved in a lawsuit filed by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center in 2014 that says Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional and shortchanges students in districts like Lancaster.
The case is headed to trial in the Commonwealth Court this summer.
Eliminating racial bias
Among the most struggling students in Lancaster are black middle school males. The district discovered in 2018 that those students were suspended more frequently than their peers and many ended up dropping out.
It interviewed teachers, students and community leaders and formed an equity design team tasked with eliminating racial bias in schools. The district also started a mentorship program for black students who are too often lacking confidence, Rau said.
“It’s just a matter of being cognizant of a different perspective,” Rau said.
In the last two years, Rau said, suspensions among black males in the last two years have declined by 25%.
Moving the needle
Rau and Gallagher also took the opportunity Tuesday to tout what’s special about the district: namely, its diversity.
“The diversity of our school is one of our strengths,” Gallagher said. “And it’s just an incredibly vibrant place to go to school.”
Gallagher said she once heard Lancaster referred to as a “gang school,” which, she said, made her crazy.
“We have some urban challenges is what I like to say,” Rau said. “But our kids are very smart. They’re very kind to others.”
Rau said more than 350 students are dual-enrolled in college classes, and the district’s renowned International Baccalaureate program has extended into the middle schools.
Gallagher said the efforts initiated by Rau, who’s coming up on five years as superintendent, will soon start to affect graduation rates, which have remained in the low 80s.
“Maybe I’m too optimistic,” she said, “but I’d say within the next five years we will see our graduation rates come up.”