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Still waiting

Highspire parents file in Commonwealth Court to speed resolution of moving students to Middletown

By Dan Miller
Posted 2/28/17

Highspire parents such as Nicole Robinson already have been waiting a long time for the state to decide on whether students like her 13-year-old son Ethan can be transferred from Steelton-Highspire …

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Still waiting

Highspire parents file in Commonwealth Court to speed resolution of moving students to Middletown


Highspire parents such as Nicole Robinson already have been waiting a long time for the state to decide on whether students like her 13-year-old son Ethan can be transferred from Steelton-Highspire School District to attend schools in Middletown Area School District.
Chances are, it could still be a long time before the matter is resolved, despite lawyers for the parents taking the extraordinary step of going to Commonwealth Court on Feb. 21 to compel the Pennsylvania Department of Education to finally make a decision on the matter.
It has been 28 months since October 2014, when Dauphin County Court formally requested the department decide upon a petition from the Highspire Education Coalition, representing 55 percent of Highspire property owners, that the 229 students living in Highspire be allowed to transfer from Steelton-Highspire to Middletown because of what the parents considered to be Steelton-Highspire’s abysmal record of academic performance.

Visit on tap for Middletown

Two independent consultants hired by the state Department of Education regarding the Highspire petition will conduct an onsite visit of the Middletown Area School District throughout the day on Wednesday, March 1, Superintendent Lori Suski told the school board on Monday, Feb. 27.
Suski said she received a phone call Monday morning during which she was provided with “a very lengthy list of questions” that the consultants expect Suski to be prepared to answer during the visit. The two consultants will be spending the entire day with Suski during the March 1 visit “to finalize their assessment of the educational merits of the Highspire petition,” Suski told the board.
Suski noted that the contact from PDE setting up the visit followed the coalition taking their case to Commonwealth Court.
“I fully anticipate that the department is going to make a determination of the Highspire situation in the very near future,” Suski told the board.

Why no decision?

Typically, the Department of Education usually renders a decision in one of these transfer petitions within about 15 months, said Brian Carter, an attorney with Johnson, Duffie, Stewart & Weidner, the Lemoyne-based law firm that represents the coalition. Carter has said that the number of students involved — 229 — makes this transfer petition one of the largest in scope that the department has been asked to consider in recent memory.
The petition requests Commonwealth Court hand down an order that would require PDE to issue a decision on the coalition’s petition within 30 days.
In response, PDE spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman in an emailed statement said that “Over the past several months, the department has continued a thorough evaluation of the petition. That has included speaking with leaders from other districts, and reviews of academics and curriculum, assessment and growth, and capacity issues, like classroom space and technology. The department is focused on ensuring a decision is made based on the educational merits of the petition and a decision that best serves students.”
However, even if the coalition succeeds in getting PDE to issue a decision, there are numerous “monkey wrenches” that could potentially further delay the process for an indefinite period, Carter noted.
Any of the three parties could appeal PDE’s decision within 10 days of the decision being issued. Steelton-Highspire and Middletown are on record as opposing the petition. The coalition could also appeal the decision, presumably if PDE denies its petition. Even in the unlikely event that none of the three parties appeal the PDE decision, the decision is subject to being upheld by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education.
The board is not a rubber stamp, as born out by a petition submitted by parents in Washington Township, York County, seeking to transfer their students from Dover Area School District to Northern York School District. PDE approved the petition, only to have the state board deny it.
The Washington Township Education Coalition appealed the state board’s rejection to Commonwealth Court, which has ordered the state board to reconsider the transfer. The state board has set a public hearing on the case for Thursday, March 9.
In its Feb. 21 petition to Commonwealth Court, lawyers for the Highspire petition repeated several of the arguments that were made in the original 2014 petition as evidence of Steelton-Highspire being “one of the poorest performing school districts in Pennsylvania.”
According to the petition, these include:
• Steelton-Highspire as a whole and its individual schools never meeting Adequate Yearly Progress under the School Performance Profile between 2008-2012.
• Significant increases in Steelton-Highspire students scoring at the basic and below basic levels across Pennsylvania System of School Assessment testing cohorts between 2009-2014.
• Between 2008-2014 an average Scholastic Aptitude Test composite score 264 points lower than the commonwealth average, with Steelton-Highspire coming no closer than 183 points of the commonwealth average during this time.
• A decreasing rate of Steelton-Highspire graduates seeking post-secondary education, especially at four-year institutions.
• The Pennsylvania Auditor General reporting in February 2014 that Steelton-Highspire School District is going backwards as a result of significant increases in liabilities and the lack of progress in addressing and rectifying deficiencies noted in consecutive audit reports, resulting in the district being placed on an accelerated audit schedule.
These points suggest that nothing has happened in the Steelton-Highspire School District — that the district has been frozen in time since the petition was filed in October 2014. But changes have been made, and are being made, Steelton-Highspire Superintendent Travis Waters said in a statement for this article that was emailed to the Press & Journal.
“We disagree with the petition,” Waters said. “One of the issues raised is the Auditor General’s report which was conducted before any of the current administration worked in the school district.”
“We make every effort to provide the best education possible for the students of Steelton and Highspire despite economic and social challenges. We will continue to work on behalf of students and the community and have begun several initiatives that we believe will enhance the school district including partnering with institutions of higher education, investigating the expansion of early childhood education, the expansion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs including our aquaponics program, increasing revenue to the district by way of grants, and centralizing student family supports to better serve the community,” Waters said.

Nicole and Ethan wait

Nicole and her son Ethan moved to Highspire from Baltimore County in Maryland in 2013.
She researched the school district before moving here. She was aware that the school district was “questionable” but she still planned to enroll Ethan in Steelton-Highspire, until she actually came here and learned that the district was in worse shape than she had thought.
Confronted with the district’s poor test scores, how the district handled bullying of students, and what she described as poor leadership at the administrative level, Robinson never enrolled Ethan and has been home-schooling him ever since. He is now 13 and in the eighth grade. Nevertheless, Robinson said that she and the other Highspire parents sought to give the district a chance.
“We repeatedly went to the district with concerns about test scores, money being spent on sports but not education, the number of students per teacher, and how violence is handled” by the school district, Robinson said. The parents were ignored, in her view.
Nicole said that Ethan is strong in math and especially in science, and that he tests near the top in these subjects in the PSSA.
At the same time, Ethan knows he is missing out. Being isolated from other students makes it difficult to make friends.
“I don’t actually get much face to face contact with many other students,” he said.
“He’s lonely,” Nicole said of her son. “I would consider sending my son to a public school if the options were better. I want my child to have the opportunity for hands-on learning in a social environment. I would like for him to be able to walk outside and see some fellow classmates that he knows, and build relationships.”
Robinson said it is disheartening that she and other parents have had to wait so long for a decision.
She and the other Highspire parents could take matters into their own hands by moving out of the district, but that’s “easier said than done.”
“Not everyone is in the economical or personal position to move. This is a small town and people have ties with families and friends,” Robinson said. “To uproot your child is not an option that people take lightly. Basically everyone kind of wishes they had some better options, but the reality is not so easy.”