Greater Johnstown High School

Greater Johnstown High School is shown in this file photo from Jan. 3, 2017.

A list of Pennsylvania public schools – including Greater Johnstown – tasked with educating some of the state’s poorest urban neighborhoods received a share of a $15 million boost Monday.

As part of a comprehensive statewide school improvement program, Greater Johnstown received $501,160 for two programs designed to battle some of the classroom level-consequences of poverty, district officials said.

At a time that the opioid epidemic, street violence among young adults and broken homes are directly and indirectly impacting the district’s children – and often derailing their ability to learn – the move will add social workers to the elementary and middle schools to help them sort through difficult issues and cope, Assistant Superintendent Amy Arcurio said.

And with an eye toward guiding tomorrow’s teens onto a better path before they fall into the same trappings, the funds will also enable the district to launch a proven reading proficiency program for kindergarten to third graders. It would allow the district to add a full-time educator to work closely with students falling behind at the early – but critical – stage before it becomes a roadblock to their education.

“If students don’t become proficient in reading by the third grade, it gets to the point there isn’t enough time in a school day to catch them up,” Arcurio said, noting that at that point, the educational process switches from “learn to read” to “reading to learn.”

“And for those who fall behind, once comprehension breaks down, school starts to become a place where they don’t want to be. They don’t feel good about themselves, and they start struggling behaviorally, too.”

Greater Johnstown’s district encompasses an area with a greater than 40 percent poverty rate, making it one of the state’s highest.

Arcurio credited the state’s improvement program for giving schools the “flexibility” to address their own unique, but similar, issues. Monday’s list of fellow grantees – Allentown, Harrisburg City, Philadelphia and Reading among them – are all educating a growing percentage of children who arrive for kindergarten well-behind their peers, and even more so ones in more affluent communities.

School officials in those communities, Greater Johnstown included, have been pleading for help from the state for years, saying those challenges make it all but impossible to meet the state’s achievement standards.

“We’re all fighting the same fight – and when it comes to these terrible problems our communities are struggling with, it leaves districts like ours responsible to provide a lot of extra services that neighboring suburban districts don’t have to worry about,” Arcurio said.

Over the past 15 years, Greater Johnstown has added school resource officers and posted security guards inside its entry ways, among other moves.

Arcurio said the district has recognized for years that social workers could be valuable additions inside the school who could help sort out some student behavioral problems in-house or connect students with available resources that might make a difference. 

As “community navigators,” they might also be able to help stop other issues from escalating into bigger problems, she said.

By providing needed support to children at the earliest elementary school levels as soon as this school year, Arcurio said district officials hope they’ll be able to better cope with issues around them later in life, and be less likely to develop dangerous behavioral patterns.

“Hopefully, the need for support services – such as social workers – will diminish over time,” she said. “We know that grants like this don’t last forever. Once they deplete, the funding (for social workers) is gone, so we’re hopeful this is a plan that will address our needs now, and in the future.”

The funding will also enable the district to create and fund a “parent liaison” position. The liaison would be able transport district parents to the school for parent-teacher conferences and other school meetings, Arcurio said.

In recent years, a growing number of parents have told officials they cannot come to the school, when requested, because they do not drive or have access to a vehicle.

And schedules and public transportation routes don’t always align, district officials said.

“For some parents, coming to a teacher conference might not be easy. It might be a single parent with three children at home with them ... and no vehicle,” Arcurio said.

Arcurio said Greater Johnstown has several district-owned vehicles, and school officials are looking into whether one of them could be used as a liaison vehicle.

Other districts across the state have also added parent liaisons. Harrisburg City schools added the position in recent years to coordinate parenting courses, finance classes and to improve school attendance, among other moves.

The Department of Education’s “System For District and School Improvement” was originally launched a year ago as a pilot program in the Pittsburgh and Allentown school districts.

The decision to expand it reflects the “conditions, challenges and opportunities” confronting some of Pennsylvania’s cities and towns, Governor Tom Wolf said Monday.

“These grants will build on our investments in education to help prepare students for future success,” he said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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