It’s no secret that the Greater Johnstown School District isn’t as prosperous as those around it.
According to a recently released report, “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregated School District Borders” by independent New Jersey organization EdBuild, Johnstown school district ranks as having one of the most “economically segregated” borders in the country.
According to the information, the district experiences a 42% poverty rate with the median household income of $28,614. That’s compared to Westmont that has a 10% poverty rate with a $66,520 median household income and Richland with a 11% poverty rate and $56,537 median income.
Conemaugh Valley, Conemaugh Township, Ligonier Valley, Central Cambria and Blacklick Valley school districts are also compared in the data because they border Greater Johnstown School District in some way. The next closest in poverty rate is Conemaugh Valley with 21%. Ferndale School District isn’t listed in the report.
“I think one thing to highlight with the report, given the border drawn around Greater Johnstown and others like it, is we can see there are resources in the area,” EdBuilds Director of Policy Zahava Stadler said. “This is a very significant poverty level.”
Pennsylvania holds five of the 50 most economically segregated borders, the report states. That’s behind Michigan with the third most at six, New York with the second most at nine and neighboring Ohio holding the most with 17. The remaining are split among Connecticut, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Arizona.
“Almost all of the deepest divides are located in two areas – the former Rust Belt and the Deep South. Both of these regions have been largely left behind by shifts in industry and changes in our workforce,” according to the report.
Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio said the district doesn’t live in the world outlined by “Fault Lines” and doesn’t spend much time talking about how poor they are.
She used a metaphor to explain, stating that the school district is like parents with no money for Christmas. It doesn’t matter that they can’t afford it, they find a way to provide the holiday for their family.
“We have learned to stretch our dollar,” Arcurio said.
Wearing many hats
A way this is accomplished is by consolidating positions, something the district has been doing for awhile. Arcurio said the teachers and other faculty members wear many hats.
According to her, Johnstown has the benefit of employing good teachers, despite financial challenges. That’s because they aren’t there for the money but because they’re “passionate about making a difference,” she said.
Arcurio gave the example of the advisers to the Interact and Key clubs who aren’t compensated for their time with the groups. They are volunteering and mentoring these students because they see the value of the clubs and want to lend a hand, she said.
Arcurio also spoke highly of Business Manager Eric Kocsis and his team, who do a “phenomenal” job, according to her.
The district also relies heavily on revitalization efforts in the city. Arcurio, who said she sits on several committees and boards, stated that these two endeavors go hand in hand.
“If the city wins, the school district wins,” she said.
Greater Johnstown School District spends a great deal of time educating the students on the opportunities already available here in town. The faculty also show students that they can be “economic game changers in the area,” Arcurio said, adding that students don’t have to leave Johnstown to have a good job.
This is done, according to school officials, in-part through the district being its own career and technology school, partnering with local organizations such as Johnstown Welding and Fabricating, Conemaugh Hospital, the Johnstown Regional Chamber of Commerce, Penn Highlands Community College and Johnstown Area Regional Industries, to name a few.
Recently, Greater Johnstown has partnered with California software company Intuit, known for QuickBooks and TurboTax, to create an entrepreneurial club at the high school.
Intuit is providing the funding to create a website and take a product to market that students create and the stipend for a coach. Arcurio said the schools are savvy to clubs and opportunities that can boost students futures, such as this one.
Essentially, Greater Johnstown embraces innovation and acts as a trailblazer for new programs despite the fact that the funding isn’t there, she explained.
However, finances are always a concern. The district is left up to local property taxes to try and bankroll all their operations, which isn’t an easy task. Raising those taxes to try and make up for the shortfall isn’t an option either, Arcurio said.
School officials don’t want to place another burden on local families who they know are already struggling. Other options are explored instead, such as grants.
“We are living on grants,” Arcurio said.
Everything that the district can possible write a grant for they are, Kocsis commented.
Greater Johnstown spirits are steady at the moment, but the 2017-18 school year was a dire time for the district.
Administrators almost closed everything and entered into receivership through the state because the finances there were so poor, Arcurio and Kocsis said.
That’s what led to the closure of the Garfield Middle School. At that point the whole district was redesigned from the ground up and the pair said it “helped tremendously.”
The district saves $1.2 million annually by not having Garfield open any more, according to Kocsis.
This precarious financial balancing act can’t go on forever, and school officials know that. Ultimately, the district would like to sell off Garfield as finances slowly recover, Kocsis stated.
“We are at the minimum of what we need to be to be operationally successful,” Arcurio said.
Another challenge facing the district is a massive transient population. At the elementary school alone there were 400 students in and out in one recent year, Arcurio explained.
That creates a huge impact on several aspects of education, such as test scores, according to her. The challenge stems from the administration needing to place a student and not knowing the comprehension level that student is actually at.
“When we are constantly trying to catch students up, we have to use resources – and not everyone gets what they need,” Arcurio said.
Even with this difficulty, Arcurio said Greater Johnstown has 80% of students enrolled in advanced placement classes, college courses or advanced technical education courses. The state average is 57%.
The point of the survey wasn’t to show that Greater Johnstown is poor, but the reason behind the poverty and how other nearby institutions do comparatively, Stadler said.
It’s not Johnstown’s fault, it’s Pennsylvania’s fault, according to her. In order to fix that there needs to be some form of policy change at the state level.
Stadler said one possibility is redistricting area schools in order to more evenly spread the wealth around.
Combining schools isn’t an option, though. Arcurio said something such as that can’t be done because no one wants to give up their identity. She’s seen it tried before in other areas and watched it continue not to work.
Instead, Greater Johnstown returns to the drawing board and tries again, Kocsis and Arcurio said. If that attempt doesn’t work, then the administration and board work together to come up with a new solution.
Right now the bet is on preparing students for a strong future in the local workforce by introducing them to area industry leaders and offering classes to prepare them.
Despite little funding and reports showing how much the district is suffering, Arcurio said she is the “eternal optimist” when it comes to the schools.
She instead focuses on Johnstown’s constant innovation and how the district is “successful in so many other ways.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education could not be reached for comment.