#teacher | Harrisburg school leaders see improvement toward recovery, areas still in need of work

The long-failing Harrisburg School district has been under state control for little less than four months, and it’s been less than two months since students returned to their classrooms for 2019-20 year. But already, district leaders are reporting improvements, both in morale and procedure.

With that said, “there is still a lot to be done” to bring the district back to academic and financial success, said Harrisburg receiver Janet Samuels, who was appointed in June to oversee the district’s recovery.

That recovery came into focus when Samuels and members of her Recovery Advisory Committee recently heard from Rob Jentsch, managing director at Mass Insight Education & Research, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit hired by the state to study the district.

Jentsch had spent hours with administrators, department supervisors and building principals in an attempt to gauge their perception of the progress that has been made so far by Samuels and her team.

To measure that progress, Jentsch asked district leaders to weigh in on how well they thought the new team has worked to address top issues discovered during a Mass Insight study of the district. The findings of that study were presented to the recovery committee in June.

“There was an opportunity for school leaders, as well as central office leaders, to reflect on their own progress to push the work forward,” Jentsch said. “If it wasn’t going well, we really asked folks, particularly principals, to say that, and they did.”

  • RELATED: Harrisburg School District’s next big task: How to improve attendance

Jentsch interviewed 23 district leaders, and in many areas of concern, those officials saw at least some improvement.

That was true among about 30 percent of the group who said they have clearly seen work to seek out additional funding sources and to better align the district’s budget to its operational priorities. That’s all while making progress toward addressing issues such as early literacy problems.

And about 50 percent of those district leaders noticed improvements to other ongoing problems, reporting evidence of a renewed commitment to respectful interactions between adults, streamlined academic assessments and more established lines of communication between the district office and schools.

“It seems like people are seeing some differences,” Jentsch said, calling the feedback “pretty good overall.”

The full Mass Insight report can be seen below:

That report wasn’t surprising to Doug Thompson Leader, a member of the Recovery Advisory Committee and candidate for Harrisburg School Board.

“I’ve spoken to some teachers and I’ve heard some really good things about the professionalism of the administration and the responsiveness, so some of that feedback sounded familiar,” he said.

  • RELATED: Harrisburg schools chief Samuels expects quick improvements for failing district

Still, Jentsch made sure to point out that areas in need of improvement persist, and during his time with the district leaders, he asked them to rank those issues based on urgency. That includes improvements they feel must be made before next school year.

“It’s really important to spend time drilling down on what the problems are,” he said.

Chief among those desired improvements was the establishment of a recruitment plan for hiring high-quality teachers, as well as a plan to recruit and retain teachers with specialties in fields like English as a second language and special education.

That’s in addition to determining exactly how much money the school district has — a task that new administrators have been working toward since they took over the district in June. It’s been a complicated task due to missing financial records that should have been kept by the Harrisburg district’s previous administration.

More broadly, district leaders were asked to look to 2022, the year in which the court-ordered three-year takeover by the state could end.

By then, administrators should have set up a process by which teachers can be trained in skills to help them address “significant student learning needs,” Jentsch said, relaying his findings. That’s all while working to ensure that teacher absenteeism rates are kept low in all school buildings, the district leaders said.

It’s ultimately Samuels’ responsibility to create an amended recovery plan to inform how improvements will be achieved, but she stressed that all feedback from district leaders is being taken into consideration.

“You know, your voice is important,” she said. “Our goal is to gather up the data and then to use the data to inform our practices.”

Some of that work, she said, can begin immediately.

“To tell you the truth, there are some things that we could look at right now as a group and start moving on it,” Samuels said.

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