Back to school in Pennsylvania Through the eyes of an educator: Secondary English teacher Ashlie Crosson with Mifflin County School District talks about how educators are preparing for the upcoming school year.
Providing quality education to over 1.5 million K-12 students across 500 public school districts. That is the challenge for Pennsylvania educators each school year.
And each district comes with its own unique challenges.
Secondary English teacher Ashlie Crosson calls Mifflin County her home. The Lewistown Area graduate takes pride in her students.
“Overall, it’s great when a student says ‘this is the first book I’ve read start to finish…’ or ‘I’m six chapters ahead.’ That tells me they’re engaged with it and they’re thinking critically, even before a class discussion,” Crosson said.
According to PA Schools Work, Mifflin County ranked 433 out of all 500 districts, with per pupil spending estimated at roughly $14,850 a student. And her department has kept up in the amount of proficient test scores (53.1%) when compared to the state average (54.6%).
“We completely redid our curriculum in the past two years, and all of our department had a pretty big part of that; it was a real collaborative effort,” Crosson said. “And with that we’ve brought a lot of student choice in the text we read and the classes we offer.”
Genre-based classes were the result of the department’s collaborative efforts. After surveying their students, classes such as sports literature, sci-fi novels, coming of age stories and even survival novels became available to students. With education being a “skills-based” curriculum, teachers at Mifflin County have found it easier to weave state standards into the texts their students are interested in.
“You could figure out how to teach the phonebook and still be teaching English standards if you really wanted to,” Crosson said.
Nominated by staff at her previous district, Crosson has spent this past year preparing for a trip to Harrisburg. The Commonwealth’s Department of Education recognized her as a finalist for the 2024 Teacher of the Year. In December, the department will announce a teacher from the finalists, but all are inducted into a “Class of 2024.”
Amidst a growing teacher shortage and education funding debate, schools in Pennsylvania have become a top legislative focus in Harrisburg.
According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, instructional licenses, or teaching certifications, have decreased by at least 49% for all subjects, with at least a 70% decline for secondary STEM subjects from 2011-2018. Even the rate of education degrees at colleges and universities has gone down nationwide. It’s something that Crosson herself has noticed.
“If you’re in a stem career and you could teach biology, chemistry, physics, or you could go be an engineer—one of those pays significantly more than the other,” Crosson said.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) has made it a legislative priority this fall to make teacher salaries more competitive. The average pay, according to The World Population Review, shows the average salary of a Pennsylvania teacher ranks in the top 15 nationwide, at just over $75,000 a year. But according to the teacher’s union, that number does not account for what a majority of teachers are actually making.
“When you look at average salaries, you’re averaging out everybody,” PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal said. “The challenge we have is that starting salaries, while they are better than many other states, when you compare them to other industries and other careers here in Pennsylvania, they are not as competitive in some places as they are in others.”
“What we want to focus on, really, is making the pathway more affordable for more people,” Lilienthal said. “And then once they’re there, making sure they pay a salary that is competitive.”
Even after a Commonwealth Court ruled that the way Pennsylvania funds its schools was unconstitutional, teachers like Crosson see these legislative priorities benefiting students as well.
“A student should have the same resources, no matter what district they are in,” Crosson said. “And the biggest resource in education is your teachers.”
According to NBC News, Mifflin County has four teacher positions still vacant less than a month before the start of school, with some positions getting zero applications. Pay was listed as a significant factor in some of these departures.
“There are a lot of districts where you can work 10, 15, 20 years and still not reach $60,000,” Crosson said. “So you’re not just helping new teachers, you’re helping your veteran teachers as well.”
While teachers like Miss Crosson will get a moment to reflect on her achievements during her induction ceremony this year, it’s the future that stays top of mind.
“I’m very much of the mindset, a rising tide lifts all boats,” Crosson said. “If we are making education more competitive and more enticing to another generation of teachers, then we’re gonna have better teachers in our classrooms… as a result, our community is going to rise.”
How to meet the needs of Pennsylvania students in 2023: The gap in funding for Pennsylvania students has widened significantly, according to Solanco School District superintendent Dr. Brian Bliss.
Superintendent Dr. Brian Bliss knows the importance of providing quality education to students of the Solanco School District.
“A parent who sends their child to school every day, that’s a tremendous leap of faith,” Dr. Bliss said. “Parents want their kids to obviously succeed academically, but they also want them connected, they want them engaged, they want them inspired.”
And as treasurer of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), he has learned that no two districts out of Pennsylvania’s 500 are exactly alike.
“Rural schools often take more of a role in the complete education of a child,” Dr. Bliss said. “Going beyond just the academics, because we are a provider of all of those social services as well.”
PARSS, which represents over 200 of Pennsylvania’s districts, was a listed plaintiff in a recent Commonwealth Court case that found the system by which the Keystone State funds its public districts was unconstitutional. The lawsuit cited disparities across the Commonwealth, many of which came from rural and small school districts.
“This was a decision that’s been decades in the making,” Dr. Bliss said. “Actually, these disparities were pointed out in the 60s.”
The gap in funding for Pennsylvania students has widened significantly, according to Dr. Bliss. In recent years, Solanco has seen their projected costs increase rapidly, while money from the state has not kept pace. According to PA Schools Work, a coalition of organizations from across Pennsylvania representing teachers and other educators, Solanco ranks 293rd out of 500 districts in per pupil spending. These disparities have brought the topic of school choice back to the general assembly as a way for parents to have more of say in where they send their child.
“Most parents, especially those in higher income families, already have educational choices,” said Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg. “They choose where to live based on the schools.”
The Commonwealth Foundation is looking to see the passage of Lifeline Scholarships, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) program. This would give education opportunity accounts (EOAs) to any student residing in a school ranked in the bottom 15% of performance.
This voucher program created a long impasse in the general assembly, causing the main spending plan for Pennsylvania to be signed a month overdue. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro initially supported the proposal, to the chagrin of most Democrats and teachers unions. However, Shapiro eventually announced that he would use a line-item veto to take the program out of the budget.
“Providing families with every option—public, private, charter—that is the solution to really address the inequities in our system,” Benefield said. “Every student needs to have access to an excellent education. PASS scholarships is a way to provide that to students who don’t currently have that.”
Since the pandemic, testing scores for students in Pennsylvania have been on the decline, a sight that many parents are noticing. Parents have taken up positions on school boards, joined advocacy groups and more. For many, it’s about getting clear communication from their districts.
Alex Hewitt, a parent in the Gettysburg Area School District, has been advocating for more career paths in trade fields for Adams County students. Hewitt is a member of an Occupational Advisory Committee (OAC) for horticulture. According to Hewitt, a change in Gettysburg’s schedule this year will include an “ARC” period. Concerned about possible instructional time being lost for agriculture classes, Hewitt went to the administration for answers but was met with mixed messages.
“They were saying it was ‘Oh it was COVID or it was for COVID…’ and I didn’t like the answer, so I kept digging, ” Hewitt said. “They finally, after push and shove… that it was actually in the contract with the PDE that they had to do this schedule change.”
Hewitt says he was finally given this answer after organizing multiple meetings with school administrators. And while he did find an answer, he wishes the process to get those answers could get easier for parents.
“The transparency and lack of communication for us parents is very frustrating,” Hewitt said. “If they had just come out and said, ‘hey we’re contractually obligated or legally obligated to change the schedule,’ that’s one thing. But the hiding and sneakiness just puts a very bad taste in my mouth as a parent.”
In a written statement to FOX43, Hewitt also added: “…the school system needs to give our students all the tools and assets at their disposal to be successful without bias in their career choice. This would be career trades such as welding, plumbing, building trades and many more. We challenge kids to be different and walk their own path. The school system should help students, with the help of parents, achieve their goals.”
In the past two school years, more calls for parental rights in schools have been a topic for local school boards and the legislative branch of government.
“Parental rights are essential.” Dr. Bliss said. “Making sure parents have a voice and that the school district and the parent are in partnership… and through the years, I’ve learned that listening is essential. Each year it becomes more and more important.”
Bliss says trust is a key factor in the partnership between districts and parents.
“Trust is supported by transparency and a history of good decision making; that’s a covenant that you make with your community,” he added. “One thing that we work very hard is making sure our budget is as open and transparent as possible.”
Solanco has been recognized by the Government Finance Officers Association for its public budget, organized with line items of revenue sources and expenditures. This allows parents and local taxpayers to see year over year the changes the district makes and where their money is going.
And while administrators play a role in making sure communication is clear to parents, teachers also have a role to play.
“The last thing you want to do is alienate a child in your classroom,” Ashlie Crosson, secondary English teacher for Mifflin County, said. “I send a letter home at the beginning of the year, asking parents to share anything they want me to know about their kid. If I know this student has divorced parents, or this student is new to the district, or this student did remote learning… All of those things help me be a better educator… it’s a tremendous partnership.”
Crosson says she loves being able to work with parents and meet the needs of students through a collaborative effort with their parents. She’s provided alternative readings and lesson plans at the request of parents. Her work in education has earned her a spot as a finalist for the 2024 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.
“I think this is one of the coolest parts about being a teacher in this era,” Crosson said. “Oftentimes, families and communities are looking at their schools and saying, ‘how do we help this whole generation get better together?’ It’s because we realize that we have much more opportunity for positive success together than an individual approach.”
Pennsylvania education funding gets failing grade: A Commonwealth Court ruled earlier this year that the way Pennsylvania funds its schools is unconstitutional, citing disparities in the amount each institution gets.