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Harrisburg School District outlines plan for federal relief funds, may reopen William Penn, Steele Elementary schools

William Penn High School

The Harrisburg School District has announced a plan with big implications, potentially reopening two of its former buildings and restructuring its classrooms.

During a virtual informational session on Tuesday, Superintendent Eric Turman introduced a four-year plan to help the district recover in the wake of the pandemic and to grow.

“We want to be as transparent as possible so that everybody knows what the potential plan can be and everybody knows where we are taking this,” Turman said.

A substantial aspect of Turman’s plan would include rehabbing the former William Penn High School, near Italian Lake, which has sat vacant and deteriorating for years.

While the district has considered selling the building over the years, with several local developers and organizations offering bids, Turman explained a new plan to transform the building. Under his plan, it would become a magnet school for 6th- to 8th-grade students in the district.

The 28 total acres of property would provide space to expand, he said.

The William Penn reopening is just one of several changes that Turman hopes to make with the district’s possibly $83 million total share of federal COVID relief funds. The district has already received two previous rounds of this Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding and is in the process of submitting an application with their plans to secure $50.3 million third-round funds.

The money will help the district address impacts that the pandemic has had, including a widened achievement gap, increased mental/social-emotional needs, health and safety concerns, strain on family supports and financial instability, Turman said.

“You’re talking about $83 million that, when you step away from this, must be life-changing for this community that we serve,” he said.

In addition to William Penn, the district is considering reopening Steele Elementary School, on N. 5th Street, to spread out elementary students. This would allow for 520 students to be moved from current buildings and for 26 classrooms to open, Turman explained.

Under the plan, Cougar Academy, the district’s virtual/in-person hybrid school, along with Harrisburg Virtual Learning Academy, the cyber school option, would expand, as well. They may move into the Lincoln building on State Street, which currently houses the district’s administration.

Some grades will also be moved around and curriculums expanded as the district works to address negative impacts of COVID on students’ learning.

Turman noted that data shows that 58% of Harrisburg kindergarten students were below their grade level in math in 2021, a jump from 36% in 2019. Those below their grade level in reading jumped 17% as well, he said.

Kindergarten and pre-K classrooms may open in the Lincoln building. Turman said that they also hope to open a pre-K site at each elementary school.

Under Turman’s plan, 5th-grade students would be impacted, as well, as the district is considering transitioning the grade from the middle school level back to elementary.

Based on the school’s data, there have been significant increases in behavioral and educational issues that arise when students transferred from 4th to 5th grade. Daily attendance dropped and suspensions rose significantly between the grades, Turman explained.

“When you look at the data […] we have some concerns for our 5th-grade students in the environment that they’re currently in,” Turman said.

At the high school level, Turman explained that there will be more career readiness education implemented as part of the plan.

Overall, Turman said that Harrisburg is looking to continue setting the foundation for the plan and conducting studies this school year. In the 2022-23 school year, the district anticipates starting construction and revamping curriculum for the magnet schools and career academics. By 2025, they hope to open Steele Elementary, William Penn, new pre-K classrooms and the new administration resource center.

The district has released a survey to solicit feedback from the community on the plan.

“You can let your past become your future if you’re going to focus on your past,” Turman said in closing. “But if we focus on the future and what we can do moving forward, we can become very strong and partner together and work together and do what’s best for all students.”

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