The Gettysburg battlefields sprawling among rural countryside and Civil War-era life might seem like odd avenues to learn about helping an urban community, but that is just what happened to a group of students in the School District of the City of York.
During the first year of the York County district’s STEAM Academy in 2017-18, a team of seventh- and eighth-grade students won top honors nationally in the Gettysburg Foundation’s Youth Leadership Program. And they did it as the only middle school entry. The other nine teams were high school-aged students.
It would be a proud moment under any circumstance but consider that only four years ago former Gov. Tom Corbett wanted to place the district into state receivership and under the operation of a private charter school company. Gov. Tom Wolf opposed that plan, and ended it when he took office in 2015.
“There is a lot of work still to be done, but the district was put back on track by Gov. Wolf, and here is a shining example of what York students and educators are capable of when given support,’’ said PSEA Treasurer Jeff Ney. “It applies to all urban districts.’’
Students highly motivated
It started right before the 2017-18 school year when first-year English teacher Kara Snyder, social studies teacher Josh Renner, and STEAM coordinators Kate Fiocchi and Jan Martin received a directive from Principal Angela Ashley to look into the Great Task program and find a team of students to hopefully participate in the two-day event at Gettysburg.
All 100 seventh- and eighth-graders were assigned essays and presentations on what they’d like to do to help their communities.
“We sat down and looked for those who we thought best identified a problem, offered a solution, and actually thought through the process analytically,’’ Snyder said.
They came up with 24 students and had an anonymous private donor step forward to fund the trip.
The first day included an extensive tour of Gettysburg, education on the battle and Civil War-era life, and a dinner. On the second day, it became hands-on.
“We were asked to explain the things we say, and how people of the day lived,’’ said La’jhada Gray, a seventh-grader.
For example, Gray was involved in fence building while Ni’lee Mariche, an eighth-grader, was part of a Civil War medical team.
“We each were given a character, and I was a doctor,’’ Mariche said. “We had to pretend we were doing surgery.’’
The adults leading the trip praised the students for their deep commitment and passion at Gettysburg.
“These were middle school urban kids hiking through waist-high wheat and working together to build a fence,’’ Renner said. “Yet, we had no complaints and 100 percent interest.’’
Taking it back home
Once back in Gettysburg, the community reaped the rewards of the trip.
First, however, the students had to apply for the $500 award. They were put into groups to come up with community themes and what they’d like to do. The group proposals were put into one large proposal for the Great Task post-trip contest, and the judges obviously were impressed.
After that it was off into the community to work on their various themes – foster care, nursing homes, homeless shelters, animal rescues, and anti-police brutality efforts.
The activities included bringing kids in foster care to the school for a fun night in which a church catered a dinner, and the kids and students did various activities. They also took baked goods to a nursing home, talked with residents about their pasts, and played games with the seniors.
“I learned lessons about life – that people are going through worse things than you might be,’’ Gray said. “Just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean you can’t help them.’’
Added Mariche, “You have to stand up.’’