Since the start of Damaris Rau’s seven-year tenure as superintendent of the largest and most economically disadvantaged school district in Lancaster County, she has pushed educators to improve PSSA scores, increase graduation rates and address inequities.
Rau, a Brooklyn, New York, native with nearly 40 years of experience in education, will retire from the School District of Lancaster in July. She sat down with the LNP | LancasterOnline to discuss the successes and challenges she faced, including in implementing an equity team and an initiative to improve student reading levels.
Guided by the belief that education is a gateway out of poverty, Rau fought for fair funding for her students. As Rau closes her career, a decision looms in a 2014 lawsuit over whether Pennsylvania’s public-school funding formula should be changed. Though the suit predates Rau’s tenure in Lancaster, she recently testified in Commonwealth Court on the ways in which a lack of funding shortchanges Lancaster students.
A positive outcome could mean $30 million more a year for the district.
In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Rau stressed that she isn’t quite done making changes and spoke freely about the impacts of COVID-19 on Lancaster County superintendents, as well as what goals remain unaccomplished.
[Click here to watch a livestream roundtable with Rau and other Lancaster County superintendents in April 2020 about the early impact of COVID on shut-down schools.]
What drew you into education, and what kept you coming back year after year?
I was a foster-care child, and that foster-care agency… constantly emphasized the importance of education. … When I went to college and volunteered in a classroom, that’s when I got that “aha” moment, that “Oh, I want to be a teacher…”
What made me continue is that I believe that education can get children out of poverty. … Oftentimes when there are poor students, people may not have high expectations of them. I wanted to serve as a role model to show kids, especially poor kids and kids of color, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, that you can go on to be successful in life, but you need your education in order to do that.
What was one persistent challenge facing the School District of Lancaster that you were unable to change but really wanted to?
Right now, the focus has been on funding, on getting equitable funding for children. We are close to that decision. Hopefully, the trial will end on a positive note for the school districts and the children.
That really has been the one thing that has been consistent across my seven years is always fighting for equity, so participating in the funding trial is just one of the strategies in order to achieve equity.
In 2021, you introduced a Theory of Action, with a goal of 55% of students in grades K-2 reading at grade level by June 30 and going up to 62.7% after the 2024-25 school year, and with similar goals for middle school and high school. What’s the percentage of students reading at grade level now, and do you anticipate hitting that goal before you leave? Are you on track?
Do I anticipate getting them on track to achieve those goals? Yes, I do.
We want to do everything. … But if you continue to do everything, you’re not going to necessarily master certain areas. We believe that if we really focus on early childhood and develop those foundation skills, that those kids will grow up being more proficient in reading, math and all areas.
One of the things I’m most proud of is our [high school] dual-enrollment program. When I first got here, there were about 20 kids who were taking college courses while in high school. Now there are over 250 kids taking college courses while they’re in high school. We pay for that. We do that because we really believe that if a child takes a college course while in high school, it gives them that sense of, “I can do this.” It builds your confidence … so the Theory of Action for high school is to make sure that all kids, especially kids of color, are taking those high-level courses.
[Editor’s note: Data provided by SDOL shows 56.1% of kindergarteners, 39.4% of first-graders and 46.7% of second-graders were reading at or above grade level in 2021.]
Another thing you wanted to improve in your time here was PSSA scores. What ways did you succeed with that, and what can still be done or still needs to be done?
There’s still a lot of work to be done in that area. It’s one of the things that I feel I will be leaving this district unfinished. We have made gains, especially in reading. Part of those gains came about because we changed our reading … We started with this independent reading where kids could choose the books they want to read … I think that really has helped inspire more kids to be hooked on reading …
Math continues to be a big problem, and we’re trying to figure out what’s the disconnect between elementary math and when they go to middle school. … There’s a couple of reasons. We’re looking at the academic parts, but I also think partly it’s the social development part. You’re just becoming a teenager, you’re just exploring your true self, and so kids at that middle school age, we need to treat them as sixth-graders not as kids getting ready for high school. You’re in sixth grade, you’re learning to be a sixth-grader. …You shouldn’t be learning what it means to be a ninth-grader. You’re not there yet psychologically, developmentally. …
You also wanted to see graduation rates go up and, looking at the data, it looks like it stayed around 80% from the time you started to now.
It has gone up. It has gone down recently, I believe, because of the pandemic. It’s gone down nationally. … We know that when we were in virtual school, kids were not interested in doing virtual school. There were a lot of social-emotional things that were happening with kids, especially teenagers, whose development really is around developing social skills with friends and figuring out who they are.
We also found a lot of kids were going to work full-time to help their families during the pandemic … many of our kids, especially our poorest kids, ended up working many more hours than they should have been … so we are working on reaching out to every single one of those kids to help them graduate because I really believe graduation from high school is the minimum that kids should have …
I think we’ve been doing a really good job until this pandemic hit, in terms of graduation. And that was not for lack of trying …
[Editor’s note: Data provided by SDOL shows the graduation rate for McCaskey High School was 89.02% in 2016-17, the first year provided. It decreased in 2017-18 to 82.95% and spiked to 86.77% in 2018-19 then decreased to 84.68% in 2019-20 and 83.9% in 2020-21.]
How did the equity design team you developed [in 2018] address racial biases in the School District of Lancaster, and what work do they still have to do?
The equity steering committee started several years ago. What we did is we conducted a lot of focus groups. … We asked them, “Why do you think our students, particularly our Black male students, are not performing at the same level as their peers?” What came out from all of those focus groups was that people needed education on what culturally responsive instruction looked like and what diversity is and what’s inclusion, and why those things are important. …
That equity design team decided that we needed to do something about this. We wrote up a request for proposals for training staff all across the whole district on equity and inclusion … that is aligned with how we are redoing our curriculum to make sure that all of our students are represented in books that they read, for instance. And, that when we’re teaching science, we’re talking about scientists of color as well and that when we’re reading stories it’s around topics that interest students around equity and social justice.
We’ve done a lot of work. We’re really proud of that. Where we are right now is at the end to ensure that equity remains a focus area in the district, and that is through writing a policy. …When you have a policy that says equity is important, it sends a message to the community and to our students and staff that equity is important and we’re going to be looking for equitable opportunities…
We’re creating what we’re calling an equity scorecard. We’re looking at our data. We’re saying “OK, let’s look at, for instance, dual enrollment for college credit: How many of our students of color are participating?” …
We will be looking at our data around teachers and other staff of color. We know that the research says that when students see people who look like them in positions of authority, like teachers, that that is a good role model for them. We want to make sure that we are consistently working on that, trying to get more and more people of color to become teachers. …
[Editor’s note: According to Kelly Burkholder, coordinator of community relations for the district, of the district’s 10,190 students: 62% are Hispanic, 16% are are Black, 12% are Caucasian, and 10% are Asian or other. A total of 71 countries are represented in the district and 57 different native languages are spoken.]
What successes and challenges did you face in implementing more technology in schools, and how did COVID impact that?
Before COVID, we had a five-year technology plan. And I believe we were in year two at that time. So that meant that sixth grade had one-on-one devices, seventh grade had them, and we were ready to go to eighth grade…. we never anticipated having a one-on-one program for elementary students.
When COVID hit, our kids were behind so many other school districts in our county and in the Commonwealth… We had to order devices, and the rest of the world was ordering devices too. We couldn’t get them on a timely basis so we had to take all of the devices we had in the elementary school and we just started giving them out to secondary students who didn’t have devices…
[A year in the School District of Lancaster: A superintendent fought to supercharge learning. She didn’t plan on COVID.]
Now, all of our kids K-12 have a one-on-one device. We went from a plan of a five-year technology rollout to an immediate rollout once COVID hit, but one of the challenges was that for many of our students, they were not accustomed to working on iPads. … That was particularly true for children with significant disabilities who receive special-education services. Working on an iPad was not giving them the type of instruction they needed to be successful. The other kids that this really hurt were our students who didn’t speak English. We have 500 refugee families in our community. We also have 20% of our students who are not proficient in English.
We had tons and tons of teachers and parents and just everyone going to children’s homes, teaching them how to use the iPad to access their learning. … It was one of the important reasons that we had to bring children back as soon as we could, as soon as it was safe.
One of the things that we’re proud of that we did for those kids and for others. … we created hubs in our schools with children who didn’t have someone to help them access it because of the language. They could come and work in our schools, and we had volunteers, teachers and support staff volunteering, helping kids. We had kids who didn’t have internet access come to our hubs. We also worked with our partners like The Mix and the Boys and Girls clubs … enabling kids to do their work there….
You recently testified in the fair-funding trial for public schools. What could a better allocation of funds to public schools like the School District of Lancaster do for students?
One of the things we want to do – hopefully we win this lawsuit – is we want to reduce class sizes. … When you have children who are coming from poverty, they’re facing obstacles that your more affluent children may never face. Many of our children … don’t have books at home unless we provide it, and it’s really important for children, especially even before they get to school, that they are read to and that they hear stories. That’s how kids develop language. We know that when a lot of our students come to us as kindergarteners, they don’t have that academic language that other kids might have … so reducing class sizes would really help those kids get the attention they need from teachers and support staff …
Another big area that we have looked at is our transportation. … For high schoolers, you don’t get a bus to take you to school unless you live more than 2 miles away … Part of the reason is because we just don’t have enough funds, and what that does to poor districts like SDoL is it forces us to triage. We have a certain amount of money that is insufficient to get the kids everything that they really need to do well in school.
We have to look at the money and say … ‘Where can we make the greatest impact with the money that we have, knowing that there will be other areas such as transportation that we can’t fund the way we want to fund it. ’…
What do you want to get done before you leave in July?
I want to make sure that equity policy is complete because it tells everyone that equity, access, inclusion is important and that we’re going to look at all areas through an equity lens …
The other thing I want to get done is hiring a director of equity. There has to be someone, besides the superintendent, who is really looking at the different areas of the organization and ensuring that equity is part of that lens …
The other one is I want to make sure we follow through on is the Theory of Action work that we’ve been doing …
You’ve spent upwards of 40 years in education. What’s next for you – do you plan to fully stay out of education, are you going to do something else?
I really haven’t made any plans. I just want to kind of recharge my battery. But, what I can say is I will always be an advocate for children and for fair funding and for equity. I will always do that, wherever I am.
Why are you retiring now – did COVID burnout have anything to do with that?
So, I don’t know if I’d call it burnout but, definitely COVID had to do with it. But, other things, too. I had a good friend who passed away, and he talked about enjoying your life while you still were healthy and while you could enjoy other things because when you’re a superintendent or a principal, teacher, there’s a stress that you live with.
We’ve had more teachers retire than ever. Nationally, there’s the big resignation thing going on. And, the same thing could be said for superintendents. There’s a large number of superintendents who are retiring because it is really, really stressful. We were often forced to make medical decisions that we were not ready to make but we had to make them …
It was really stressful to see how the pandemic impacted our students and our staff. … we really take that to heart when students and staff are suffering. …
I hope – fingers crossed – that we are moving out of the pandemic and that the coronavirus will become more like the flu. … I’m hopeful the worst has happened already and that things will get better. Yeah, the pandemic definitely played a role in making the job much more difficult, but I also want to be able to enjoy some time as a retiree while I’m still healthy.