FILE - PA Ryan Aument 6-12-2019

Pennsylvania state Sen. Ryan Aument (right) speaks June 12, 2019, during a hearing of the Senate Education Committee in Harrisburg.

Today’s culture is different and educating students is increasingly challenging, a group of panelists testified before the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee.

The Wednesday hearing on “Innovation in Schools” looked at two programs – Communities in Schools and the Belmont Charter Network, a group of schools in Pennsylvania.

Communities in Schools is a nonprofit that adds resources to address other student needs besides academics. The program has been a “godsend” to the Greater Johnstown School District where 50 percent of children live in single parent homes and some are raised by their grandparents, according to Superintendent Amy Arcurio. The district has been hit hard by the drug and opioid crisis and many of the students are often not getting their basic needs met at home, she said.

“Sometimes our students come to school with a paper towel wrapped around a finger that was cut the night before, secured by Scotch tape,” Arcurio said. “The parent at home will tell the child to ‘please go to school and see the school nurse and get this taken care of.’ You and I would have quickly taken our own child directly to the emergency room and had that finger sutured and probably kept them home from school the next day.”

Adding the Communities in Schools program during the 2018-19 school year with a focus on attendance, behavior, and parent engagement resulted in an 88 percent increase in attendance of the students targeted and improvements in parent engagement. The district added health services and plans to add dental services in two years.

The “secret sauce” at the Belmont Charter Network is love and empathy, said Michael Karp, chairman and founder. The schools’ Philadelphia area location is subject to periodic violence, and teachers and administrators let the students know that bad behavior will not be tolerated.

“We are the family for many of these kids,” Karp said. “We are the only source of love and empathy in their life.”

Students who have unmet needs at home often don’t do well on standardized tests, panelists said. Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, replied that Pennsylvania lawmakers have passed bills that use other criteria for graduation. He plans to introduce a bill to evaluate educators using more than just standardized tests scores and include poverty factors.

Arcurio agreed, saying that student performance on standardized tests can be affected by a number of factors, including a parent’s death or incarceration. She said a growth model that measures a student individually is a better method.

“We need to recognize that within each and every one of those children is an individual learning with their own set of needs and issues,” Arcurio said. “When we standardize anything, we believe that every child is exactly the same and learns exactly the same way.”