Urban school districts face specific challenges that their suburban and rural neighbors don’t, but newly-appointed Lebanon School District superintendent Dr. Nicole Malinoski is confident about the future of city schools and the young people they educate.

After 25 years in a variety of educational roles, Malinoski became superintendent on Jan. 8, following the untimely death last September of her predecessor, Dr. Arthur Abrom. Abrom had led the city’s schools since 2017.

Read More: Lebanon superintendent Arthur Abrom dies after nine-year battle with cancer

The bulk of Malinoski’s experience came in the neighboring Cornwall-Lebanon School District, where she spent 21 years as a math and computer science teacher, district technology coordinator, and administrator. She spent her last seven years in Cornwall-Lebanon as principal at Cedar Crest High School.

After 21 months as principal at Cumberland Valley High School, Malinoski returned to Lebanon County in 2022, first as the city district’s secondary director of teaching and learning, then as assistant superintendent under Abrom. She served as interim superintendent following Abrom’s death.

LebTown and Malinoski met for a late-morning interview in the district offices earlier this month to discuss the state of the district and her plans for its future.

Increasing enrollment and the need for space

In 2019, Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 named the Lebanon School District the fastest growing district in Pennsylvania. Malinoski couldn’t say whether that is still the case, but “last year, [the district’s] enrollment increased by 3.4%, and we’ve seen an 8.5% rise over the last 10 years.”

Malinoski said new students come to the district “from all over. We have some transient students, a lot of back-and-forth between the Cornwall-Lebanon District and us, and some coming from New York.” She added that, “if there’s an event in the world, such as Hurricane Katrina, we’ve gotten students that way.”

The result has been some overcrowding that the district has been working hard to correct. Modular classrooms have been used at Lebanon Middle School for several years to provide additional learning space.

“I can tell you that our class size at elementary schools and the Lebanon Middle School is very good,” Malinoski said. “I would still say there is some overcrowding at our high school, in some of the core content areas,” which she described as math, English, social studies, and science.

To address expanding enrollment, the district is building a new junior high school next to Lebanon High on South 8th Street. New athletic fields are also being built across Wilhelm Avenue from the new junior high. Malinoski said the $62 million project is “on time and on budget,” and targeted to open in August.

The new junior high will house about 900 seventh- and eighth-graders, and will affect what buildings younger students will attend. “We are beginning the process of renovating the existing Lebanon Middle School [on North 8th Street], which will become our intermediate school. Initially, it will house just sixth-graders, but eventually also fifth-graders, once work is complete.”

The city’s elementary schools will will eventually handle K4 through 4th grades.

Read More:

Chronic truancy is a concern

Asked what is the single biggest obstacle facing the district, Malinoski didn’ hesitate: “Student attendance is a huge challenge for us. Last year at our high school, around 46% of our students were chronically absent. The state average is only 26%.”

Chronically absent “means missing over 10% of school days,” Malinoski said.

To fight the problem, Malinoski said, “we’re trying to engage our families on the importance of school, and let them know that we are here to support them as a family unit, not only their children.

“We have social workers who work with our families. We have Student Attendance Improvement Plan personnel who help families figure out what’s preventing children from coming to school.”

Malinoski is sympathetic and says the district is looking at all possible solutions. “Some of our high school students are caregivers for their younger siblings because their parents have to work. Maybe traditional hours aren’t best for every student. Maybe we have to have some night classes.”

A recent change in Pennsylvania law may offer some flexibility in scheduling, according to Malinoski. Until recently, a school district was required to provide at least 990 hours and 180 days of instruction per year at the secondary level. The new law, Act 56 of 2023, requires 990 hours or 180 days of class. “We’re waiting for guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education on how we could take advantage of the change.”

Fair funding

There is a funding gap between Pennsylvania’s rich and poor school districts. Lebanon School District “can’t compete with some of our neighboring districts who have a bigger tax base,” Malinoski said, “and we cannot put all of the financial burden on our taxpayers.”

Local property taxes vary according to the value of a district’s taxable properties. School districts to one extent or another also depend on the state General Assembly to provide additional basic educational funding.

Last February, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, after years of litigation, ruled (PDF) in a nearly 800-page opinion that the state’s school funding system violates the state’s constitution by severely underfunding poor districts. The court said that “students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes.”

The decision, which could be appealed, said there is a problem, but didn’t say how it should be fixed. That would be up to the governor and the politically divided General Assembly.

Malinoski hopes our elected representatives find a way. “Our children deserve just as much as every other neighboring district.”

Future plans

Malinoski told LebTown that in addition to redoing the district’s three-year comprehensive plan, “we are also starting a ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ project,” something she was involved with during her time at Cumberland Valley.

“In addition to academics, the project is going to help build a more well-rounded graduate of the Lebanon School District.” It will be a top-to-bottom effort. “We will infuse the project all the way, beginning in K4.”

Last year, only 37% of the city’s high school students had been in the district since third grade, Malinoski noted. “We want to make sure that every student in our district feels they belong and has a plan for their future.”

The district has also started adding career and technological education programs at the high school. Each county school district is allowed a limited number of students at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center, and demand at Lebanon High exceeds the district’s allotment.

Malinoski noted that “a lot of our students who apply don’t get in, so we are trying to design some programs so they can stay here, earn certificates, and leave the high school enrolled, enlisted, or employed.”

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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...


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