Every Student, Every Day: A motto to live by in York Public Schools

Every Student, Every Day: A motto to live by in York Public Schools

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Director

York Dukes wear many hats. No two students are the same.

The student body would stand no chance of fitting under one metaphoric umbrella, not that the administration would wish to try and make that happen. In York Public Schools, individuality is celebrated and specialized instruction is the cornerstone of education.

Every Student, Every Day.

That’s the motto, and the Dukes live by it. It’s a way of life for administrators and teachers in York, a town of nearly 8,000 located 45 minutes west of Lincoln along I-80.

“Provide more opportunities for our kids, that’s behind everything we do,” said Mike Lucas, York’s superintendent. “Just don’t leave any stone unturned. Relentless would be the word I use to describe us.”

Relentless is a fitting description of Lucas’s commitment to success at York, and of his affinity for public schools in the state of Nebraska. Lucas was born and raised in Florida and spent time working in Kansas. He’s well aware of how special the public schools in Nebraska are, and when he’s not advocating for them, he’s doing whatever necessary to ensure York’s schools mirror that top quality.


“The fact that we are good, but we want to be better,” is an underlying denominator for success, Lucas said. “No matter how good an organization is, I don’t care if it’s the New England Patriots or York Public Schools, whatever, they have to have that relentless nature to get better.”

And they have to be full of individuals that embrace and share the desire to get better on a day-to-day basis. Lucas has that at York. It’s what he loves about the place.

“We have great kids, we have a dedicated staff, and we have community support,” Lucas said. “When you have those three things, you have a chance to have an elite school system, and that’s what we are working for each day.”

The staff, in particular, is the most dedicated and professional Lucas has been around in all his years in education, which includes stints in five separate school districts. It’s not uncommon to see teachers scooting down the halls or working on curriculum on Sundays or Wednesdays in the summer.

Many organizations talk about ways to get better, and will even go so far as to try them, but at York, Lucas stresses full implementation, even if it means beating a dead horse, in his own words.

“The expectations have increased, and the sense of urgency and attention to detail has increased,” Lucas said. “When you are relentless, when you have a “find a way” personality. Then it comes down to attention to detail and follow through, which is a big deal.”

Mitch Bartholomew has been at York for a total of 18 years, and is in his eighth as the high school principal. He is a proponent of the relentlessness Lucas pushes, and has seen the culture shift first-hand.

“It’s a positive culture, and it is a culture where we know we haven’t reached the top of the mountain,” Bartholomew said. “We are always fighting and clawing for the next goal.”

Bartholomew calls his staff’s commitment to their students “unbelievable.”  They are monumental to a successful school system, so he places the utmost importance on the hiring process, keeping an eye out for that unmistakable passion.

“When you see it, you know,” he says. “I wish I could tell you it looks like this, or it looks like that, but you never know, it just has so many different faces.”

Bartholomew puts a lot of pressure on himself when it comes to hiring the right type of educators. Sometimes, he knows York has made a good hire within 10 minutes, when he can tell a prospective teacher will have a significant impact on the lives of students.

“What I tell people when I hire them is I am hiring you for York High School, and the York community.”


John Erwin, a senior on the York football, basketball, soccer and Quiz Bowl teams, and Brianna Cobb, a junior who participates in One Act, Show Choir, dance, and tennis, are well-rounded students with a list of other club and activity involvement too long to dive in to.

Born and raised in York, the 18-year-old Erwin and 17-year-old Cobb embody what it means to be a Duke, but their humility is the most noticeable characteristic you’ll encounter. At least during a half an hour interview on a Thursday afternoon.

Building a culture that lends itself to inclusiveness starts at the top, but it lives and breathes through students.

“It seems like our teachers truly care about how we succeed as people, and not just how we succeed in their classroom,” Erwin said. “As teachers, they really want us to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

To students, that enthusiasm and concerted effort made by the higher ups resonates. It’s almost tangible, and it makes a difference.

“It is easy to come to school for us,” Cobb said. “Usually, you would worry about it being boring, or there constantly being too much homework, and obviously there is homework, but it is reassuring to know that you can come into a place where you have a relationship with everyone.”

Those relationships, too, extend beyond the classrooms. Cobb and Erwin both have their teachers’ cell phone numbers, in case they need assistance on an assignment or guidance that extends past curriculum, which itself is constantly evolving.

“I’m aware that our students contact our teachers well after the bell and have their cell numbers, and I know that in some places that just isn’t the case, and that’s okay, but here we have high expectations for our kids and talk to them often about how to be successful,” Bartholomew said. “We’ve had a lot of success here lately, because our kids have figured out that in order to achieve that success there is a truckload of work to do beforehand. Their commitment has to be on a high level.”

Speaking of curriculum, the days of taking notes for an entire block from a PowerPoint presentation are long gone. There’s an entire community to explore.

“It’s not just paper, pencil and the textbook,” Cobb said. “Our teachers maintain lively classrooms, which makes it easier to come in there every day knowing it’s going to be different each time.”

Erwin, for example, benefits from real life experience that has been implemented at York High School in recent years. He will attend the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, but isn’t sure whether he will major in engineering, chemistry or nursing. In the mornings, Erwin shadows at York Community Hospital. His time at York will directly lead into the transition towards his future.

“We get to go on a lot of little field trips where we see professionals in the community, and how what we are learning in the classroom directly applies to what they are doing,” Erwin said. “We have gone to see the dentist, we have gone to the vet, and then we have the new program that allows us to shadow at the hospital. They are all useful experiences.”


To know York’s public schools, you must first know the York community.

The two go hand-in-hand. For the last three years, the Dukes have kicked off the school year with a community pep rally, which Lucas refers to as a celebration of the kids in the community, whether they go to public school, or a parochial school.

“What is neat about York, which is a very supportive community for education, is you have York Public Schools Pre-K through 12th grade, but when you also have St. Joseph’s Catholic, which is Pre-K through eighth-grade, and you have Emmanuel Faith Lutheran, which is that same,” Lucas explains. “With the parochial schools stopping at eighth-grade, we know they are all going to be York Dukes in high school.”

Lucas said the event garners tremendous support and has seen large turnouts in the first three years. He’s even had to turn businesses away at times because “they want to do more than we even have needs for.”

A staple on the football field, soccer pitch or hardwood, Erwin is recognizable around town. He can’t count on one hand the number of times he’s been downtown pumping gas and a 10-minute conversation with a complete stranger about how football or basketball is going breaks out. His community cares, and it’s apparent.

“That is awesome,” Erwin says of the encounters. “I’ve met a lot of people that way. They come up to me and introduce themselves, and we talk about how the season is going, or how the game went last night.”

As you can imagine, that extra effort to get its students out mingling in the community has been embraced by York businesses with open arms. Bartholomew calls it “very rare” for a business to turn down the chance to create an opportunity for kids.

“The nice thing about where we are it is our community wants to see our kids,” Bartholomew said. “Our kids are getting out in the community, and our community members are becoming a part of their education. Those two are as connected as they ever have been.”

Bartholomew is part of a committee that puts together a Career Day, which this year drew nearly 60 businesses, who appreciate the initiative and partnership, which gives students a look at career possibilities. The education path at York is carefully crafted to set a student up for the rest of their lives.

“When kids leave York, I really believe they have an advantage,” Bartholomew said. “We have really focused on all of our students.”


By her freshman year of college, Amanda Folts knew exactly what she wanted to do, and where she wanted to do it. The pieces ironically fell in place, and she joined the York staff in the fall of 2016.

Folts always knew teaching was in her future, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Nebraska Wesleyan University, when she student taught in a special education classroom, that her career came into focus.

“My senior year (at NWU), I student taught in a behavior classroom and so that’s kind of what drew me to the position here at York,” Folts said. “That small group setting, and that one-on-one time with kids really building those relationships was what drew me into this area of education.”

Now, she’s part of an innovative special education department. One that is constantly on searching for new ways to connect with its students.

Beth Ericson sits to the right of Folts. In her seventh year, Ericson is the District Administrator for York Public Schools, while also serving as the Special Education, Cirriculum and School Improvement director. She received her degree in elementary education and passed on an initial opportunity to pursue special education.

While teaching kindergarten, a little girl with Downs Syndrome found a way into Ericson’s heart. She had found her passion.

“When I thought about my different times in the classroom through the year, it was always the ones that were struggling, kicking and screaming, and needed the most help that I was drawn to,” Ericson said. “Our first child was born, and had a brain injury at birth, and we thought she was going to be pretty medically (impeded). Sixteen years later, thankfully that is not the case, but she does receive special education services so I started to learn more from the side of a parent.

Ericson, Folts, and the special education department at York often finds itself falling back on the school motto. Ericson said children in special education aren’t put under a silo. Just like the other students don’t all squeeze under one umbrella. Unique, but connected, they’re all York Dukes.

“Every day we are going to find a way to make each of them successful and help them grow not only in their lives, but also as learners,” Ericson said. “I think that sums up York’s culture and how we embody it.”

At the beginning of the school year, Folts’s students weren’t sure what to make of her. They already had their separate grade-level teachers. As the year went on, however, her students started to warm to the idea of having two teachers.

“Making sure they still have a connection with other kids in the school, and are still getting those experiences that general education kids are getting, that is what is really important to me and my room,” Folts said.

As a mother of a child with disabilities, Ericson feels the high school focuses on her daughter’s strengths and what she can do rather than zoning in on her limitations. Recently, Bartholomew took a group of students to the previously mentioned career fair.

“It wasn’t ‘Oh, she has a disability, she can’t go’,” Ericson said. “It was, ‘She is a York Duke. Let’s take her along with us and of course she can look at the jobs and opportunities just like everyone else’.”

Parental support and involvement, an area in which Ericson has garnered a unique perspective, is paramount. Instead of being closed off, a school needs to be transparent and open to the families of its students, especially in special education.

“It’s so very, very important that I have parental support and parental contact each and every day,” Folts attests. “It’s been really nice to work with all of these parents. They have been so supportive and very willing to do what they need to do at home to make sure their child is successful, not only at school but in their everyday life.”

There is no such thing as a lost cause at York. In Ericson’s first year, the school had resource classrooms for students with low cognition, wheelchair constriction, autism, Downs Syndrome and feeding tubes. What Ericson noticed was the need to address the mental health issues of first or second graders that were acting out in class. Kids that might switch schools only to run into the same problems. Kids that were too destructive for private schools.

She reached out to Grand Island Public Schools, formed a partnership, then took direction from two nationally known experts in positive behavior (Diana Browning Wright and Clayton Cook). Classrooms were set up as a restrictive setting for children with behavioral problems. The classrooms weren’t black holes, rather the new settings for new ways of learning.

Five years later, what is known as the SELF program is alive and well. There is now a SELF 2 room at York Middle School for the students that make the transition from the elementary school with further necessary needs.  There’s typically 5-9 students in a room, and a low student to teacher ratio including one teacher and two para-educators.

SELF runs on a token economy system. There’s a point sheet that rewards good behavior. And don’t forget the ultimate privilege, The Honors Room, complete with a television, Nintendo Wii, board games, Legos and bean bag chairs.

“It’s just a fun place to hang out, lounge and play games,” Folts said.

The “Recharge Room” is a quiet place for the students to relax and “get things put back together emotionally”, Ericson said. There’s no shoes allowed in the Recharge Room, the result of a clever suggestion from a student.

“One of the kiddos early on was noticing sometimes when kids were raging they would kick the teachers,” Ericson said. “They suggested no shoes in the Recharge Room. The kids came up with that.”

Even the class pet, Ziggy the guinea pig, is held to a behavioral standard. Ziggy had a knack for spilling his food, so his caretakes suggested a point sheet.

“From the outside looking in, people might look at my job and say ‘Oh my gosh, why are you waking up to go and get kicked and hit and screamed at?’” Folts said. “Then I look at my kids and think, ‘There is no one else that could do this and still love them at the end of the day.’ I love them with every piece of my heart. I love them like they’re my own kids.”

For some, school is a safe place.

“They need structure. They need a person that is going to be there for them. They need a constant, and for some of them, when they go home they get chaos, so we try to give them the love and the attention that they deserve,” Folts said.

When Ericson was a young teacher, she’d often wonder to herself ‘If I don’t advocate for these kids, who will?’. She hasn’t found the answer. She hasn’t stopped advocating.

“And now I have a team, and I know who is advocating for them,” Ericson said. “They are all York Dukes and we love them. It’s important work. Mental health issues aren’t going away.”


Linda Wilton loved school from the start. She loves being in the classroom, and loves to learn, even after 21 years teaching at York. Her husband often teases her, saying she’d still be enrolled in college courses if she wasn’t teaching.

She picked a different road going into college, however, before realizing her heart was in teaching after she had children of her own. Wilton went back to school and obtained her teaching degree at the age of 34.

Wilton’s grandparents and parents both went to school in York, and her children later graduated from YHS, and it was a strong sense of Duke pride that drew her to the school district 21 years ago.

“The whole community is around your school and the center of your school,’ Wilton said. “When we had an opportunity to move back here, we jumped on it. The community is behind you. They are building us schools and showing up at athletic events."

Matt Stuhr is in his 15th year at York after spending the first four years of his career in Hildreth, Nebraska. Stuhr, a high school math teacher, is the son of a teacher and the profession runs in his family. He knew he wanted to teach, but didn’t realize it was calling until he actually started.

“I like being a part of somebody’s future successes,” Stuhr said. “Just to have the opportunity to see what people become, not that any one person can claim all of that, but you can say ‘Hey, things are going good for you’, and it’s pretty awesome to be a part of that.”

For Jen Harlow, a 2nd-grade teacher who grew up in York’s public schools, there was never really any doubt concerning what’d she do for the rest of her life, aside from a short deviation at the beginning of college.

“I am from here, and going through school here was a great experience for me, just seeing how all the teachers genuinely care about their kids,” Harlow, who is in her second year at York, said. “As a district, it’s incredible what they do for the kids. I just wanted to be close to family and back here in this district.”

Harlow’s interview process at York stuck out. It was nearly two hours long, three or four times longer than her other interviews, and spoke with teachers, specialists and administrators.

Stuhr made the move to York after Hildreth merged with another school. From Waco, Stuhr has enjoyed being back in the area, and notes the collaboration amongst the teachers at York as an advantageous perk of being at a larger school.

“When I got here, it was more focused and that allows you to be an expert in your subject and bounce ideas off other math teachers to end at the best ways to teach the material to your kids,” Stuhr said. “The ability to have that comradery and support is amazing.”

Closely bonded, the teachers at York are all striving for the same thing. And everything they do comes back to the kids. Believe it or not, every student completed every assignment last semester, the result of an accountability system implemented known as “ICU”.

“We really do try and make every student feel like they are needed, like they are wanted, like they can be successful, and like this is their happy place,” Wilton said. “I think it shines through because I think this is a happy place for most of the teachers, too.”

As for motivation each morning? Harlow doesn’t believe she needs to look any further than the students in front of her. Her fellow educators agree.

“It’s what I love to do, and it’s easy to come to school each day,” Stuhr said. “It doesn’t feel like a job. It’s just what I get to do.”

For Wilton, school is what she loves, and she’s loved it since she was a little girl.

“I look at it and think ‘How can I not do it?’,” Wilton said. “How can I not be a part of that piece that will touch the future? I just love that.”


York’s prevalent on social media, a useful tool to connect with teenage students.

Para-educator Barbara Coleman, in her 10th-year at York, has noticed the school’s willingness to adapt appropriately.

“One of the things I have noticed is the school making use of technology in an effort to prepare students for the future,” Coleman, who starts her day by accompanying students on the SPED bus at 7:15 each morning, said. “I see the continual increase in use and more and more creative and innovative ways to prepare students. Things move faster and faster as a result of that, so it creates a challenge to continue to be personable to the kids and to the rest of the staff, because more and more things have to fit into a school day. There’s just more things to be learned.”

The newer teachers at York have grown up in that world of ever-expanding technology, so incorporating new techniques into lessons comes natural to them, Coleman said, but its York’s mix of seasoned veterans and new energy that ultimately benefits its students.

“I think it is nice to have a balance,” said Amy Meisinger, a 13th-year para-educator at York. “Between the teachers that have been here for a long time, I have learned so much from them throughout the years, and the new young energy coming in with fresh ideas, it is a good balance to have.”

Over her time at York, Meisinger has seen flexibility from the staff stressed. It’s always been important, she said, but recently the flexibility from everyone, teachers, parents and administration included, has stood out.

“I feel like Dr. Lucas would come help us whenever we need help, and even though I’d be the low man on the pay-scale totem pole, I would be valued. They value our input.”

Coleman has taught in multiple grades, and has seen an emphasis on inclusion for the last decade. As para-educators, Coleman and Meisinger help with specialized instruction. Right in line with the school's motto.

“This year, we are really focusing on accountability,” Meisinger said. “Every assignment will get done. Taking responsibility for your actions, which has always been here, but now we are really keying in and getting the numbers down to help them realize that accountability is important in school, and as they go in life.”

Student accountability is evident on the school’s Twitter hashtag (#YorkDukes), where Bartholomew can’t recall the last time anything negative was posted. With all that school pride, there’s little room left for negativity.

“Our kids participate in it,” Bartholomew said. “And I can’t remember the last time I have had to talk to a parent or anybody.”

The future is bright in York, and, anchored by their dedicated team of educators, Lucas, Bartholomew and company don’t plan on stopping until it’s brighter.

“My younger siblings aren’t necessarily going to get the same experience I had,” Erwin, who will graduate in May, said. “I honestly think they will get a better experience, because York is constantly improving.”

Brighter and beyond.