YOUNGSTOWN State report praises district

Superintendent Ben McGee is commended for creating a positive climate.
YOUNGSTOWN -- After a near decade-long academic and financial slump, the city schools seem to be on bit of a winning streak.
In November 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved a tax issue -- the first in more than a decade -- to renovate a dozen school buildings and construct four new schools.
In March, the 10,500-pupil district pulled out of fiscal emergency, ending four and a half years of state control.
And now, the Mahoning Valley's largest school system has received a mostly glowing report from the Ohio Department of Education on its efforts to improve pupil achievement.
"We've got a long way to go, but we've also come a long way," Assistant Superintendent Wendy Webb said. "We just have to stay the course."
Report: The 18-page education department report, which will be released at a public hearing at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the district's central offices, is based on a three-day site visit by a six-member team of educators in the spring.
The visits are mandatory for all 39 Ohio school districts that meet less than nine of the state's 27 performance standards and are in academic emergency.
Youngstown met four of the standards in 2000 and 2001, but the district showed gains in 17 areas.
"That's a fairly substantial improvement," said Cyndi Reighard, assistant director in the state education department's Office of Regional School Improvement Services.
Reighard said progress on meeting the standards is slow, especially in urban districts like Youngstown. But, she said it appears the school system is putting the right academic blocks in place.
Improvements: The state team compliments Webb and Superintendent Ben McGee for creating a positive climate that has spurred more trust, hope and confidence in the school system.
The report says, "The superintendent sets high expectations for schools to create the conditions that will promote high levels of student achievement."
The report also says the district has greatly improved relations with employee unions -- teacher grievances dropped from 100 to five in the last two years.
"We've made strides in at least learning how to talk to each other so we can work through our issues," Webb said.
The report credits the district for developing partnerships with Youngstown State University, Kent State University and other outside consultants. Webb said the connections have allowed the district to remain on the cutting edge of teaching methods.
Reighard said Youngstown also appears to be committed to sticking to its continuous improvement plan, a 277-page road map developed a year ago that sets strategies to boost achievement.
"Some districts take the plan and put it on the bookshelf," she said.
The plan says the district will quadruple the number of state academic standards it meets and emerge from academic emergency by 2006.
"They really have set a very high goal for themselves, and that says they're going to have to be pretty serious," Reighard said.
Negative aspects: The report wasn't all positive. The state team pointed out several areas in which the district could improve, including better collection of data on pupil achievement and district operations and better efforts to get all employees involved in the continuous improvement plan.
"We don't want anybody in this district to say, 'I don't have a part to play in the continuous improvement plan,'" Webb said. "Everybody, from our secretaries to our custodians, does."
To monitor the plan's progress, the district plans to create a new department of school improvement, Webb said.
"This is not the time to get comfortable," she said. "This is the year to get tough and roll up our sleeves. We've just begun the momentum."

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