By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
he leaders of most mahoning Valley school districts were beaming like proud parents last week when the state delivered the 2002 report cards.
Thirty-six of the 45 tri-county school districts showed improved marks on the cards, which rank school systems on 27 minimum performance standards.
Some, like Lowellville in Mahoning County, Southern Local in Columbiana County and Lakeview in Trumbull County, experienced significant boosts.
Here's a closer look at the successes in those three districts:
Bob Ballone knew the group of 11-year-olds in his math class at Lowellville Elementary School would post high marks on the sixth-grade math proficiency test last spring.
"They were a good, smart group of kids," Ballone recalled last week in the hallway outside his classroom.
"We were hoping to get 75 percent to pass."
Ballone's hopes came true, and then some.
Perfect passage: All 49 sixth-graders passed the exam, a 100-percent passage rate that was matched by only one other school district in Ohio, the state education department says.
"There was no way I would have thought we could do that," Ballone said.
The perfect passage rate helped propel Lowellville to its best district report card yet and put the system among the elite in the Mahoning Valley.
The 603-pupil school system hugging the banks of the Mahoning River met 25 of 27 minimum performance standards on the report card this year, up from 17 the previous two years.
The eight-standard increase is the biggest single-year improvement among Mahoning County's 14 school districts and makes Lowellville, where the average household income is nearly $4,000 less than the state average, an "effective" school system in the state's rankings.
Sam Ramunno, Lowellville's elementary principal, said the marks reflect the commitment of teachers, administrators and the community, which two years ago approved a bond levy to support a $13.5 million project to replace the district's school buildings.
"Schools are under pressure; the teachers are under pressure," Ramunno said about the annual report cards. "Nobody wants to be on the bottom."
Elementary grades: Most of Lowellville's success this year came in the elementary grades, where fourth-graders and sixth-graders posted significant gains on state proficiency tests.
In addition to the perfect sixth-grade math passage rate, the district posted a big jump on the sixth-grade reading exam, from 49 percent last year to 83 percent this year.
"When the reading scores come up like that, everything comes up," said Dennis Hynes, who teaches social studies in grades seven to nine. "Reading is the foundation."
Two years ago, Southern Local School District found itself on the bottom of the heap.
The 885-pupil system in rural southern Columbiana County, where nearly half are from low-income families, had met only seven of 27 minimum performance standards on the state's new district report card.
The report card dumped Southern into academic emergency alongside Ohio's other lowest-performing districts.
"They looked at themselves and said, 'Look at where we are. We cannot be happy with this. We have to improve,'" said Marilyn Parkes, curriculum consultant with the Columbiana County Educational Service Center.
And improve it has.
Great leap: The school system, which draws children from three communities and all of parts of six townships, met 17 of 27 minimum performance standards on this year's district report card, up from nine the previous year and emerging from the depths of academic emergency.
The eight-standard increase ties Lowellville as the largest single-year increase among the 45 school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties this year.
And it doesn't want to stop there.
"I would hope that we would maintain that level at least or even go up one more next year," Superintendent Fred Burns said.
Burns recently replaced retired Superintendent Jeff Weekley, whom Parkes said deserves a big part of the credit for the school district's turnaround.
"They've taken a very hard-line, proactive, hard-working approach," said Parkes, who says she never tires of bragging about the district's success. "Everyone has been involved."
In beginning: The process started four years ago, when Southern volunteered to be a pilot district in the state's prototype report card development, Parkes said.
Teachers, administrators, parents and community members identified the district's strengths and weaknesses; teachers wrote detailed reports on what they were teaching, and administrators matched that against what was being tested on the state proficiency exams.
Partnering with Kent State University, the district created a Summer Institute, a one-week voluntary training session for teachers.
The community also stepped to the plate. Two years ago, voters approved a 7.84-mill operating levy and a $3 million bond issue. On Saturday, the district broke ground for a $14.3 million building project.
But most important, Weekley and his staff developed a "can-do" attitude, Parkes said.
"You can sit here and say all of this, but the really difficult part is making sure the district lives it, every day," she said. "And they have been. You don't get results like that unless you live that, and they have focused on that consistently."
Nobody's perfect, and neither is any school system, but Lakeview schools in Trumbull County is coming close.
The 2,400-pupil school system that encompasses Cortland and Bazetta Township along the southern edge of Mosquito Lake met all 27 of the state minimum performance standards on the 2002 report card.
That puts the district in some pretty elite company: Only 47 of Ohio's 613 school systems posted a perfect 27-out-of-27 mark, according to state education department records.
Of Trumbull County's 20 school districts, Lakeview is the only one to reach the 27-standard level. Only three other districts in the Mahoning Valley -- Canfield, Boardman and South Range -- met that mark.
"Obviously our teaching staff is a good one," Superintendent Matthew Chojnacki said. "They've worked hard at it. It's a good community. We have good parental support here. We just try to do a good job."
Moving up: Lakeview moved from 21 standards last year to 27 this year, and, like Lowellville and Southern, the improvement came mostly in the elementary grades. For instance, the percentage of fourth-graders passing the science proficiency test jumped from 57 percent to 77 percent in one year.
Frank Danso, Cortland Elementary School principal, said community support is a big reason for the system's success. Voters in the district, where the household income is about $6,000 above the state average, overwhelmingly approved a 1-mill renewal levy in November for school building improvements.
"It's like putting together a puzzle, and when it all comes together, that's how you get good results on the report cards," Danso said. "We have an experienced staff. We have the community's support. We have the support of our school board.
"There's a lot of good things, and all of those little pieces, we put those together and it forms that puzzle of something very positive."
The challenge now for Chojnacki, who went to Lakeview five years ago after being superintendent in McDonald, is to keep the report card marks high for next year.
"I'm not going to take credit for building a great school system," he said. "It was great when I got here. It's just a fine place to be."