If, as many contend -- particularly after the Ohio Department of Education released the latest ratings for school districts in the state last week -- poor children are doomed to educational failure, why do some schools and some districts succeed despite the financial challenges they face? If poverty alone were the factor separating children who succeed in school and those who do not, how throughout U.S. history can the stories of educational success among impoverished immigrant groups be explained? How, too, can the success of certain inner-city schools around the nation be accounted for?
Those who say change can only come about when all the social ills that beset poor communities are rectified are, in effect, dooming today's children to continued failure. Today's first-graders cannot wait until the economy turns around, until their parents have high-paying jobs, until the state provides millions more for education or until their communities are drug and crime free.
Where there's the will: And eliminating proficiency tests won't solve educational short-comings either. It is only because of the testing program that schools and their communities can finally see how their schools measure up. Some districts -- as represented in the opinions of administrators, teachers, board members or even the students -- offer plenty of excuses for their lack of success. But an increasing number of districts see achieving educational success as an attainable challenge. Instead of rationalizing why they can't do well, these districts are not even saying, "we can," but rather, "we will."
In speaking with Ohio school superintendents from districts that are neither wealthy nor particularly advantaged, The Vindicator has found one common link. In every case, these educators talk about shared expectations -- shared among parents and nonparents, among teachers and board members, among the good students and the "tough" kids -- expectations that educational success, as represented by the proficiency tests, will be attained
Rod Russell, the superintendent of the New Knoxville School District, which achieved an excellent rating despite an average annual household income of only $24,311, explained that in his small community the school is the most important focus.
"The parents and nonparents who live within the community show tremendous support for the school; they have very high expectations for the school and for the children, and they expect teachers to teach what needs to be taught," Russell told The Vindicator.
The website of the Ft. Recovery Local School District in rural Mercer County says, "Our district has learned the importance of collecting, analyzing, tracking, and using data. We have learned that our action plans must be driven by data since this information is essential in assessing student achievement."
As Superintendent Pat Niekamp explained to The Vindicator, when their first proficiency test scores were not very high, they were disappointed, and at first they sat around and felt bad about it. But they realized that improvement would be a long-term effort, that the schools' curriculum would have to be mapped with learning outcomes and that a lot of staff development would be required to meet their expectations.
In a small district, he said, "we can't just reassign people, but key principals and really strong staff leadership accepted this as a job to work on." Niekamp said that as interest to improve things grew in the staff, "it became contagious."
Local success: Two local districts, whose proficiency scores were less than stellar in years past, made tremendous jumps this year. Neither district is affluent -- more than 20 percent of children qualify for the subsidized lunch program -- nor do they have exceptional resources to allocate to educational improvement -- both spend less than $6,000 per pupil. Yet Lowellville attained 25 of the 27 standards after passing only 17 standards in the prior year, and Girard jumped from 18 standards to 24.
Richard Buchenic, Lowellville's superintendent, attributes his schools' success to the community's long-time interest in and support of education. "We lost the steel mills," he said, "but they continued to keep the local schools the local schools."
When it became necessary to change the scope of what was being taught in the Lowellville schools, the community and the teachers were involved in aligning the curriculum. And when some children were having trouble learning what they needed to, instead of throwing up their collective hands in dismay, the district identified the students who needed help and provided intervention for them.
In Girard, Superintendent Joe Shoaf, also a former principal, told us that one of the things that worked the best was that teachers and parents created an environment where the kids were told "not only that it was important to take the tests but most importantly they expected them to take it and do well on it."
"When we saw that we had only passed two of the ninth grade areas," Shoaf said, "we had to change the culture to one where there was an expectation of passing the tests." And the teachers in Girard, with their limited resources, researched what worked well in other schools and applied those practices to their educational program or curriculum. Clearly, that worked.
Shoaf is a big believer in living up to expectations. "Expectations don't cost you a thing" he said. It's a lesson all school districts could learn.