Failing Youngstown schools must act to improve status

The Youngstown City School District is failing in its primary mission of educating students.
So finds the Ohio Department of Education in its newly issued report cards measuring academic achievement in the state's 600 public school districts.
The largest school district in the Mahoning Valley has fallen from academic watch status (comparable to a D grade) to the lowest category of academic emergency (an F grade). Youngstown is among only five districts in the state to fall into this worst of the worst ranking.
Clearly the district's results are embarrassing and disturbing. They also must serve as a springboard for immediate and concrete corrective action.
The report is particularly disturbing because the city schools had in the past two years climbed out of the lowest rung of academic emergency. We had hoped the district would have continued that upward trend by moving this year to at least a level of continuous improvement (a C grade).
A few positives
In fairness, a few bright spots do emerge for the city schools in the evaluation released earlier this week. Passage rates for reading scores among 10th graders increased from 59 percent in 2004 to 84 percent this year. Overall academic quality for Chaney High School, for example, moved to an effective rating (B grade) and other high schools showed improvements.
Those bright spots unfortunately are exceptions. On close examination, several scores were lower than those from the 2003-04 report cards. Only one of 21 academic standards were met, compared to three last year.
Some will be quick to cast blame on the state, which toughened the standards by which report card grades are calculated. Under federal requirements, Ohio added new goals and increased the standards for meeting several others this year.
Nonetheless, these same standards applied to all districts in the state, so the rankings, while perhaps tougher, were calculated and applied fairly.
Now it is up to Superintendent Wendy Webb, the administration, teachers and staff of the school district to work tirelessly to restore confidence in the battered academic image of the district.
They can start by reviewing the test scores to pinpoint areas of greatest need. In general, grades for elementary students on the achievement tests are lower than those for high school students. Specific subject areas of weakness should also be noted and addressed.
Second, the district should consult with others in the state and region whose districts have fared better. To her credit, Webb said she has met with superintendents of other districts to learn how they have improved scores.
Most importantly, the city schools -- from the board of education to the classroom teacher -- must develop an action plan predicated on enhancing academic achievement. Problem areas must be identified, corrective plans must be developed and viable mechanisms to measure improvements must be constructed.
What's at stake?
Too much is at stake to let the embarrassing wound on the school district fester:
UThe image of the school district will weigh heavily on the minds of those in the community who are asked to support it financially at the polls.
UThe integrity of the school system factors prominently in any efforts to use schools as a magnet to attract economic development to the city and the region.
UMost importantly, a failing report card dooms the very ones the school system is designed to serve, its students. Students who are products of failing schools are bound to encounter additional obstacles to success once they graduate.
That's why it is so critical for the district to raise the bar to ensure the education of its students and the image of the community are not short-changed. How quickly and how successfully it does so will be reflected in next year's reports.
Now that it has hit rock bottom, the school district must settle for nothing less than measurable improvements in 2005-06 and beyond.

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