By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN — “We’re not looking for excuses; we’re looking to move our students forward,” said Wendy Webb, Youngstown schools superintendent, as she reviewed the district’s annual state local report card.
Youngstown fell from academic watch to academic emergency in the report card issued Tuesday. It’s the lowest academic rating the state gives, and Youngstown is the only public school district out of 610 districts at that level.
“We are very frustrated. We are disappointed,” Webb said, explaining that the state’s emphasis on value-added data — the tracking of academic progress of students from one year to the next — resulted in Youngstown’s slip.
The district hasn’t met the expected levels of progress over the last three years, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Further, the district failed to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress goals, which measure the academic performance of student subgroups such as Hispanic, black, limited English proficiency and students with disabilities.
As a result, its rating dropped one level.
Webb said student disabilities and poverty are negative factors when it comes to educational performance. Nearly 20 percent of Youngstown’s 7,000 students are special-needs children, and the poverty rate is pushing 90 percent, she said.
Webb said the district is revising its strategic education plan, working on collaborative goals with teachers and ensuring that teaching is being done to meet the state standards, progress is monitored for all students, and the curriculum is data-driven, responding to the academic needs of students.
Deborah Delisle, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction, said the state education department will send an Academic Distress Commission to Youngstown to be involved with that planning.
Webb said ODE already has been in Youngstown this year, working with the district to review its academic plan and curriculum, visiting all schools in the process.
She said the ODE team found that although the school district’s goals are aligned with the state education standards, some of what is being taught in individual classrooms isn’t.
Youngstown has an ODE staff outreach person working with it on that issue now, Webb said.
The commission is assigned only to districts rated in academic emergency. It’s a five-member body — with three appointed by the superintendent of public instruction and two by the president of the school board — that has some extensive authority, including the power to appoint school building administrators and reassign administrative personnel, terminate the contracts of administrators or administrative personnel, and even contract with a private entity to perform school or district management functions.
Delisle said the commission, the first to be set up in Ohio, won’t be so heavy-handed, however.
Her desire is that it work in collaboration with the district to identify practices and procedures and come to a mutual agreement on the best course of action to pursue.
Anthony Catale, president of the Youngstown Board of Education, called the report card rating “absolutely unacceptable.”
He said there have been a couple of factors that have prevented the district from concentrating as much as it may have liked on academics, most notably cutbacks in staff and spending as Youngstown seeks to recover from fiscal emergency and the district’s rebuilding program that has had students and teachers shifted from building to building over the last few years.
But, “There are no excuses,” Catale said, noting that the school board will continue to call for a “user-friendly continuous improvement plan” that will show the public what each building will be doing to improve academically.
Catale was a member of the school board’s curriculum committee that a year ago charged the administration with developing an action plan for each school with a goal of reaching a continuous-improvement ranking on its report card this year.
Youngstown met only one of 30 state educational standards last year but met two this year. The curriculum committee had set a goal of four.
Webb said the district is using federal stimulus money to add a program to reach out to students by offering after-hours “homework centers” staffed by teachers in the city’s public libraries as well as the United Methodist Center, Pearl Street, and Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana offices on Shirley Road. That could be expanded to include weekends, she said.
Parents can help by setting the tone for what is expected from their children in school, set aside specific homework time and ensure that children get a good breakfast, the most important meal of the day, she added.