Resolving city schools dilemma

By Ernie Brown

The headline told the entire story: “Youngstown Schools Ranked Worst in State.”

As I read the story, I kept asking myself, how did this happen?

I know Superintendent Dr. Wendy Webb and the school board members did all they could to try to dig the school district out of its fiscal emergency.

I know several teachers and administrators in the city school district. They are hard-working professionals who truly desire to see children excel in and outside the classroom. But I was not prepared to see the school district dip to rock-bottom status academically.

After all, the Youngstown Early College Program appears to be quite successful. The Youngstown City School District had the best public school teacher in the state, Jennifer Walker of East High.

New schools are under construction. The district is slowly clawing its way back to fiscal solvency.

Yet, the district’s academic standing could not be overlooked. It fell from academic watch to academic emergency. According to the Ohio Department of Education, the district hasn’t met the expected levels of progress for three years. The school district will now have the dubious distinction of having the Academic Distress Commission, the first to be set up in the Ohio, come here to try learn what can be done to improve the school system’s academic performance.

Webb told the media that negative factors such as poverty and student disabilities impact academic performance. She pointed out nearly 20 percent of the district’s 7,000 students are special-needs children, and the poverty rate is pushing 90 percent.

With that being said, however, I looked at the academic performance of nearby Campbell, once known as East Youngstown. I know Campbell has fewer students, but the socioeconomic factors, I believe, are close to what is in Youngstown. The tax base is next to nothing in that city, which, like Youngstown, took a tremendous financial and emotional hit when Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. closed its doors in 1977. Campbell also is an inner-city school district.

Yet, Campbell schools received a report-card rating of excellent, meeting 19 of 30 state academic standards. The district received a bump with the value-added measure, which reflects how much progress students have made since the prior-year report card. About 72 percent of those students are economically disadvantaged, Superintendent Thomas Robey told The Vindicator.

Campbell schools, Robey said, hired academic coaches to help children in math and literacy where students had demonstrated difficulty on previous years’ report cards.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Youngstown did likewise. The question then becomes why did the Campbell students do better than those in Youngstown?

Indeed, that should be one of the questions the Academic Distress Commission addresses.

If Youngstown wants to continue to move forward and improve its image, the school-system dilemma must be resolved. It will be difficult for the mayor or the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber to promote the city when its school system is so bad. High on the list of questions potential employers ask when seeking to relocate anywhere is how good are the area schools.

I am confident the school district will overcome this situation. There are too many dedicated professionals who diligently will be working to make sure Youngstown schools improve their academic status.

This will be no quick fix, however, so I implore the public to be patient. But school-district administrators, board members and teachers also must know the public does expect some measurable improvement when report cards come out next year.

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