Maine agency aims to improve Youngstown schools

By Denise Dick


City school administrators, teachers, staff and students must work together to identify problems and solutions for the ailing district, according to a Maine education organization working with the system.

The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations of Portland, Maine, is working with the school district, beginning with boot camps this summer for personnel.

Doug Hiscox, deputy superintendent of academic affairs, said the work the institute is doing would normally cost several hundred thousand dollars. But there’s no charge to the district.

The institute was already in Ohio, working with several other districts, and William Zelei, an associate superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education, got the city schools involved, Hiscox said.

“Dr. Zelei has a real passion for the district and from the commission standpoint, he sees the work we’ve been doing and the areas we need help with,” he said.

Though Zelei, a former superintendent of South Euclid-Lyndhurst Schools, isn’t a voting member of the city schools Academic Distress Commission, he attends the meetings, seated with commission members.

“When we did the research on this group we didn’t find anything but positive things,” Hiscox said.

Early in the school year, Quaglia will administer a survey to students to determine their attitudes about school, their environment, their teachers.

Teachers and staff, and later parents, also complete surveys about their beliefs about the schools.

Michael J. Corso, Quaglia’s chief academic officer, said the institute does work in a variety of schools including rural and urban, poor and more affluent.

He said the institute has done some research into the city and is aware of the high poverty rate.

But Quaglia doesn’t come in with preconceived ideas.

“We try to be very respectful of each school’s culture and environment,” Corso said. “We’re not coming in with this prepackaged folder.”

They form teams of students, teachers and staff to inform the process.

Those teams review survey results, providing input on how to proceed.

Quaglia isn’t looking to blame a person or group of people for the problems faced by the district. “Everyone is part of this same mess we’re in — we’re all getting results we don’t like,” Corso said. It’s the structure that’s producing those results, not the people, he said. That’s something he hopes school personnel understands.

“We try to make the point early on: This is not about individual people who do or don’t do their jobs,” Corso said. “It’s about structure forces, and we need to address them at a structural and procedural level. ... We’re all part of the same puzzle, and we have to figure it out together.”

From the surveys, focus groups and teams, some smaller change might be implemented. In one school, for example, teachers greeted students at the door before the start of school.

It’s something relatively easy to accomplish that builds goodwill for the more difficult structural changes to come later.

Quaglia is expected to work in the district for three years.

The institute strives to help every student reach his or her full potential academically, socially and behaviorally, Corso said.

“As Dr. [Russell] Quaglia says, this is not about graduating happy, dumb kids,” he said. “They can be both — happy, being excited to be in school, being on time, being respectful, not bullying and getting good grades. Academics, first and foremost, is one of the endgames in education. You can get positive academic outcomes through nonacademic avenues.”

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