By Denise Dick
The outgoing chairwoman of the Youngstown City Schools Academic Distress Commission says city school students are capable of making academic strides, but not enough people believe it.
“You have some very good teachers, some very good administrators — and there’s the possibility of turning students into some very high performers,” said Adrienne O’Neill.
The first step to making that happen is belief or vision, she said.
“I don’t think enough people really believe Youngstown City Schools can perform at a high level,” O’Neill said.
But the district has shown progress, she said.
Another weakness O’Neill sees in the Youngstown district is an inability to stay organized around a task for a long period of time.
“You have to set out a plan, work the plan and stay with the plan for at least five years,” she said.
In the past, the district would implement a plan but abandon it when improvement didn’t happen right away.
Superintendent Connie Hathorn says the district is committed to the academic recovery plan developed by the commission.
O’Neill thinks the school district sometimes gets caught up in short-term thinking rather than focusing on the big picture.
Rather than the conversation focusing on high school principals’ salaries, the school board, for example, should think about what having the right principals in place would allow students to accomplish and how that would positively affect the community, the chairwoman said.
“By having the best quality people, it drives the performance at the high schools up,” she said. “It’s high schools that sell the school district.”
Improved schools would draw more students to the district and with them more state money into district coffers. More industry also would be attracted to the city if the schools improved, bringing higher-income people to the city, the chairwoman said.
Two new students coming to the district because of improved performance would make up the salary difference between what high school principals earn now and what they’d earn under the range recommended by the commission, O’Neill said.
School board members recently opted not to implement a higher salary schedule for high school principals that was recommended by the commission. The school board says the district can’t afford it.
The commission made the recommendation after Hathorn said he had difficulty attracting high quality candidates to the high school principal positions because the salaries are low compared with other districts.
O’Neill has resigned from her ADC position because of health reasons, effective June 30 or when the state superintendent appoints her replacement.
Richard Atkinson, school board president, doesn’t subscribe to O’Neill’s view about a lack of belief.
He points to the number of individuals, businesses and organizations that contribute time, money and effort to the district and contends that wouldn’t happen if people didn’t believe in the schools.
The schools are improving, Atkinson said.
In the early 2000s, Canton City Schools, where O’Neill formerly worked as chief education officer, suffered from low performing high schools and poor graduation rates.
“Canton was worse off demographically than Youngstown, and the performance was worse,” she said. “But that has turned around.”
The district added high-level programs and more Advanced Placement courses. Performance and both the graduation and going-to-college rates improved dramatically.
Between 2001 and 2011, the rate of Canton high school graduates matriculating to college increased from 39 percent to 74 percent. The Canton district now outperforms many others both statewide and nationally in the number of associate degrees attained, and the number of bachelor degrees is rising as well, she said.
That success is something she wanted to see duplicated in Youngstown, O’Neill said.
“Many high-income folks live in Canton and send their kids to Canton City Schools,” she said.
The Canton community supports the schools, the chairwoman said.
A country club offers jobs to high school students, and its members offer them internships. The club buys books and other materials for middle school students.
“Part of what’s missing in Youngstown is the community push,” O’Neill said.