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Challenged districts losing students and money to community schools

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Derek Pugh, 15, left, and Luis Vazquez, 17, work in an environmental science lab at Chaney High School. Eight Mahoning County school districts considered “challenged” by the state look to maintain enrollment.

Eight Mahoning and Trumbull county school districts are designated as “challenged” by the Ohio Department of Education based on state report card data.

They’re not alone.

More than a third of the state’s 608 school districts are challenged, according a DOE report released this month.

Such a designation opens the door for new community schools, which take per-pupil dollars away from school districts.

Districts are considered challenged when they are in the lowest 5 percent of school districts based on the state report card performance index rankings, earned an overall grades of D or an F on 2019’s state report card, or earned F value-added grades on two of three years reviewed.

Local districts identified as challenged are Youngstown, Springfield and Sebring in Mahoning County; and Warren, Lordstown, Liberty, Mathews and Niles in Trumbull County.

There are 220 school districts across Ohio designated as challenged, representing more than a third of the state’s districts.

WHY IT MATTERS

When a school district is designated as challenged, startup community schools are allowed to open within the district’s boundaries, according to the Ohio Department of Education’s website.

There were no new community schools that opened in Mahoning and Trumbull counties during the 2019-2020 school year.

There were 10 new community schools opened throughout the state during the 2019-2020 school year.

School districts lose thousands of dollars per student in state funding when students that are supposed to attend the district schools go instead to a community or charter school. Districts lose $6,020 per student when one of their students go to a community school.

All of the state’s big eight urban school districts are recognized as challenged. Youngstown is overseen by an academic distress commission.

Not all districts on the list are chronically under-performing. Some have decent overall report card grades, but under-performed on their value-added grades for multiple years.

Value-added component grades are measuring whether there has been growth or decline over time in student achievement within districts in particular subjects, such as science, reading, or math, according to the ODE site.

The report looked at value-added component grades during the years 2014, 2018 and 2019. The state did not examine the years 2015 through 2017, because the ODE was allowing school districts to adjust to new required standards that were enacted on state report cards.

There are 313 community schools in Ohio, according to ODE statistics. Mahoning County already has 10 community schools, and Trumbull County has five.

‘FLAWED’ SYSTEM

The Ohio Schools Boards Association argues the fact that a third of districts in the state are designated challenged shows the category is a product of a flawed state report card system.

“We support and advocate for a report card that is understandable to parents, helps inform instructional practices for educators and identifies the positives in districts,” said Will Schwartz, a legislative aide with the OSBA. “My view is the list’s growth does not demean individual school districts on it. It is a representation of a flawed system that has faulty triggers that cause districts to be placed on it.”

Schwartz said the current report card system places stigmatizing letter grades that do not provide understanding or true evaluations of school districts.

MAHONING SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Youngstown City Schools earned an overall F grade on the state report card. It received Fs in achievement, progress, gap closing and prepared for success. It earned Ds in graduation and improving K-3 reading. Its value added grades were Fs in each of the observed years.

Youngstown schools this year has lost 3,118 students to community schools and 1,360 students that transferred to other school districts through open enrollment, according to the district. It has 1,340 students students using EdChoice vouchers to go to private schools.

Youngstown schools CEO Justin Jennings’ effort to turn around the struggling school district is beginning with a focus on literacy and truancy, according to district spokeswoman Denise Dick.

The district has adopted a new literacy curriculum and a literacy approach this year that spreads across all grade levels. Additionally, the district academic team is developing a reading achievement plan that will lead to a root-cause analysis, pinpointing where the gaps are for the students, she said.

Sebring Local schools received an overall grade of C, with Ds in achievement, K-3 improving at risk reading, and prepared for success, and Bs in progress and gap closing. The district had Fs on value-added grades in 2014 and 2018. The value-added grade improved to B in 2019.

“The Ohio Department of Education recently recognized our district as a ‘challenged district,'” Superintendent Tony Visconte said. “This serves as motivation to continue expanding on the progress we’ve already made over the past several school years. We will continue to work toward progress in all areas of the ODE school report card.”

Springfield Local School District earned an overall grade of C, earning an F in prepared for success, D in progress, C in achievement, B in improving at-risk readers, and two As in graduation rate and gap closing. It had a D in 2014 in value added and Fs in 2018 and 2019 in value added.

“In the spring of 2019, U.S. News and World Report ranked Springfield Local High the 52nd best high school in Ohio, with an overall score of 90.77,” spokeswoman Julie Bercik said. The district is also a 2019 recipient of the College Success Award.

TRUMBULL SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Liberty has an overall report grade of D. It received Ds in every category, except for its graduation rate, for which it received an A. Its value-added grades in 2014 were an A, a C in 2018 and a F in 2019.

Superintendent Joseph Nohra said the district has made significant changes in the last three years, including bringing back its STEM programming.

“I know our parents may not be happy with our report card grades, but we have made more improvements in the last three years than in the history of the district,” he said. “It takes time. We are focussing our attention not only on our highest performing students, but on all our students.”

Nohra believes, based on its population growth, parents must believe the district is headed in the right direction.

“When I arrived here our student population was about 1,000 students,” Nohra said. “Today, it is just under 1,300 students. ”

Nohra said he does not have a problem with the state having a program in which community schools may open when public schools are under performing.

“Parents can transfer their children to other public schools through open enrollment, so they should have the right to transfer their children to other kinds of schools,” he said.

Warren City Schools, which earned an overall D grade, earned Ds in achievement, progress and gap closing, also had Cs in graduation and working with at risk readers, and a F with prepared for success.

Warren Superintendent Steve Chiaro said the list of of challenged school districts is similar to those the state has designated as Ed Choice districts, where parents can send a child to the school of their choice.

“Our instructional focus in Warren City Schools remains on school improvement and increasing our four year graduation rate which is 2.5 percent above the state average for all districts,” he said.

Warren has a four-year graduation rate of 87.8 percent, which applies to the 2018 graduating class.

Lordstown earned a state report card overall grade of C, with Ds in progress and prepared for success, a C in achievement, Bs in improving at-risk K- 3rd grade readers, and an A in gap closing.

Superintendent Terry Armstrong said it appears the district was placed on the challenged list based on its value-added grades of F in 2014, 2018 and 2019.

“We have community schools within a short drive of our area,” Armstrong said. “If people wanted to send their children to community schools, they would have done so already. Very few of our students go to community schools.

“We have a lot of good things to offer in Lordstown,” he added.

Mathews schools earned an overall grade of C. It had Ds in progress and prepared for success, Cs in achievement and improving at risk K-3 readers, As in graduation and gap closing, and Fs in 2014 and 2019 and a C in 2018 for the value-added component.

“While we understand the importance of the state report cards and the emphasis the state places on them, we recognize they are not always reflective of a district’s success,” Superintendent Russell McQuaide said. “The student growth measures, also known as value-added, have helped us to identify specific areas of concern that we are currently working to address.

“Just a few years ago, our district struggled in the area of gap closing,” he continued. “However, we implemented effective strategies that helped us to earn an A. We hope to use similar strategies to improve our individual student growth measures.”

Niles schools officials did not return a call from the newspaper.

rsmith @tribtoday.com

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