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Task force explores best practices to teach black students

A state Task Force on Best Academic Practice Models for Black Students highlighted the success of three school districts that have succeeded in improving graduation rates.

The task force at its virtual monthly meeting Friday highlighted the academic successes of Steubenville, Licking Heights and Beachwood districts.

Steubenville has about 2,600 students, with 855 students not living inside the Jefferson County district. Some 69 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, with 40 percent being minorities.

Melinda Young, superintendent of Steubenville schools, described using rigorous data-driven programs, such as Success for All, for elementary reading classes.

“We group our elementary students based on their reading mastery, not by age,” she said.

All students do reading for 90 minutes per day and mathematics for 75 minutes per day. Tutoring is provided for all students who need assistance, she said.

Elementary school teachers work in “success teams.”

Aaron Newman, a vice president at Steubenville High School, emphasized teachers work to engage students with high-quality instruction and aligning the district’s curriculum with state and career-ready standards.

“We try to meet students where they are,” Newman said. “Our goal is to make sure students are career ready or are prepared for their next level of education.”

Newman emphasized the district has a diverse population, with some living in extreme poverty and others more economically well-off.

When questioned how the district made sure teachers were culturally sensitive, Newman said officials began taking teachers on the bus routes to make sure they understand where the students come from before they enter the school buildings.

“Not all students come from two-income households,” Newman said. “For some students, getting into school is their happy place. They may come to school with different kinds of baggage.”

Newman said the district believes in giving students second and third chances.

“We have high expectations, but teachers have to have empathy,” he said.

Licking Heights School District, located in Franklin and Licking counties, has 4,800 students and is one of the fastest-growing school districts in central Ohio. The student population is projected to increase to 6,263 by 2030.

The district’s black student enrollment has been stable, according to Licking Heights Superintendent Phillip H. Wagner.

Black student populations have been transient in early grade levels, but becomes more increasingly stable by the time students reach high school, Wagner said.

It is in high school that the district has seen the most academic improvement in its black and other minority students.

Wagner said the district has seen its state financial support decline significantly since 2015. The state’s per pupil expenditure in 2015 was $9,877 in 2015. In 2020, the per pupil expenditure was $8,429.

While its financial support has dropped, Licking Heights class sizes have exploded.

Wagner said the district has been working to diversify the pool of candidates when it has job openings.

“We are seeing candidates that are of different races and ethnicities,” he said.

Following the guidelines of Glenn E. Singleton, an expert on education and race, Wagner said the district also is seeking to develop its own minority teaching and staff recruits by encouraging students interested in education to come back to the district. It also is reaching out to those with backgrounds not in education to get their certifications.

“We make sure people know we are open in hiring people of color,” he said.

Licking Heights curriculum includes multi-cultural literature, African-American and world histories.

When questioned about looking at Historically Black Colleges and Universities for educational recruits, Wagner responded t they have reached out, but, so far, with no success.

“It is very hard to find people of color to come to a district whose salaries are in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, even if it has good benefits,” he said.

Approximately 80 percent of all black students are enrolled in six Ohio school districts: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron and Dayton. Most black students, 71 percent, attend a school with a high economic disadvantage rate, state data also shows.

With these and other issues in mind, the ODE and the NAACP are studying best practices. A team of educators, community activists, residents and students will be working, at least through the remainder of this year, to address the achievement gaps in order to bring educational parity between black and white students.

The next virtual meeting will be from 12:30 to 3 p.m. July 16.

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