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Critics pan Youngstown school plan for setting low goals

YOUNGSTOWN — The academic improvement plan expected to move the Youngstown City School District away from state control and to improve students’ academic achievement already is being assailed by some local critics.

But architects of the plan said they believe they have set steady and realistic goals to improve the achievement of Youngstown school students, according to Ronald Shadd, board of education president.

Shadd on Friday said a review of the district’s plan by the Ohio Department of Education found very few items that will need to be changed.

“We are in a really good place,” Shadd said. “There are about eight issues that they want us to address about the structure of our plan. It is nothing that’s overwhelming.”

The board will meet in a special session at 4:30 p.m. Monday, in the commons area of Choffin Career and Technical Center, 200 E. Wood St., to revise its improvement plan, based on ODE recommendations.

Shadd said he expects the plan to be approved by September’s end. That’s the ODE’s deadline for the three school districts currently under academic distress commission oversight to have their plans complete.

The other two districts are East Cleveland and Lorain.

LONG HAUL

Successful implementation of the multi-year plan is key to the district ending more than 20 years of failing state report card grades.

The plan sets specific goals for improving student literacy, math and science, as well as the district’s graduation rate.

Critical to its success are basic benchmarks of learning in literacy, math and science established over the last several years through a variety of measures.

District leaders are not expecting to see huge jumps in the percentage of students being able to read and comprehend materials at their grade levels, according to the plan. Improvements are expected to be incremental and based on age and grade levels.

∫ During the 2024-2025 academic year, about 70 percent of 4- to 5-year-olds are expected to be able to demonstrate a command of early literacy skills, according to the report. During the current school year, about 53.2 percent of students in this age group have demonstrated age-appropriate literacy skills, according to the improvement plan.

Older students, sixth through 10th grade, are expected to see their literacy skills improve from 36 percent in the current school year to 64 percent in the 2024-25 school year, according to the plan.

In the pre-COVID-19 2018-2019 school year, reading assessments showed that 63 percent of students in these grades were performing at grade level or greater.

The low reading comprehension percentages identified during this year are due, in part, to more than a year of online learning experienced by students. In some cases, remote teaching negatively affected student learning, according to the report’s statistics.

∫ The district’s plans to improve math and science scores through 2024-2025 show a similar type of incremental growth in the percentage of students passing grade level tests.

Approximately 7 percent of the students in the third through fifth grades are expected to be proficient in math based on their respective Math Ohio Computer base assessment during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the improvement plan report. The district is targeting 16 percent of the students being proficient or above by the 2024-2025 school year.

TOO LOW?

Mahoning County NAACP President James Brown and Jimma McWilson, director of the African Education Party, argue the benchmark targets for student proficiency in the plan are too low and will leave too many students behind in what they need to comprehend.

“They are saying that 84 percent of the third- through fifth-grade students taking math in the 2024-2025 school year will not be proficient,” McWilson said. “How can you make a plan in which 84 percent of the students are projected to be below grade level in their understanding of a subject?”

McWilson argues the projections written into this plan have the percentage of students understanding math concepts at levels below the percentage of students who understood the same content even before the pandemic began.

In the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-2019, 27 percent of third- through fifth-grade students were expected to have an understanding of the math at or above grade level.

“People have to understand what is being proposed,” McWilson said. “The majority of students will not be proficient. Improvement opportunities must be available to all students — not just a percentage. ”

Brown said the school district shouldn’t have to take three years to make significant academic improvements. “Look at what districts such as Steubenville have done, and look at what was done at Taft Elementary School some years ago, if they don’t want to go outside of the district,” he said.

Lois Thornton, a former Youngstown principal, between the 2009 and the 2011 school years took Taft from having an “F” rating to a “B” rating.

“The district can use what was done then as a model that can be duplicated,” Brown said.

Shadd said the new plan is, in fact, designed to make sure a high percentage of the district’s students will succeed — and not just a few.

McWilson said he and other critics are planning to have a series of online meetings over the next several weeks to educate parents and others about what they consider the plan’s deficiencies. Their critiques already have been sent to officials at the Ohio Department of Education and a presentation was made to Youngstown City Council.

No dates have been given for these online Zoom meetings.

The district — including the school board, administration officials and teachers — has been crafting this improvement plan since mid-July.

INVOLVEMENT

The school board held a series of meetings with members of the public, area pastors, educators and other stakeholders discussing what they wanted to see in the plan.

“Anyone could have come to those meetings,” Shadd said. Some were sparsely attended. “They were designed to allow the public input into what they wanted in the plan, but also to learn about what we were being asked to do in making the plan.”

Besides the three special meetings that focused on the plan’s formation, Shadd emphasized that every board meeting since mid-July involved some discussion of the improvement plan.

Using the Youngstown One plan that was established by city school district CEO Justin Jenning’s administration and supported by the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission as a framework, the board incorporated ideas from the meetings and established timelines to achieve various goals to improve education.

The benchmark goals are based on the performance indexes as measured by the state.

rsmith@tribtoday.com

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