Professional Educators

Ohio – Transformation Tour in Dayton, Lima

By Len Paolillo, NEA Executive Committee

As you can see in the video above, I’ve had an inspiring week. I began my “listening tour” at Dunbar High School in Dayton, joined by Dayton Education Association President David Romick and Demetrice Davis and Randy Flora from the Ohio Education Association. We first met with the principal at Dunbar, Marlayna Randolph who shared some background on the School Improvement Grant (SIG) application process, and the stress of deciphering both SIG and Race to the Top requirements on a very short timeline.

Lori Ward, Superintendent of Dayton Public Schools and Jeffrey Mims, the school board president in Dayton joined us and one of Ms. Ward’s comments struck a chord with me. She explained how in Dayton they are trying to build momentum to create “student champions” and that SIG is just one element to assist struggling schools; that “it’s not all about the school improvement grant, it’s about the academic plan for the district. We are trying to improve Dayton.”

Our conversation with the superintendent was followed by classroom visits and a meeting with Dunbar’s school leadership team, a group of educators at the school helping to drive the transformation process. They expressed reservations and excitement for the changes they can make as a result of SIG. They all mentioned how it seems there is a new reform “catch phrase” each year or a different program to try for one year and then it goes away. I explained that NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign isn’t one of those programs and  one of the teachers told me she has bought in to the plan because “these are my students and I want my students to have the best.”

After Dunbar we visited Belmont High School in Dayton. The transformation at that school is remarkable, and something test scores alone would never be able to capture. David White, a principal who has been on the job for two years now at the school, is a prime example of how strong leadership and belief in his staff can get results. When he came to Belmont, there had been 58 arrests at the school the year before. He brought that number down to one in just a year. An educator who had been at Belmont for several years before White arrived said “it used to be like you were going to the fights and school broke out. We are proud of the change.”

Mr. White empowered his staff to write their own curriculum. One special education teacher told me how great that process was because “you know what you are supposed to be doing because you put it on the paper.” Each teacher also has their own data notebook to help track information like homework completion and student participation to help identify the holes. When meeting with the school leadership team, they told me a “sense of teamwork and community is finally here.”

Next on the tour was Lima Senior High School Progressive Academy, in Lima, Ohio, a town you can tell has been hurt badly by the economy. The Progressive Academy is in a unique position. Lima Senior was broken into three smaller schools, all housed in the same building. Progressive Academy was the only one of those to get a School Improvement Grant. The principal, Tim Fitzpatrick has a competitive spirit and big plans for the school.

Over the summer, Mr. Fitzpatrick invited his staff to help write the SIG application. Several took him up on the offer. While meeting with the Karel Oxley, Lima Schools Superintendent, she said “transparency is very evident here. Collaboration is something we really believe in in this district.” The school improvement grant at Progressive Academy helped hire a social worker, a building coach t0 help teachers with their instruction, an intervention specialist and a CTAG (Closing the Achivement Gap) coordinator.

After touring several classrooms and learning about bedbugs and freezing points, I had the opportunity to meet with Lima Education Association’s three co-presidents, Andrew Chiles, Joe MacBenn and Trent Miller. We talked about the 300-hour professional development requirement under SIG and what a new teacher evaluation and incentive plan might look like.

Some common themes heard at all three schools are concern about the sustainability of new programs under SIG, frustration that SIG may be just “another new program” for schools to try, and struggles to get families more involved.

Along with those common concerns, we also heard from many hopeful and optimistic educators and leaders.  SIG has provided some of these schools with social workers, greater emphasis on professional development, and a chance for educators to have a direct voice in the transformation process.

It’s always invigorating to spend time with our members, in their schools, and see what is really happening out there. It’s easy to pick up a newspaper and read about the struggles in public education. Or turn on the TV and hear so-called policy experts blame the teachers. I wish everyone could see how untrue those accusations are, and to let teachers know how much we respect them. It’s inspiring to witness the amazing work they do every single day.

With help from SIG funds, strong leadership, and collaboration amongst staff and administrators, many schools really are on the cusp of some dramatic transformations.  As Linda Dovel, the library media specialist at Belmont put it, “This is the first time I’ve been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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