September 23, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria scores drop

District to fall from ‘effective’ rating; bomb threats blamed

ELYRIA — After gaining an “effective” rating last year, the Elyria school district learned that it will drop back to continuous improvement status in state report cards issued today.

The margin was a 10th of a percentage point — the district got an 89.9 in the performance index, and it needed a 90 to retain the “effective” rating. Last year, the district’s performance index was 91.2.

What makes it worse, the Ohio Department of Education refused to consider extenuating circumstances, such as a slew of bomb threats in the days leading up to the tests. In Elyria, the week before the tests is usually spent reviewing material and preparing for the tests.

“The last three days before the tests, we had four bomb threats,” Superintendent Paul Rigda said. “If only 12 kids weren’t distracted and did a little better, I think that 10th of a percentage point wouldn’t be an issue.”

Elyria officials filed an appeal based on “unusual circumstances,” but the bomb threats didn’t qualify, said Karla Carruthers, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education.

“Our appeal process isn’t for dismissing results,” Carruthers said. “It’s for just calculation errors in the file. We certainly sympathize with the situation, but our appeals process doesn’t involve dismissing test scores.”

Rigda and other top educators in the district were bitter — and even angry — that their appeal was dismissed without any opportunity to speak to Susan Tave Zelman, the state’s superintendent of public instruction.

“I believe this warranted superintendent-to-superintendent (discussion),” Rigda said. “It’s terrible — I can’t remember being this disappointed. We don’t want the public to think we’ve let them down — we did not work less.

“Our critics will say we were a flash in the pan,” Rigda said.

The bomb-threat situation became so grave that additional security officers and administrators were stationed at the high school and the superintendent, mayor and police chief held a press conference indicating that if the bomb threats continued, the high school might have to be closed on a temporary basis.

Mark Sutter, Elyria’s director of academic services for secondary education, said he and other educators noticed that students at the high school seemed more on edge than other years while taking the Ohio Graduation Test.

Despite the disappointment of missing “effective” status by a fraction, Sutter there were some bright areas in the results — graduation rates improved dramatically and, for the first time, the Elyria district met test standards for 11th-grade science.

The graduation rate — which is always reported with a year’s delay — was 84.4 percent in the 2004-05 school year and 89.3 percent in the 2005-06 school year, he said.

Michele Stoffan, Elyria’s director of academic services for primary education, said Elyria was one of four urban districts to obtain effective status. Out of 21 urban districts in the state, just Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Parma have also climbed to effective status, she said.

Rigda said state officials told Sutter “to blame them (state officials), but that’s not the help we need — to blame others.”

Rigda said the schools just wanted the same chance that Elyria teachers give their students. He said teachers are allowed, if a student comes close to the points needed for an A, to give that student the top grade if the teacher thinks the student put forth the effort and hard work to deserve it.

Rigda said it appears that the Ohio Department of Education “didn’t want to deal with it — they didn’t want to set a precedent in helping an urban district.”

If truth be told, Rigda said the entire system of giving report cards is unfair because it compares districts with a large number of wealthy or middle-class households to those such as Elyria, which educate students from a wide range of economic backgrounds.

When asked if his disappointment could be considered sour grapes, Rigda said, “I admit it — I’m not denying it.”

Rigda acknowledged the district’s staff may have been somewhat distracted by the successful effort to pass a levy to build a new high school, but that was an important mission.

Voters approved a $45 million bond issue in May by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent to build the new school. The remainder of the $68 million project will be funded by the state.

Contact Cindy Leise at 653-6250 or cleise@chroniclet.com.