LORAIN — Improving Lorain Schools academically can mean being both a coach and cheerleader for Pamela Szegedy.
“Who’s going to be the number one school with the highest scores in Lorain City Schools? Who’s going to be it?” Szegedy, assistant superintendent of school improvement through teaching, asked a handful of Helen Steiner Rice Elementary School students Wednesday about the upcoming Ohio Achievement Assessments.
The annual Ohio Department of Education tests judge third- through eighth-graders in math, reading, science, social studies and writing. They help decide what grade school district’s get in the department’s annual report card.
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Ohio will switch in 2014-15 to Common Core State Standards, a standardized federal initiative. To help boost scores, Szegedy is overseeing after school math and reading tutoring of third- through eighth-graders, which occurs for 45 minutes per day four days per week.
Lorain Schools are in academic emergency after meeting just one of 26 standards on the report card for the 2011-12 school year. Three straight years in academic emergency would trigger an academic takeover. Youngstown is the only school district ever placed in academic takeover, but Superintendent Tom Tucker isn’t taking any chances.
Tucker, hired in August, recognized that besides bettering the lives of students, academic improvement is key to reversing dwindling enrollment in a school district that has lost some 3,000 students in the last decade. The losses are primarily due to depopulation in Lorain and charter schools, the privately run, publicly funded schools that have been praised by Gov. John Kasich and Education Secretary Arne Duncan despite inconsistent results.
Szegedy, who will earn $98,800 annually and be paid with federal taxpayer grant money, knows the district well. After administrating and teaching in Avon Lake, Cleveland and Vermilion between 1980 and 1999, she joined Lorain Schools in 1999. Szegedy was principal at Longfellow Middle School from 2000 to ’05 and at Palm Elementary School from 2005 until ’08 before retiring.
Szegedy, 62, came out of retirement to work as an academic troubleshooter for the department for two years. She said she was among a team of 10 who worked to improve schools in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo that were among the 5 percent lowest performing in Ohio.
While Szegedy was at Longfellow, the school ascended from academic emergency to continuous improvement on the report card and Palm ascended from academic watch to effective. She said the key to the improvements was using evidence-based techniques and teamwork.
“It wasn’t because of me, it was because we did it as a team,” Szegedy said. “We all had the same vision. We all had the same goals.”
When Szegedy tours a classroom, she looks for how well students are engaged with teachers, how many are actively participating, the instructional format and what resources teachers are using. She checks the lessons and work of students hung on classroom walls and also looks to see if higher levels of learning are being taught beside basic comprehension and rote memorization.
For example, having students use the context of a story to figure out words they don’t understand. In teacher Cindy Ortiz’s fifth-grade class, students are encouraged to make educated guesses.
Anna, a character in a short story, recycles and limits her use of pesticides. So it can be inferred that she cares about the environment. “It didn’t say how Anna feels at all, but we can infer, we can guess, that she does care about it because her actions show this,” Ortiz told her students.
After class, Ortiz acknowledged students keeping children focused during after school tutoring is difficult because they are often tired. She said she tries to shake things up.
Sometimes she shows a video clip related to the subject or has students highlight passages of stories rather than just reading along. Ortiz also tries to incorporate students’ personal experiences and how they may relate to a subject.
While it’s a long day, Ortiz said the smaller class sizes for tutoring — about 53 percent of third -through eighth-graders have been participating since the tutoring began last month — allow for more individual instruction. Ortiz has about 29 students in her regular class compared to 11 to 13 for tutoring.
“I can see right away where they’re making mistakes,” said Ortiz, a teacher since 1992. “I can get to almost every one of them.”
Szegedy conceded improvement will take time in a district where 85 percent of students live in poverty and 87 percent enter kindergarten not meeting minimum state standards. Some come from broken homes where they are abused or neglected. Szegedy said guidance counselors, nurses and social workers will help address social needs.
“We have those non-academic barriers and obstacles that we have to hurdle over,” she said. “However, because of those, we’re not going to lower our expectations.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.