July 30, 2014

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State takeover of Lorain Schools likely won’t be met with hostility

LORAIN — The academic takeover of Lorain Schools is unlikely to be a hostile one, according to some of those involved with Youngstown Schools, the only Ohio school district taken over by a state-appointed Academic Distress Commission.

“I don’t think anybody wants to get rid of anyone who’s doing a good job, and it sounds like (they) have some people who are on the right track,” said John Charlton, Ohio Department of Education spokesman. “It’s unfortunate that maybe they came three years too late, but the idea of an Academic Distress Commission is to improve the educational process and improve the education of the students.”

Four straight years of failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress, a federal benchmark, led to the impending takeover in Lorain. The approximately 7,200-student school district was designated in academic emergency by the Ohio Department of Education after meeting just one of 26 standards on the annual state report card in the 2011-12 school year. Youngstown, which has about 5,500 students, in 2010 became the first Ohio district in academic takeover. Cleveland Schools is also being considered for takeover this year.

A letter formally notifying Lorain of the takeover is expected to be sent this week or next, Charlton said. The commission, which must be formed within 30 days of receipt of the letter, will consist of three members appointed by Michael Sawyers, the department’s acting superintendent, and two appointed by Tim Williams, Lorain Board of Education president. An academic recovery plan must be approved by commission members within 120 days of formation.

The plan must include short-term and long term recovery strategies, a recovery timeline, the resources that will be used and monitoring procedures. The plan must be updated annually.

Hired in August, Superintendent Tom Tucker helped get the first levy passed since 1992, reinstituted full-day kindergarten, created an after-school tutoring program for third through eighth graders, and hired Pamela Szegedy, an academic troubleshooter. Szegedy worked for the department for two years improving low performing school districts after nine years with Lorain.

Tucker submitted a recovery plan to the department prior to news of the takeover. Adrienne O’Neill, commission chairwoman for Youngstown, said the commission may adopt parts of Tucker’s plan if they like it.

“There’s nothing in the law that says that the plan that has been adopted needs to be changed, but it could be monitored by the Academic Distress Commission.” O’Neill said. “It depends on the amount of information that the district provides to the Academic Distress Commission that enables the commission to go forward.”

While the commission has the power to hire and fire, establish budgets and privatize, O’Neill said it has mainly served in an advisory role in Youngstown. The exception was replacing the school treasurer with two temporary “fiscal monitors” who estimated a

$48 million deficit in Youngstown’s five-year forecast.

While Youngstown met just one of 26 standards on the 2011-12 school like Lorain, O’Neill said Youngstown has made progress. She said the commission’s insistence on teaching all students at or above grade level — including struggling students — was a “major change.” Struggling students receive extra help but are still expected to learn at grade level.

“The problem is if all you provide is remedial help, students never get on grade-level instruction and never will pass any test or perform on grade level,” said O’Neill, a longtime academic and former Canton Schools chief education officer.

Lock Beachum, a Youngstown Board of Education member since 1998 and a former Youngstown Schools administrator, said the commission has done a “pretty fair job.” He attributes that to good communication between the commission and school board.

Williams hopes for the same type of communication in Lorain. Williams said he’s had several people express interest in being appointed to the commission and plans to consult with fellow board members before appointing commission members.

Williams suspects the commission’s recovery plan will include parts of Tucker’s plan. He said extra scrutiny could be a plus in a district where about 85 percent of students live in poverty and 87 percent don’t meet minimum state standards when they enter kindergarten. Williams said the takeover should be seen as opportunity rather than punishment.

“We will make sure we take advantage of the opportunity as opposed to walking into it thinking, ‘Oh, no. What now?” he said. “We have to have a very positive attitude.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.