Why Does Ohio Have Its Eyes on Lorain City Schools?

[photo: Michelle Faust/ ideastream]
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by Michelle Faust

An Academic Distress Commission has overseen Lorain City Schools since 2013. The goal: to improve the district’s student achievement. According to state law, the progress Lorain schools has made is too little, and too late.  What are the districts challenges that put the district in this situation? And what changes have they made?

First, there’s the demographics.  More than 90-percent of students who attend Lorain City Schools live in poverty.  Nearly 20-percent require individual education plans to address special needs.  7-percent have limited English proficiency.

“Our median family income is about $24,000 a year,” says Dr. Jeff Graham, Superintendent of Lorain City School.

When families struggle economically, problems taking care of day-to-day basic needs can get in the way of their children’s education.

“I have a 12-year-old. And if she's sick, I take off work and I take her to a hospital or the doctor –whatever she needs. For a variety of reasons, our parents don't have access to that. Whether it's transportation, or they can't take off work. And we have a lot of our parents when you ask who their primary care physician, they give the emergency room,” Graham explains.

In an effort to knock down these hurdles Lorain has new wrap-around services. All of the students get free lunch and this year the district has partnered with Mercy Hospital to put health clinics in the schools. 

Different students have different needs. Like any parent, María Luisa Rivera Figeroa is concerned about the education of each of her three children.

“Antes de yo venir para acá de Puerto Rico, yo empecé a buscar por internet.”

Before I moved here from Puerto Rico, I started looking online.

Rivera Figeroa knew Lorain schools had challenges when her family moved to the area. As a former high school health teacher, education is a high priority for her and, as a new arrival, she knows her kids need to improve their English to succeed.

She says her 5 and 7 year olds have the help they need.

“En ellos, he visto los cambios (en los pequeños), pero mi miedo es la grande.”

In them, I’ve seen the changes (in the little ones), but my fear is the older one.

Rivera Figueroa worries her high school doesn’t have the supports that she needs to progress.

Superintendent Graham admits supports for older children are harder to come by. The district is working on getting more tutoring for their students, but resources aren’t always readily available.

Despite the challenges, the district leadership says its work is bearing fruit.

A talkative group of high school seniors discusses the recent presidential election.

“In the three branches of government that are there as our checks and balances, we have a Republican president that will be in power,” teacher Steve Cawthon says from the front of the class.

Students chime in about what that will mean for the makeup of the Supreme Court. As Cawthon intends, they’re using real-world examples to illustrate the lesson.

Teachers in the social studies department, that Cawthon leads, get together regularly to their students are learning the curriculum they need to progress and graduate.

Lorain’s Academic Distress Commission oversaw the creation of teacher-based teams.

“We meet every Monday as a department. They're focusing on content, structure, strategies in the classroom. So, before it wasn't like that,” says Cawthon.

Students in Lorain are progressing.

In 2014 and 2015, the district earned A’s in the value-added category on the Ohio State Report Cards —meaning students showed growth in those years.

This year was different. On the latest report card, the district earned all Ds and Fs in the 6 graded categories. Their value-added score was an F. 

Superintendent Graham says changes in the standardized tests hurt his students more than other students in Ohio.

“During that 3-year period that we had to demonstrate that we were growing and meeting those benchmarks, we had 3 different tests. And it's not only the tests measure different things, but students of our demographics don't adjust to those types of changes as easily as students of other demographics. What I mean by that is students of poverty,” says Graham.

It’s true. The state not only changed the standardized tests multiple times, it also made the report card standards tougher.  The majority of school districts in Ohio saw their grades drop this year.

But under the provisions of House Bill 70, Lorain was not exempted from the consequences of the latest state report cards, like other schools in the state.

So starting at the end of the academic year, the district will be run by a Chief Executive Officer with all the powers of a school board and a superintendent.

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