Lorain Academic Distress Commission to Disband in March

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The good news is that things seem to be moving in a positive direction… the district has an academic recovery plan; its enrollment is increasing; and it’s working to address the needs of its struggling kids.  The bad news -- it’s not improving fast enough.

“I think the last four years have been productive in a lot of ways,” says Dr. Bill Zelei, chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission.  He says while they haven’t gotten as far as he would have liked during their tenure, there have been positive changes.  “We’ve had success in outreach to the community and really increasing communication with the community. And I think we’ve had some success in moving students along in their achievement.” 

They’ve had success with the graduation rate.  73% of the class of 2016 earned their diplomas.  That’s more than 5% higher than the previous class.  But it was still 10% below the state average -- earning the district an F for its four-year graduation rate on the state report card. 

It was one of five F’s plus a D -- leading the district to its third failing year.  Now, under House Bill 70, a new academic distress commission will come in as well as a CEO who will have “complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district.” 

“We don’t like the term ‘takeover.’ It’s not really a takeover,” says Bill Sturgill, a member of the Lorain City School District Board of Education.  “Some people look at it like a takeover.  Some people, like me, look at it like we’ll have maybe better resources to get to where we need to be because Lorain has faltered.”

Though the school board will be left largely powerless, Sturgill says they’ll continue to engage the community.  And he hopes the new leadership will work collaboratively with them. 

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer.

“I want to make this work for Lorain.  I want to make House Bill 70 work for Lorain.  I want to make the distress commission work for Lorain and make us a success story.” 

Ritenauer has until early April to appoint one person to the new five-member academic distress commission.  The district school board president will appoint one member and the state will appoint the remaining three.  Ritenauer has two priorities.

“..to continue to engage and utilize the board, I think is important.  To keep Jeff Graham is important to me.  So he’d just move from Superintendent to CEO.  And I’m hoping that the distress commission agrees with me on that.” 

Once the new academic distress commission is in place, it has 60 days to hire a CEO.  Lorain’s Superintendent Dr. Jeff Graham says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll apply for the CEO post.  That person will have the power to hire and fire throughout the district.  It’s raised a lot of concerns among teachers and staff.  Members of the current academic distress commission including Dr. Bill Zelei and Raul Ramos say the future CEO needs to be “student-centric.”

“Student concerns more than adult concerns,” says Ramos.  “And we as a commission, we deal with adult issues.  We deal with the teachers and the staff and everybody else.  But the whole thing in the back of our mind is, how’s that going to affect the students?  And that’s what we need as a CEO.” 

His colleague on the commission, Dr. Zelei adds, “As a CEO, they need to focus on what’s best for kids and helping adults change what they’re doing to better serve kids.  The Lorain city 15 yrs ago or 20 yrs ago isn’t the same city Lorain is today.  The children who are coming to school aren’t the same children with the same capacity as they were 20 years ago.  If I still teach the way that I did 20 years ago, I’m probably not going to get the results I got 20 years ago.” 

Zelei and Ramos add that Lorain’s decline – both academic and economic -- happened over decades.  They say it’ll take time for the city and its students to climb back up. 


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