LORAIN — Lorain is not hitting academic benchmarks fast enough and soon could fall under takeover provisions only seen in Youngstown Schools.
In the Mahoning Valley district, local control is in the hands of a career urban educator hired in from Chicago by an academic distress commission of mostly state-appointed members. Youngstown’s CEO has the power to hire, fire and set aside labor contracts. He reports to the commission instead of the elected school board, which only has the power of consultation.
No one could say Thursday when the state Department of Education would enact stricter sanctions against the struggling Lorain Schools. But Thursday’s state report card grades illustrate why Youngstown’s fate could be in Lorain’s future.
“While all other districts have been placed in ‘safe harbor’ to give students and schools time to adjust to the new standards and tests, current legislation places Lorain City Schools under Academic Distress,” said Superintendent Jeff Graham. “The old law has not kept pace with the increased rigor of these assessments. Therefore, this year’s dip in test scores is more critical then ever in Lorain — they indicate that we are now eligible for a CEO. That’s a difficult consequence to accept, especially when we are outperforming some districts.”
Graham said the failing grades were not unanticipated. Of the total 16 graded areas included in the data released Thursday, Lorain pulled in 13 F’s and three D’s. Not all count against the district in terms of its academic distress status, but the evaluation offers few glimmers of hope.
“We were ready for this dip because they keep changing the test,” he said. “When you change the test and add rigor, scores will dip.”
Under its recovery plan, Lorain set two lofty goals: achieve a value-added score of C on both the 2015 and 2016 state report card and achieve a performance index score of C on both years’ report cards as well. Performance index looks at how all students perform on state tests and value-added looks at student growth.
In 2015, Lorain lauded its value-added grades — seen as “progress” on the report card.
The state looks at progress in four ways — all students, gifted students, the lowest 20 percent of students in achievement and students with disabilities. Lorain’s all-student grade was an A in 2015. Gifted students scored a B. Students in the lowest 20 percent of achievement earned an A, as did students with disabilities.
But this year’s evaluation says Lorain bottomed out in value-added.
There is also a disclaimer. In years prior, value added was a three-year-average grade. But with a new test — the PARCC testing consortium assessments were used in 2014-15 and tests developed by the American Institutes for Research were used statewide last year — the state is using one year of baseline data to issue grades. That makes the progress component the most sensitive to short-term change.
“Value added is supposed to measure annual growth, but it’s across two different tests with a much higher level of rigor,” Graham said. “You can’t convince me that we were in the top 3 percent in value-added last year and this year we have fallen so far.”
When it comes to the performance index grade, Lorain earned a D this year with a 51 percent score. It’s a somewhat-complicated measure that looks at how well all students do on state tests by assigning a value to levels of proficiency ranging from limited to advanced. Last year’s PI score with PARCC test results were more than 10 percentage points higher at 62 percent. But it still earned Lorain a D grade.
When pressed more on a timetable for the state takeover, Graham said he didn’t know.
“We haven’t met the benchmarks two years in a row, so the process could start sooner than next year,” he said. “I just don’t know. I understand the law, and I understand what the law says will happen, but it doesn’t say when that will happen.”
Graham will meet with new state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria later this month. DeMaria is the only one who has the authority to take Lorain out of academic distress, Graham said.
“We have two ways out at this point — a change in the law or the state superintendent could step in,” Graham said.
District spokeswoman Erin Gadd said state Sen. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, has stepped up to lead the charge toward a legislative out because progress has been made.
“We are not just using these state tests to evaluate students,” Gadd said. “We are also using state-approved alternative assessments, and on all of those tests we are seeing student growth. We know what is happening in our classrooms is working.”
Manning, a former public school teacher, said last year she was going to propose new legislation in March tailor-made for Lorain’s success. When reached Thursday, she said she is still hoping to get a sit-down with DeMaria.
“The only legislation to pass this time is to give Lorain the same safe harbor coverage as every other school district in Ohio,” Manning said. “So many people thought Lorain was covered under the provision, so I say let’s give it to them.”
Lorain is not Youngstown, Manning said.
There the school board met the state’s intervention with bitter resistance.
“No one has asked for the distress commission to leave Lorain, so in so many ways, the state is already involved,” Manning said. “Everyone is working with the distress commission. Everyone feels the movement happening, from the school board to the teachers and parents. We just need another year, and hopefully, we will see some movement.”
ODE established Lorain’s Academic Distress Commission in April 2013 to address years of lagging test scores and data that showed Lorain students performing below academic benchmarks. The commission quickly developed an academic recovery plan that was implemented and approved by the state, but with multiple changes in state assessments — and Lorain not being eligible for the safe harbor provisions enacted last year by the Legislature to protect other districts from dire consequences — Lorain and Graham knew they were fighting an uphill battle.
For Graham, who started in Lorain in August 2015, failure would mean he would be out of a job before his three-year contract is up.
But for now, Graham has elected not to panic. Instead, the district will continue its approved improvement plan.
“Regardless of our results on the new report card, we believe that academics are just one aspect of education,” he said. “We are more than our test scores. We are our people. And Lorain is filled with wonderful, caring educators, support staff, families and community members working every day to help our students to achieve. … The state report card does not define us, it informs the decisions that we make. And we will continue to stay the course.”
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