Q & A: East Cleveland, Lorain & Youngstown schools will begin effort to regain local control

East Cleveland Schools
East Cleveland CEO Dr. Henry Pettiegrew calls this semester, when teachers will undergo extensive professional training, their 'preseason.' [Jenny Hamel / Ideastream Public Media]
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For years, the East Cleveland, Lorain and Youngstown school districts have been under state control and run by CEOs. Each was deemed failing under House Bill 70, which passed the legislature in 2015.

But starting in July, their local school boards will retake the reins and implement academic improvement plans approved by the state, with the hope of showing students can improve and achieve under local control.

All Things Considered Host Glenn Forbes spoke with Ideastream Public Media Education Reporter Jenny Hamel about all the work the districts have to do until then.

House Bill 70 gave state appointed CEOs authority to run the school districts. That bill was extremely unpopular with these local districts.

Yes, and there was pushback from the districts from the very beginning. But finally, this summer, as a part of the biennial budget, the state gave these districts the chance to start moving towards local control. So each district drafted plans for how they would improve student achievement in categories like reading and math and school attendance. In December, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) approved those plans. 

So now, beginning in July, the districts will have three years to show they can improve student achievement under the leadership of the superintendent and the elected school board.

Lorain CEO Jeffrey Graham, who will stay on as superintendent, says the intentions of House Bill 70 were good but flawed in that it took away control from an elected school board.

“We're all on the board for the right reasons. These are all honorable community leaders and they deserve to have input as to how tax dollars are spent and our decisions are made. And again, it's tough to engage the community when you disengage their leaders,” Graham said.

The Ohio Department of Education approved Lorain’s plan to improve student achievement. What is in that plan?

Some of the big focuses of the plan, which is based on the district's strategic plan, is to improve the graduation rate, improve the rate of students passing the third grade reading test and to reduce chronic absenteeism. Another aspect of the plan helps the 30% of their students who are part of the “transient” community, meaning students, for whatever personal reasons, move around a lot. Lorain schools Assistant Superintendent Ross May says students can experience academic hits if they move around a lot.

“What we're doing is looking for a much more kind of coherent across-the-district approach to what we're teaching and when we're teaching it, and then how best to teach it. So, if you're a student and you move from one school in a district to another school, you should have the same experience,” May told Ideastream Public Media.

Another thing the district is doing is conducting a really thorough equity audit to see where there might be opportunity gaps for students and for staff.

East Cleveland schools is also a district where the current CEO Dr. Henry Pettiegrew will stay on as a superintendent. How is he approaching that July start date when they begin their plan?

He is all in. Pettiegrew is calling this next semester before that July start date their “preseason.” As a part of that, every Monday — they're calling it Mindful Monday — the students are learning remotely. They're meeting virtually with groups, learning asynchronously, meeting with school counselors and psychologists. Meanwhile, every teacher is going through 52 hours of rigorous training over the next semester. Pettigrew says one big focus is to improve literacy. 

“Our students, historically, if you look at any standardized testing measure, over 50 to 60 percent of our students score below the reading level that they should be trending at. So our students are not reading on grade level. And our goal is to try to make sure that every student is going to be on grade level,” Pettiegrew told Ideastream Public Media.

Pettigrew says he wants his teaching staff totally prepared and that they have the tools and instructional strategies in order to tackle this task.

So, the districts have three years to implement these plans. What academic targets do they have to meet and what happens if they don't meet those targets?

They have to hit benchmarks in subjects like math and reading. They have to improve graduation rates and lower absenteeism. Now, if the districts do this successfully for three years, then the academic distress commissions will be dissolved and local control officially happens. Otherwise, the districts continue under the authority of the state. 

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