High-poverty schools see more challenges

When school report cards were released earlier this fall, Warren City School District experienced a significant jump in K-3 literacy from a failing grade last year to a “C” this year.

The city school district also improved its four-year graduation rate from its failing grade last year. Superintendent Steve Chiaro said those were areas the district had focused on, and he was pleased to see the payoff.

Still, a lot of work remains as the district is still struggling in areas including “indicators met,” which analyzes whether student performance on state tests meets established state-mandated thresholds; “gap closing,” which shows how well schools are meeting the performance expectations for the most vulnerable populations of students in core classes; and “prepared for success,” which critiques how well prepared students are for all future opportunities.

But the challenges for this inner-city, high-poverty district may be greater than in neighboring or other districts in the state. About 17 percent of Warren G. Harding High School students live below the federal poverty line, and more than half of the school’s students linger close to poverty. That creates challenges that districts in higher-income areas of the county may not face.

An analysis of the latest Ohio school report cards reported on by the Ohio Education Association indicates the 65 lowest-performing districts in Ohio have nearly seven times as many economically disadvantaged students as the top 65 districts.

And of the 124 Ohio districts that scored an A or B on the performance index, only two have an economically disadvantaged population higher than the state average. Conversely, districts scoring an F on the performance index have more than 10 times the percentage of economically disadvantaged students than those getting an A do.

Now, I certainly am not implying that low-income students cannot learn, but it’s apparent that they are struggling, possibly because of other challenges in their lives that higher-income kids don’t face. We need to understand why poverty affects certain kids more than others, and we need to devote different resources to the issue — much like Warren City Schools did successfully to increase the K-3 literacy rate.

Longtime Lakeview Board of Education member Larry Sherer, who also was a longtime teacher, told me recently he sees school report cards as a measurement of items that are easily measured — not necessarily items that are most important in education. Sherer believes in the value of public education and said state testing is unable to represent what students come to know.

One Ohio legislator, Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, wants the state report cards to better reflect socioeconomic realities. Duffey wants report cards to show the ability to teach kids, not just reflect the demographics. Duffey’s intent may be good, but repeated changes to the school report cards are problematic and a point of contention among most educators.

While I believe a benchmark is needed to hold educators and districts accountable, I also agree that too much emphasis is put on school report cards. I think a compromise is needed. I see things like graduation rates and literacy as important indicators that should be tracked. But kids who are successful in school — and ultimately in life — may not always be the best test takers. There should be other ways to measure school district success.

Maybe we should be measuring and testing our teachers to ensure that they have the right skills, training and attitudes to teach our children well. If we can feel confident in that, then maybe we can also feel more comfortable in reducing the amount of stress we exert on school report cards.

For sure, the challenge is great. Legislators must work with educators in developing the right measurement tools as we strive to ensure our kids are learning and growing so they can succeed, no matter what their background.