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‘We have students that live in their vehicle’ says principal of Dayton school

Westwood principal cites progress amid challenges. 

Editor’s note: This story is part of a package of reports exploring race- and poverty-based achievement gaps at Dayton Public Schools and how they can be bridged. Read our full report here. 

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Akisha Shehee knows better than anyone the achievement gap poor and minority students face.

As principal of Westwood Elementary school, she sees that gap every day. Westwood is 91 percent black and abuts one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

“I believe it is a huge issue, which is one of the reasons that I am so grateful to be here,” Shehee said. “I grew up in this neighborhood. I went to Dayton Public Schools. I had a wonderful experience in Dayton Public Schools, and for me it’s very important for us to continue that tradition.”

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Walking the quiet halls of the school a week before it filled with the clamor of children, Shehee talked about the obstacles her students face.

“We have families that are struggling to survive, pay their bills. They may not have utilities,” she said. “We have students that live in their vehicle. But we know our families, and we’re building these trusting relationships, so we understand that.”

Shehee has worked to address the challenges schools like hers face, such as bringing down discipline numbers and preventing teacher turnover.

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And she sees progress. When Shehee first came to the school five years ago, she had 22 new teachers out of a staff of 28. She has since worked to stem that turnover and develop a staff of teachers who are dedicated to the community.

“I’m very committed to making sure our students receive the best education possible and that’s’ the message that goes to the teachers,” she said.

Today, Westwood is a neighborhood school, meaning it serves the surrounding community with both education and social services. Westwood could use more partners to help with vaccinations and mental health issues for kids, as well as programs and other services for parents, Shehee said.

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“We need to help our parents secure their education, so GED services and jobs, helping them to get jobs,” she said. Some parents also need guidance in how to help their children be successful, said Shehee, “because they might not always know.”

Westwood showed improvement in the most recent test scores over the previous year, and Shehee’s message to parents is they don’t have to cross the river or use a voucher to get a good education.

“We have a 5-star preschool. We have a high-performing kindergarten and primary school, and we have the data to support that,” she said. “We’re continuing to build on that.”

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