Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli has this school year to raise the district’s scores from last in Ohio to at least a D grade or risk being taken over by the state and losing local control.
This story is about how she intends to do that.
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Lolli has initiated more than a dozen initiatives and reforms since being named school chief in March. She and the school board have also embarked on a strategic planning process to identify goals for the district. Some of these changes are immediate. Others will take years, meaning they may depend on Lolli and the board staying in charge to carry them out.
A takeover would mean a state-appointed CEO, and not the school board, would run the district — a fate that could happen as early as next fall.
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The challenges Lolli faces are laid out in a scathing analysis of the district by the Ohio Department of Education released this month. State experts visited the schools in May, and found excessive teacher absences, inadequate budget controls and more.
State report cards released this month gave DPS an overall grade of F and listed Dayton as the lowest-scoring among all of Ohio’s 608 school districts.
Lolli believes takeover can be avoided through a combination of leadership changes, teacher training, additional programming and departmental overhauls.
“We are working on a very aggressive plan to change the results that are going to come out next school year,” she said.
The Dayton Daily News recently sat down with Lolli for a comprehensive look at the changes she is putting in place. We will analyze each of these in the coming months as part of our initiative, The Path Forward, which seeks to find solutions to the area’s most pressing problems. The performance of Dayton Public Schools, many believe, is key to the region’s economic prosperity.
Here are Lolli’s main reform efforts:
• Enhancing teacher training. She plans to shut down entire school buildings for a day at a time to train teachers on what she calls “high-yield” teaching strategies.
• Revamping curriculum. Lolli more than doubled the district’s department that helps teachers develop lesson plans aligned with state standards.
• Changing leadership. Among other administrative changes, half the district’s schools have new principals this year.
• Improving teacher quality. In its analysis of the district, the state’s education department found DPS had no system for recruiting and retaining quality teachers. Lolli said an overhaul of the district’s human resources department is underway.
• Promoting better student and teacher attendance. The district is sending letters and making bi-weekly phone calls to parents in hopes of improving communication and getting more buy-in on the need for kids to be in school.
• Addressing mental health issues. The district hired five mental health counselors at the elementary schools this school year.
• Expanding partnerships. The district is working to develop more alliances between the community and the schools, including possibly offering a health clinic for children and their families in some schools.
• Reinstating band programs. All middle schools and every high school except the Ponitz Career Technology Center now have band and choir programs after years of neglect.
• Reviving PTOs. The district has a goal of having parent-teacher organizations for every school building within three years. Last year just 15 of the district’s buildings had PTOs, according to district officials.
• Creating more college and career opportunities. This includes preparing middle-schoolers for a program that will help them graduate high school with an associate’s degree, providing incentives for students — especially minority students — to go to college and become DPS teachers, and adding internships for non-college bound students.
• Cutting down on non-classroom expenses. Currently, DPS spends more per student in non-classroom costs than the statewide average. “We’re working to change that and focus our efforts on students,” said Lolli, though how exactly that will be accomplished is still in the review stages, she said.
Avoiding a state takeover will benefit both the students and the community, according to Lolli.
“Why not be the designer of the new Dayton Public Schools instead of letting the state say, ‘This is what we’re going to do?’” she said.
Since taking her position, Lolli has moved quickly to install new leadership, replacing many senior school chiefs and the principals of five of the city’s six high schools, two middle schools and six elementary schools. She also added assistant principals to some schools.
Lolli said this was done after a review of factors, including staff and parent complaints, school performance and the type of programming provided in each school.
“The principal sets the tone for the building,” she said. “If a principal is focused on academic achievement, high-quality teaching, good student relationships, good parent involvement, it will happen in a building. If the principal is focused on something other than those things, those things will go by the wayside.”
Addressing teacher quality
With her new leadership team, Lolli’s main priority in turning around the district is teacher training. Starting in October, schools will close for one day each to provide teachers with training that is focused on high-yield teaching strategies.
This involves teaching students note-taking, rewarding performance, teaching using graphic representations, group learning, setting goals and encouraging kids to think critically.
“These are the strategies that, if you will use them with fidelity, your students are more likely than not to pick up what we’re trying to teach,” Lolli said.
A lack of evidence-based instructional strategies was a key criticism leveled at DPS in the state report. An Ohio Department of Education panel visited more than 100 Dayton classrooms in May as part of an effort to raise performance in a district that has been tagged as needing continuous improvement.
The panel rated Dayton teaches on a scale from 0 to 5 on measures such as teaching aligned to state standards, assessing student understanding and adapting instruction, and students and teachers using technology.
A zero meant the review team saw no evidence a specific practice was occurring. A five represented exemplary practice. In every area listed, the district scored less than a 1.
HERE IS THE STATE’S REPORT:
Dayton teacher’s union president David Romick said teachers haven’t received consistent direction from the central office on how and what they should be teaching.
“I’d put our teaching staff up against any school district around,” he said. “The district hasn’t had a consistent, or really a solid curriculum department in years, so our teachers haven’t had a curriculum direction in a number of years.”
Romick and Lolli said that has changed this year. Lolli increased from five to 14 the number of people in the office that helps teachers develop lesson plans aligned to state standards —an effort that began before the state review in May, she said. The district also is making student progress data more available to teachers, Lolli said, and is working with them on how to use it to achieve better outcomes.
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Following its assessment in May, the state said teachers lacked knowledge on using data to assess student progress.
Lolli said progress has already been made. The curriculum department has established guides so teachers know what skills they are supposed to be teaching in any given six-week period, and what to do if students fall behind, she said. The district has also worked with the union to adopt standardized processes in the classroom.
“When I arrived in 2016, there was no common language, there was no formatting for what the classroom looks like, what we do every day in a lesson,” Lolli said.
Another area that came under criticism from the state was DPS’ system for recruiting high-qualified staff.
Lolli commissioned an audit of the district’s human resources department that she says will “restructure the entire department — all the processes and procedures,” by the end of the year.
In the past, the district put little effort into filling positions that came open during the school year, relying instead on substitute teachers that under union rules could only be in the classroom for 59 days at a time, Lolli said.
“The kids had unstable environments because the people changed every 59 days,” she said.
Lolli and the union agreed to allow high-quality subs to sign one-year contracts and to work to fill all positions with full-time teachers, she said.
Attendance from both students and teachers has been a problem. Out of roughly 970 teachers, an average of 120 were absent each day, according to the state report. On Fridays, the absences spiked to an average of 190, the report says.
Lolli said that has to change.
“We’re going to hire year-round. We’re not going to stop the hiring process just because we have long-term subs in place,” she said. “In the past we just said we can’t find anybody. No, you’re going to keep searching until you find somebody. We’re not going to play this game anymore.”
Every two weeks, Lolli sends out an automated message to every DPS parent informing them of both the teacher and student attendance rate. The message singles out which schools were above 92 percent in student attendance, and whether the teacher attendance rate met the district’s goal of 96 percent.
“(It’s about) making sure that people understand that school matters, and that’s what I say every time: I say, ‘School matters, let’s all be there,’” Lolli said.
The district also sent letters from Lolli and the NAACP encouraging parents to get their kids to school.
HERE ARE THE LETTERS:
Improving student attendance and discipline are the two primary goals of DPS’ neighborhood school centers. The six schools partner with community groups — the United Way, YMCA, Dayton Children’s Medical Center and East End Community Services — to offer after-school programs for kids and parents.
“The fact (students) get to go to an after-school program will bring them in,” Lolli said. “If they know they can’t go to a neighborhood school because they misbehave today, or they misbehaved last week, they’re going to straighten up their discipline.”
Lolli is also in early discussion with area agencies to bring health care services to some schools.
“We’ve started to have conversations with the health care providers in the community to talk about, is there a way we can start to have school-based health clinics someplace in the district, even if it’s a pilot?” she said. “Can we have one site, can we have two sites and can we eventually have a plan that branches it out to families to serve the students first, but the families next?”
As part of the district’s health initiatives, five mental health experts were hired to circulate among the elementary schools.
Getting parents involved
Lolli believes the district needs to get more parents involved in the schools, including establishing parent-teacher organizations in each building.
She created a new position tasked with helping set up such groups, which were lacking in about a dozen buildings last year. The district is also focusing more on customer service, she said, so parents feel comfortable coming into the schools and talking to teachers and administrators.
“If I don’t have a welcoming attitude, if I don’t have an open door to say, ‘I want my parents here in this building, I want my parents as partners supporting the learning your child is going to have,’ then we turn parents away,” she said.
Beyond high school
Some of Lolli’s most ambitious initiatives won’t impact test scores this year, but could pay dividends down the road.
Her hope is that the middle school students who will be in next year’s freshman class at Dunbar Early College High School will all finish high school at or near getting an associate’s degree. High school students at Dunbar can obtain college credit for free under the College Credit Plus program. Under this program a student could get an associate’s degree and a high school diploma at the same time, though just one student in the district has ever done so.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: The Path Forward: Dayton Schools Facebook group
Another long-term initiative of Lolli’s — dubbed an urban teaching academy — would help DPS students become DPS teachers. The urban teaching academy would operate similar to Dunbar’s program in that students could complete their first two years of their college classes while in high school. Lolli says she is working with area colleges to line up financial assistance that would help the students finish their college degrees and enter the teaching profession.
She sees it as a chance to help diversify the teaching staff. “We don’t have the numbers that we need of teachers who look like our students,” she said.
For kids who aren’t college-bound, Lolli wants to line up internships and apprenticeships to help them advance in a career.
“The whole idea… is workforce development, that pathway into college and career readiness,” she said.
At a town hall meeting at Dayton Boys Preparatory School Tuesday, the public not only saw one of Lolli’s initiatives on display, they heard it, as band students from Dunbar and Meadowdale high schools performed at the event.
“These students have only had instruments on their lips — or the percussion with their sticks in their hands — since the beginning of school or the beginning of last school year,” Lolli told the crowd.
Reviving band and choir programs is an important step toward improving the district’s overall performance, Lolli said.
In addition to giving participants another reason to come to school, “music education and art education are important, as well as physical education, because my brain is a whole brain,” Lolli said. “I need the right side developed, I need the left side developed, and if I don’t develop both sides of my brain then I won’t be able to do much of the work that is expected of me in today’s society.”
The response from the public to the district’s goals on Tuesday was mixed. Several parents and community members called on the district to include the public more in the decision-making process. Some complained about teacher quality and other issues.
But there was also optimism that better days are ahead for the district.
“We’ve got some opportunities in front of us to get started now, with the help of all the things that have been identified, with the parents, with the businesses, with the universities,” resident Tony Curington said. “Just say the word and we’re all ready to jump on board and get going.”