The street in front of Westbrooke Village Elementary School shows the odd balance of a Trotwood community in recovery. Every day, hundreds of children arrive by car, by bus and on foot, busily motoring through the third week of the school year.
But about 100 yards from the school’s front door, a blue Subaru sedan sits with its windshield caved in and tires flattened. A block away are multiple roof-less homes little-changed since the devastating May 27 tornadoes.
After tornado damage, labor disputes and the sudden resignation of superintendent Tyrone Olverson, Trotwood school leaders acknowledge that struggles continue, but they said the first few weeks of the new school year have actually gone very well.
Acting Superintendent Marlon Howard said enrollment did not decline, teachers union President Angela Bruno said a tentative agreement has been reached on a new contract, and school board President Denise Moore said schools and students have been resilient.
“Given the situation that we were working in — with disaster relief and recovery, and not knowing (which students) were coming back, and our superintendent leaving 11 days before the first day of school — given all that, everything has gone exceptionally well,” Moore said.
Howard said enrollment is up by 80-100 students from last year. Almost all of the increase comes because several months ago, unrelated to the tornado issue, the district approved an “open enrollment” policy allowing non-Trotwood students to apply to attend public school there.
Also, the vast majority of the 300-plus tornado-displaced students have returned, as federal rules allow them to attend Trotwood schools even if they are staying outside the district.
Howard said school officials made a summer-long outreach to those families. All of them were personally invited to the district’s early-August back-to-school bash, and there was a separate, invitation-only event to connect them with free uniforms and school supplies, as well as social services.
“We don’t think we’ll totally see that effect from the (tornadoes) settle for months to come,” Howard said. “People have a place now, but something may happen where they have to relocate. The initial goal for folks was to get stable enough so they could get their kids to school, with the support that we’re providing.”
Howard said Trotwood school buses are picking up displaced students from multiple school districts, as far away as Miamisburg, requiring drivers to work longer hours and making some kids spend more time on buses. Howard said the district has posted openings to hire more drivers, but that’s a challenge given a nationwide shortage.
Trotwood parent Lacassandra Collins, who was picking up her children from Westbrooke Village on Wednesday, said it’s good for students to get back in a routine.
“The first two weeks have gone pretty smoothly. They haven’t had any problems at all,” Collins said. “I think (the schools) have been handling it pretty good, and the kids have too.”
Howard, who has been a teacher, coach, principal and central office administrator in Trotwood, said this summer has had major challenges, but his main focus is improving the district academically and instructionally, via the Professional Learning Community model.
“The three big ideas are — develop a culture that focuses on learning, develop a culture of collaboration, and focus on results,” Howard said. “And there are four essential questions — What do we want our kids to learn? How do we know that they’ve learned it? What do we do if they haven’t learned it? And what do we do if they’ve already learned it? … We have a lot of stuff going on, but we have to keep the focus on learning.”
For much of the past year, Trotwood’s teachers union was at odds with Olverson over changes he made, including special education protocols, daily academic schedules and testing procedures.
Union President Angela Bruno said teachers strongly support Howard and gave him standing ovations at the back-to-school staff convocation Aug. 9. She said a spirit of collaboration has created a more positive atmosphere.
“It’s a drastic difference from before,” Bruno said. “It started immediately, addressing where our problems and deficiencies were and working together to create the plan from the very first day.”
Bruno said a one-day negotiation Aug. 19 led to a tentative contract agreement for teachers, who have been working under the terms of the deal that expired this summer. Both the union and the board are expected to vote on the new deal next week. Bruno said teachers are eager to work with Howard’s plan on curriculum and teaching.
Howard said he has many jobs in front of him — building good dialogue with the union, refining open enrollment, and demanding that staff evaluate existing procedures to get things right. But he said goals “1 and 1-A” are ensuring students are learning, and safe. In some cases, unpacking those worries about safety come first.
“These kids have come through a lot. Some had the roof blown off their house (while they were inside),” Howard said. “If you meet that kid with a smile instead of a frown, that may help them initially. It’s just making sure my folks, my teachers, understand that. We are stewards of people’s children. And if you would treat your (own) child a certain way, then I would expect you to treat their children the same way.”
Asked if he hoped to continue as superintendent long-term, Howard would only say he’ll give it his all while he’s in the position, and would be straightforward — “I’m not going to fake.”
Moore said Howard is doing “an exceptional job,” but she said the school board has not discussed long-term plans yet, saying the sole focus so far was to make sure the school year started as well as possible.
“(Howard) rose to the occasion when asked to lead the charge. We could not have made a better choice,” Moore said. “The priority right now is students and just getting back to some normalcy in our district.”
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