The state made a few graduation changes for Ohio schools. Springboro grads celebrate their emancipation by throwing their caps upward at the Nutter Center in Fairborn this past May 26. CONTRIBUTED

School safety, graduation changes highlight busy year in local education

Locally, 2018 brought some high highs and low lows to the region’s schools, while state officials argued over how to handle issues like graduation, report cards and preschool.

Here’s a look at some of the top local education stories of the year:

Student voices on safety

A major Kentucky school shooting in January, followed three weeks later by the Parkland, Fla., shooting that killed 17 people, drove local students to new levels of activism on school safety and gun control issues.

As the March for Our Lives movement grew, student rallies occurred at several schools, and teens sat in on school safety panel discussions with community leaders. More than 200 people participated in a student-organized April rally in Kettering, when students walked out of their schools.

The issue remains active. Schools are dedicating November levy funds to improving safety. A federal commission on school safety’s new guide has educators arguing about best steps. And a Richmond, Ind., student was killed this month after exchanging gunfire with police – after his mother warned he might commit a “violent act.”

Graduation changes again

Members of Ohio’s high school Class of 2018 learned the summer before their senior year that state graduation rules would change for them. About 85 percent did graduate in four years, an all-time Ohio record.

The Class of 2019 didn’t get official word on their graduation rules until December, five-plus months before graduation. Current seniors will have the same non-test alternatives that the Class of 2018, with the ability to earn a diploma via good attendance, grades, a project or work/service hours, among other options. The Class of 2020 will have similar rules, with slight tweaks.

Debate remains over what Ohio students really should have to do to earn a diploma. Some argue in favor of setting a high bar on tests. But the state seems to be moving toward a long-term system that would give students multiple ways “to show what they know.”

Trotwood avoids takeover

As of September, only three Ohio school districts had been taken over under the current state law. But Trotwood-Madison was on the verge when state report cards were released the morning of Sept. 13.

District leaders celebrated when the report card showed improvements in test scores and gap closing between groups of students, preventing state takeover. The district got an overall grade of “D,” but school board President Denise Moore said Trotwood had “changed the culture and raised expectations.”

One year after the district ranked last of 608 in Ohio’s 608 on state test scores, Superintendent Tyrone Olverson was optimistic, citing major changes and a new strategic plan to take Trotwood “from 608 to great.”

Two months later, disagreements surfaced among teachers, Olverson and the school board as Olverson’s contract was extended.

Trotwood-Madison students improved enough on state tests in spring 2018 that the school district avoided state takeover. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

New and updated schools

For thousands of local students, their school is or will be a construction zone. Kettering City Schools and the Greene County Career Center are the latest to announce significant building plans after voters approved tax levies.

The Greene County Career Center will build a totally new $62 million campus at U.S. 35 and U.S. 68 on the south side of Xenia, with expanded academic offerings. Kettering also will expand career tech options with a new building at Fairmont High School and will build additions at two elementary schools.

Elsewhere, the work is already ongoing. Ground has been broken on new school projects for Carlisle, Waynesville, Greenon and Fairborn. The Miami Valley Career Tech Center expects to break ground on its expansion this spring. And Northridge is nearing completion of its new preK-high school building, slated to open in fall 2019.

More projects could be in the pipeline, as both Oakwood and Tipp City schools expect to ask voters for bond money in 2019.

Election has education focus

Republicans and Democrats often disagree, but when Mike DeWine and Richard Cordray ran for governor, both said if elected, they would increase the focus on early childhood education.

DeWine won the election and has called early childhood issues his No. 1 priority, especially for at-risk kids. Dayton, like Cleveland and Cincinnati, has been trying to expand high-quality preschool access. DeWine supports that, but his plans start earlier, calling for more state-funded home visiting programs to help needy new parents from pregnancy through the first three years of life.

Other goals include reforming the foster care system and increasing access to mental health professionals and drug-prevention education in schools. DeWine says he will fight to fund those programs during this spring’s state budget process.

Mike DeWine and Richard Cordray explain what they will do in terms of education in Ohio.

Huge changes at DPS

Changes at Dayton Public Schools in 2018 included a new superintendent, new majority on the school board, new directors of curriculum, special education, athletics and “chiefs of schools,” plus new principals in half of the schools.

The year began with a controversial school closing task force, which led to a lawsuit and eventually the closure of the old Valerie Elementary, plus the planned closure of DPS’ headquarters building downtown.

After Elizabeth Lolli was hired as long-term superintendent, the district narrowly avoided a bus driver strike in April, then had confusion in May over whether a levy was needed. But the budget was declared sound, and the teachers’ contract was extended.

In the fall, career tech programs grew again, school libraries reopened, and a new principal launched a turnaround effort at struggling Belmont High School. But the state report card brought the bad news that one more year of poor state test scores would lead to state takeover in fall 2019. Lolli closed schools for a day at a time, giving extra training to DPS teachers, who had been criticized in a state report.

Dunbar-OHSAA fiasco

One other DPS event stood out. When the Ohio High School Athletic Association disqualified Dunbar’s boys basketball team from the postseason tournament for using an ineligible player, the district fought back hard, with Lolli ripping the OHSAA for being “out to get” DPS.

DPS sued, saying there was no evidence the player participated in the fight that would make him ineligible, and a local judge agreed, issuing a ruling that put Dunbar back in the tournament, at the expense of fellow DPS school Thurgood Marshall. Dunbar beat Fenwick, then lost its next game.

Just over a month later, DPS had to apologize, as the OHSAA revealed new video evidence clearly showing the player actively involved in the fight. Dunbar is now banned from the 2019 postseason, DPS’ existing state probation was extended, and Dunbar coach Chuck Taylor and DPS athletic director Mark Baker lost their jobs.

ECOT school closes

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow charter school closed in January after an attendance and state funding scandal had dogged it for more than a year.

ECOT was the largest online school in Ohio, claiming enrollment of more than 15,000 students, including close to 1,000 in the Dayton area. But the state said thousands of those students were not regularly completing school work.

After multiple court rulings, the state began the process of “clawing back” $80 million that it paid the school in 2015-17 based on higher enrollment figures. ECOT officials said the financial change made them unable to continue operating the school.

Schools win awards

Kettering City Schools celebrated a major honor in October, when Indian Riffle Elementary was the only local school named a National Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education.

Oakwood schools stood out on the state report card in September, ranking No. 1 in the state in both the “prepared for success” measure and the percentage of students scoring “remediation-free” on the SAT or ACT.

There were many other award winners – students at Dayton’s Ponitz Career Tech Center won national awards for their radio station. Schools in Huber Heights, Beavercreek, Vandalia-Butler and Mad River were among several to win the Purple Star Award for working well with military families. And schools in Miamisburg, Piqua, Eaton and Dayton were honored for their work with disadvantaged students.

A change in focus

The Ohio Department of Education has approved a new long-term strategic plan for schools, called Each Child, Our Future. That plan says development of social skills and leadership are just as important as literacy, math and other traditional academics.

Local schools have already been working on this focus on “the whole child,” whether it’s improving health services for students, or implementing behavioral programs aiming to build “respectful, responsible, safe” young people.

The move aligns with some employers’ comments that recent graduates need better “soft skills” in communication, collaboration and work ethic.

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