Schools panel addresses grades, parents, safety

School superintendents, politicians and civil rights leaders gathered Saturday to discuss how local schools can keep students safe, advance them academically despite a variety of hurdles and encourage parents to take an active role in their children’s education.

“Education is a huge civil rights issue,” said Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton Unit NAACP, which organized the event. “We need to make certain that everybody is on the same page, pulling the wagon in the same direction, so we can ensure that all of our children, not some of our children, receive a quality education.”

Nine local school superintendents anchored the panel discussion, while Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Learn to Earn Executive Director Tom Lasley and state Sen. Peggy Lehner addressed the group on community involvement, state funding and other issues.

Foward asked each superintendent to discuss their district’s academic performance. Several school leaders said they were willing to “own” their districts’ imperfect scores on state report cards, but also argued that the report card is a limited measure of whether a district is succeeding.

“Ninety percent of our kids walk in the door at Jefferson Twp. as kindergartners, not ready to learn,” said Jefferson Twp. Superintendent Richard Gates. “It is my job to make sure, working collectively with our educators and the community, that they leave that school district college- and career-ready and remediation-free.”

To that end, districts are doing a wide variety of intervention efforts, many of which extend far beyond the traditional school day. Because the state has introduced the third-grade reading guarantee — requiring students to pass a reading test to advance to fourth grade – many of those intervention efforts are starting at a young age.

David Jackson, superintendent of Northridge schools, explained his district’s Polar Express program — they sign up families from birth onward, sending home materials so they can help their child move toward literacy at each year of development.

Huber Heights Superintendent Sue Gunnell said her district’s recent move to all-day, everyday kindergarten was an important step. But she said the focus is not just on early childhood, as her district tries to intervene quickly with freshmen who get off to a bad high school start, so they don’t drop out.

Lasley talked about that need to move students on a “success sequence” from early readiness to success in high school and beyond. Lasley said the subset of people who graduate high school, get any type of post-secondary degree or credential, and wait until they get a job to have children, have only a 2 percent poverty rate nationally.

Lehner said school funding is important, but not the ultimate answer, pointing to past increases in spending that didn’t result in dramatic improvements. But Dayton Superintendent Lori Ward said when her district is unable to offer teacher salaries that match suburban districts, it hurts her ability to attract the best teachers, which then affects’ student performance.

School officials also discussed safety efforts, from active shooter drills, to cameras, partnerships with police and installing buzz-in security systems at older schools. Superintendents said they can never make a 100 percent guarantee of safety, but they try to be as prepared as possible, and encourage students, staff and parents to report suspicious events.

“The top of our philosophy is training and practice, training and practice,” Kettering Superintendent Jim Schoenlein said. “If something happens, it’s going to be fast and it’s going to be chaotic. The response has to be automatic.”

A condensed version of Saturday’s event will be televised on DATV later this month.