State schools chief: Change is hard; DPS must believe it can succeed

State school superintendent Paolo DeMaria toured several Dayton Public Schools on Tuesday, talking to the students, teachers and administrators of a district that is trying to turn around academic and attendance problems.

DeMaria said struggling high-poverty schools around the state need to study what changes are needed and commit to them — “really believing that we can actually make a difference and get there.”

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“It’s scary, it’s risky, change is hard!” DeMaria said. “We should never forget that, but change can be accomplished if we work together and collaborate. I see some of that happening in these schools.”

Dayton Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said the district continues to work on goals that should be visible to anyone who visits Dayton schools.

“I hope they see students who are engaged in learning, I hope they see teachers that are enthusiastic, I hope they see administrators who are committed to the education of the students we serve,” Lolli said. “I think (the state superintendent) saw those things today.”

DeMaria and state school board vice president Charlotte McGuire visited two Centerville schools in the morning, before heading to Dayton to tour Edison and River’s Edge elementary schools, the Rosa Parks Early Learning Center and Stivers and Belmont high schools.

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At Belmont, Principal Donetrus Hill told DeMaria about academic strategies such as better teacher training on “gradual release,” as well as basic school values such as maintaining order and a peaceful learning environment at what Hill calls The City of Belmont. He cited improvement in many areas on Belmont’s midyear testing, but said the school needs more time.

“For all the progress we’re probably making this year, we still may not see a change in the overall report card,” Hill said. “We’re definitely moving in the right direction. With another two or three years of the same push, this school will change. I want to get at least get a “D” in something this year. That’s the goal, but we’re realistic that we started so far behind.”

Dayton Public Schools is currently at risk of state takeover in the fall if grades on September’s state report card don’t improve. But leaders of the state legislature have said they’re working on changes to the state takeover law, so the district isn’t sure what to expect.

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DeMaria visited multiple classrooms, listening as art teacher Carol Rogers talked to students about using different shades of a single color in monochromatic portraits. Hill said Rogers works together with core academic teachers, building some of the concepts and themes from their lesson plans into her art assignments.

DeMaria specifically asked about efforts to battle chronic absenteeism, after DPS officials cited that as a major problem at last week’s school board meeting. Assistant Principal Karen Chicketti praised the school’s English Language Learners staff as being especially strong there, as they connected with families that have language barriers. Students at Belmont speak more than two dozen languages, Chicketti said.

DeMaria called the visits “a very fulfilling day.”

“Students are excited when they’re engaged in learning that really speaks to their aspirations and interests,” DeMaria said. “We had a number of Junior ROTC students greeting us at Belmont here today, and they were all talking about the leadership programming that’s part of that. They’re having wonderful experiences and they spoke with such poise and confidence.”

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