Trotwood-Madison schools launched an aggressive turnaround plan under interim superintendent Tyrone Olverson, switching staff duties, training on a new teacher framework and adding student and family supports.
The question is whether the district will avoid state takeover in the fall so that Olverson, who is just two months into the job, has a chance to make the plan a long-term reality.
“We’re not talking about failure anymore. Failure’s not even an option here in Trotwood,” Olverson said. “A’s and B’s are expected, with the occasional ‘C.’ Getting a ‘D’ means you’re coming to Saturday school. Because we know you can do it.”
For 2016-17, Trotwood-Madison ranked dead last among Ohio’s 608 public school districts in performance index, which is the most detailed measure of state test performance. It was the second straight year of very bad test scores.
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If a school district has three consecutive years of bad grades based on state tests, the Ohio Department of Education appoints an Academic Distress Commission to run the district. Trotwood will find out no later than the Sept. 15 state report card release whether it is headed for takeover.
“My opinion is, we can’t sit back and wait to be taken over,” said Olverson, who helped lead Youngstown’s Distress Commission before coming to Trotwood in April. “We have to be very proactive and assume that we’re going to be OK. And if we’re not going to be OK, the chips fall where they fall. But if we have a solid plan, I would hope that the state would consider this plan and let it run, especially if you have teacher buy-in.”
Multiple new steps
Earlier this week, Olverson, 50, spelled out a variety of changes that are under way this summer.
The first set of teachers are being trained on the “four cornerstones” of The Thoughtful Classroom program, focusing on organization, positive relationships, engagement/motivation, and a new culture of learning. Each of those principles includes at least a half-dozen standards to track whether teachers and students are following the plan.
Olverson’s overall three-year turnaround plan focuses on areas such as leadership, diagnosing problems, data use and alignment. Each category has certain targets to hit before the school year, during the fall, before state testing, and by the end of the school year.
The plan includes lots of training run by curriculum specialists on behavior interventions, data use and school improvement plans. Principals are told they must “stand and deliver” school goals to staff, students and parents in the first two weeks. It also makes clear that some staff will be reassigned to “critical target areas.”
“We had the middle school principal drop down to the early learning center and had the high school principal move down to the middle school,” Olverson said, adding a new high school principal is about to be hired. “Everyone in the organization is taking on roles and responsibilities because they have a skill set, and we had a certain need.”
Several of Olverson’s approaches fit with school board President Denise Moore comments this spring, as she focused on getting students the tools they need to be successful and making progress rather than putting the district “on pause.”
Olverson, a high school track state champion from Cincinnati, is a career educator who co-wrote a book on practical strategies for making a difference in schools. Marlon Howard, director of operations and community relations for the school district, said Olverson brought focus.
“The issue was having five or six different plans going on at once without a singular goal,” Howard said. “What Mr. Olverson did was get everybody on the same track toward the same goal. We were kind of all over the place.”
Olverson calls it a problem of alignment – people working out of their area or “not staying in their lanes.”
“It’s not bad people or bad kids,” he said. “You can have a nice Schwinn bicycle, but if all the bolts are loosened, the seat’s loose and the handlebars are crooked, and you ask somebody to ride. … (You have the pieces) but you have to align them.”
Early warning system
Olverson says “the most critical piece” is his early warning system, which calls for all types of support systems working together to focus on students’ behavior, attendance and grades.
The system will feature classroom aides working as academic coaches and “student encouragers,” staffers working with at-risk students on behavior contracts and restorative justice, five “parent engagers” cold-calling families to keep them more informed on school news.
He said Trotwood hired two in-school social workers so guidance counselors can go back to academic support.
“The social workers’ goal is to support the parent in removing barriers from the home – whether it’s clothing, food, rent … factors that prohibit students from coming to school,” Olverson said.
He cited data that the roughly 800 students at Trotwood-Madison High School missed a total of 8,103 days in 2017-18, close to 10 per student.
Olverson said success will require a change in mind-set because many students face pressure NOT to succeed from peers who struggle and mock those who achieve.
“So let’s take that away from the kid and put it on me or the building principal,” Olverson said. “They can say, ‘These guys are crazy – they’re making me pass or I go to Saturday school.’ Blame me. I don’t care.”