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Last year, nearly half of Dayton residents taking a community survey said the quality of Dayton Public Schools would make them less likely to raise a family in the city.
"I love this city with all my heart. As it stands now, I refuse to put a child through the current school system," said one of the respondents to the annual survey conducted by the city. Said another: "People I talk to move out because schools suck. No one stays to raise children here."
People do raise their children here. Dayton Public Schools is the Miami Valley's biggest district. It is charged with educating thousands of our region's children, the next generation of workers and leaders. It spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
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But the perception that DPS is a failing district — it has ranked at or near the bottom of the state in standardized tests for years — drags like an anchor as the city and region work hard to rebound from the Great Recession. The school district’s success is critical.
“The entire region, the entire community, cannot – repeat – cannot summarily dismiss Dayton schools,” insists Phil Parker, CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “As goes Dayton Schools, so goes the city of Dayton, so goes Montgomery County — and ultimately so goes our region.
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“If you don’t think there is a synergistic effect between each of these, then you are sorely mistaken. There is. We are all in this together.”
The Dayton Daily News has launched a project we are calling The Path Forward that will focus a new team on finding solutions for the community's most important problems. One of our first pieces will focus on helping DPS become the system our community needs and deserves. We're engaging a new community advisory board, parents, students, school and local leaders — and you. We must find solutions.
RELATED: New team to investigate region's biggest problems, search for solutions
But first, we must identify the factors holding DPS back. Why has the district ranked for years among the worst in the entire state in standardized testing? In some important way, the issues most urban districts face appear more acute, concentrated and complex in Dayton. Consider:
— Of 70 publicly funded school buildings in the city, only 27 are DPS schools. School choice has siphoned 40 percent of students from DPS into other districts or charter and private schools, some of which perform even worse.
— Median income for DPS families is 16th lowest in the state, lower than Columbus, Cincinnati or Cleveland. Many students deal with traumas and hardships from poverty that hurt classroom performance.
— Dayton spends more per pupil than 96 percent of Ohio’s districts, including most urban districts, yet has the second-lowest test scores.
— The median pay for Dayton teachers is below the statewide average and far below what neighboring districts pay. Many experienced teachers leave.
— The district lacks a formal, up-to-date strategic plan with clear goals for improvement.
“I believe in Dayton Public Schools,” said Dion Sampson, the father of four kids in the district who has helped schools partner with community groups. “There are days that I don’t. But there are days I believe there is a turnaround for the district — we just have to make sure that the right people with the right agenda, and the right motives, are in place.”
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This is a pivotal time. A new school board majority was seated this year. The board hired a new superintendent, Elizabeth Lolli, to replace a predecessor who oversaw a year of controversy, discord and turmoil.
GRAPHIC: As this chart shows, Dayton Public Schools spends more per-student than most districts in the state, yet has the second-lowest test scores in the state:
Experts and leaders interviewed for this story say hiring Lolli was important, but what she and the board do next is vital: they must bring stability to the district, regain the public’s trust, improve test scores and academic rigor and help children enter kindergarten ready to learn and excel through graduation.
These challenges are not new. The school district’s history is marked with promised overhauls that fell short and social issues that have fed its decline. But those working in the district say there are also success stories the public doesn’t see or hear about.
‘Making significant changes’
Rochonda Nenonene, head of the Urban Teaching Academy at the University of Dayton, said teachers need stability and clear directions. They need leadership.
“One of the things I think is a challenge is just having a strong, consistent administrative staff so that there is a sense of stability that leads people to have faith that the district is moving toward its goals,” she said.
Consistency has been a problem in recent years, due in part to high turnover in administrative areas such as human resources, special education and curriculum. Since 2015, the district has had three superintendents and nine new high-level administrators.
Lolli has the political wind at her back, at least for now, with optimistic support from her board, city hall, the teachers union, education experts, and numerous community and business leaders.
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“I think that the new board, along with our new superintendent, we’re making significant changes that we’re hoping will improve the plight of Dayton Public and will improve test scores and benefit the community,” said school board president William Harris.
Lolli said the district has to avoid distractions and focus hard on classroom basics – curriculum, instruction, best practices. Making the schools better will mean more than raising test scores, she said. Students have to understand the state standards and why they matter, and learn how to think through them.
“How can I engage my students every day so they want to be in school,” she asks, “so that they’re thinking through the processes, so that they’re … understanding that curriculum and making sure that they’re ready for anything that’s given to them?
“We want to make sure we prepare them for their future, no matter what their choice is when they graduate,” Lolli said.
‘They lost their way’
Dayton City Commissioner Jeffrey Mims, who was a DPS teacher, coach, teachers union president and school board president before serving on the state school board, supports Lolli and the new board, and said one of their biggest jobs will be reclaiming public trust.
“The previous leaders from the district cashed in all those chips and didn’t spend the trust wisely,” Mims said. “They lost their way. They lost their way internally and they certainly lost the trust of the people in the community.”
To regain that trust, the district has a lot to do. It ranked 607th out of 608 districts in Ohio on the state performance index, which the Ohio Department of Education uses to track academic achievement. The only district to score lower was Trotwood-Madison.
RELATED: How did your school perform on the 2016-17 state report card?
One bright spot is that students at some DPS buildings perform much better than the district overall. The performance index for Stivers School for the Arts — which requires an audition for admission — is mid-range for Montgomery County. Horace Mann Pre-K-6 School, Ruskin Elementary and Charity Adams Earley Girls Academy are not far behind. Still, of the 10 lowest-performing buildings in the county, eight are Dayton Public schools.
MAP: This map shows every publicly-funded school building in Dayton, including DPS, charter and parochial schools. Those colored blue performed better than Dayton Public Schools’ average in statewide testing. Those colored red performed below the average. Those colored yellow did not have sufficient data to compare. Data comes from the Ohio Department of Education.
Why such poor scores? Only one-third of Dayton Public School third-graders read proficiently at grade level, according to state tests, and only one-fifth of eighth-graders are proficient in math.
The district's four-year graduation rate of 73 percent is the region's lowest, according to Learn to Earn, a public-private partnership aiming to improve education outcomes across Montgomery County. Learn to Earn CEO Thomas Lasley said the district made a huge stride this summer by raising pay for teachers.
“There were some very, very high-quality teachers who loved teaching in Dayton who simply left the district because the pay difference between Dayton and some of the other districts was too great,” he said. “You can love children, but you also have to pay your rent.”
Problems start at home
Educational experts say each child’s academic trajectory starts before they get to DPS, so one of the most vital things parents and the community can do to improve DPS is provide services for children before they get into the classroom.
Only one in five DPS students enters kindergarten with the social, emotional, physical and academic tools they need to do well, according to Learn to Earn.
The city, county and school district are trying to address this with Preschool Promise, a program working to offer quality preschool to all Dayton families with a 4-year-old. Dayton voters in 2016 passed a .25-percent sales tax to support Preschool Promise, among other things.
Expanded Preschool Promise is entering its second year. A survey of Dayton residents released in the fall found 49 percent were unaware it existed.
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Many people said parental involvement is desperately needed. While some schools have robust parent-teacher organizations, others have none at all, according to Les Weller, head of the Dayton Education Council, a consortium of parent groups that was shut down under the former superintendent.
“It is my great hope that we will see dramatic change,” Weller said of the new board and superintendent, who he hopes will re-establish the community education councils for each school to rebuild relationships between parents, schools and the community.
“Without the community being behind the school district and being the driving force in the school district, if you don’t pay attention to what you have, it’s going to deteriorate just like any public building,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the community to say, ‘We need this thing, and we want it, and we are paying for it, and we deserve it, and we insist upon it.’”
Race, poverty issues
Poverty has been shown consistently across the country to hamper education. The Ohio Department of Education in a 2013 comparison put Dayton Public Schools’ student poverty rate as the second highest in the state behind East Cleveland.
Dayton’s median household income is $23,669, according to the ODE — 16th lowest in the state. Dayton also faces the racial achievement gap: black students trail behind other groups in standardized tests. This is a major issue for Learn to Earn, which released a report saying only 1 in 10 black males in Montgomery County starts kindergarten ready to learn and the black male graduation rate is only 65 percent — 25 percentage points lower than for white females.
“The unmistakable conclusion is that forces, practices and policies — in our cultures, neighborhoods, institutions, schools and homes — are keeping children of color from learning and succeeding at the highest levels,” the report says. “That’s a painful and uncomfortable truth to confront. But acknowledging explicit and implicit biases, subtle and unsubtle prejudices, is the only way to give all children the chance to excel.”
RELATED: 6 factors that contribute to the black achievement gap at Dayton schools
Dayton Public Schools is 65 percent black, ranging from 95 percent of the students at Edison Pre-K-6 School to 17 percent at Eastmont Pre-K-6 School. People have raised concerns about a lack of equity among these schools, noting west-side, predominantly black schools have had fewer long-term teachers and more substitutes than those on the east side. Some complain there are more or better after-school programs at east-side schools.
“There are a lot of layers to that,” said Hashim Jabar, interim director of the local civil rights group Racial Justice Now!
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Race and poverty issues have shaped the district, and the Dayton region at large. Dayton was ordered by a federal judge to desegregate in 1973, and the order wasn’t lifted until 2002. The decades of forced busing used to balance the racial mix in school buildings coincided with a reduction in the black/white achievement gap in the 1980s, the Dayton Daily News found. But it also had unintended consequences.
“It caused a lot of uproar,” said Mims, who was a teacher in the early days of the desegregation order. “It caused a lot of white flight and economic flight.” Today the Dayton region remains one of the nation’s most segregated large metropolitan areas, according to the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.
Prior reforms fell short
Efforts to overhaul DPS date back decades and have had mixed success.
In 2002, the district asked the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington D.C.-based consortium of urban districts, for suggestions after a new reform-minded school board took office. The district made progress from 2002 to 2006 in state test scores and other measures, but gains then started to slow, according to a 2008 analysis by the council.
“The school board began to change as critical members decided not to seek re-election. The administration may have taken its eye off the ball and lost its initial focus. And the public, possibly sensing district uncertainty and the loss of energy, voted against the operational levy that might have prevented some of the recent programmatic upheavals,” according to group’s 2008 report.
The district crafted another strategic plan in 2011. The 12-page document included goals such as reaching the midpoint of Ohio's large urban districts by 2015 and bringing down per-pupil spending.
DPS now has only a two-page "Contract with the Community" adopted in 2014 with many of the same unmet goals. School board members say they intend to draft a strategic plan in coming months.
Amaha Sellassie, a community organizer, said the process must include feedback from parents and people working in the schools. “It seems like there’s a big disconnect between what is happening in the board room and what is happening in the classroom,” he said.
Getting out a better message
Turning the schools around will take more than just effort by DPS officials, however. It will take the entire community.
With improving test scores in mind as they try to change poor perceptions, district leaders say they need to focus singularly on academics during the school day. But members of the community at large can help by bringing time and resources to after-school programs that bolster and build upon what happens in the classroom. That could mean volunteering to mentor kids, or businesses, non-profits or churches “adopting” a particular school.
GET INVOLVED: How to volunteer with Dayton Public Schools
David Romick, president of the teachers union, the Dayton Education Association, said the district and public can work together to improve DPS’ image. “I think the biggest challenge facing DPS is probably the community’s perception of what DPS is,” he said. “I think unless you’re in the district seeing the great things going on in our schools, your perception of DPS is probably not great.
“There are great things going on in our schools and it’s the district’s responsibility to message those great things out and to change the community’s perception.”
“They need to rebrand themselves,” said DPS parent Dion Sampson. He said this is part of making sure all the right people and plans are in place to move the district forward.
When asked if they are, he said hopefully: “I’m not sure. We’ll see, With the new changes, we’ll see.”
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