Ruskin Elementary School is in a neighborhood devastated by the opioid crisis where nearly three-quarters of the children live in poverty — and is one of the top performing buildings in Dayton Public Schools.
The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project wanted to know what contributes to that success and if it could be replicated across the district. Our investigation found that students significantly benefited from participating in the Miracle Makers Afterschool Program there.
Nearly all of the participants improved in math and reading and half gained more than a year’s growth. Most parents, students and teachers also credit the after-school program with improving student performance.
Ruskin Principal Bryan Ertsgaard said the program is a “tremendous neighborhood partner for us.”
“They’ve been able to provide countless services and … wraparound services for families in a number of ways that provide for the basic needs of the kids,” he said.
Our Path Forward project investigates solutions to the most pressing issues our community faces, including improving Dayton schools. We visited Ruskin to see the work being done there. We found that neighborhood school centers like Ruskin operate in six of the district’s 27 buildings, though none are as comprehensive.
“Just imagine if we can replicate and grow after-school programs … We could start turning the corner,” said Jan Lepore-Jentleson, president of the East End Community Services that runs the after-school program. “We could move the needle significantly.”
What makes Ruskin Elementary different from other Dayton schools showed as the end-of-day bell rang on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Instead of rushing out the door, more than 200 kids stayed and continued learning.
The program adds hours to the end of the school day, including tutoring, socio-emotional coaching, enrichment programs, mental health counseling, parenting support classes and social services for families.
The key to expanding these programs is increasing community support, officials say. Additional programming at neighborhood school centers get some state and local government funding, but much of the support comes from agencies and individuals who donate their time and money.
“We’re trying to level our playing field and give our kids the same kinds of opportunities that the kids in the suburbs tend to have,” Lepore-Jentleson said.
Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli told the Dayton Daily News that the district would absolutely listen if a partner stepped forward wanting to expand the neighborhood school center model to another school. But at this point the district isn’t actively seeking to spread it to other buildings until they have standardized programs and funding at the existing schools.
“We want to be able to replicate a model,” she said. “To expand — when we are looking at struggling for funding for six with our partners and with our major funders — we just have to be careful how much pressure we put on those people that are so willing to help us.”
Shortly after school let out on a recent Wednesday, 16 fifth and sixth graders assembled in a Ruskin classroom. They were the Harry Potter group, which has a goal to read the entire wizarding book series this school year.
A mindfulness exercise starts off every one of the Miracle Makers classes.
“Inhale. Feel your lungs expand,” said Sara Dennison, or Mrs. D to the kids. “Sometimes it’s hard to let go of something that happened in the school day, something someone said, something someone did.”
The children took a deep breath.
This is central to the program: helping kids — many of whom carry the mental scars of some sort of trauma — learn to manage their emotions.
“If you’re angry or upset, how to get yourself back to the green zone … ready to learn, ready to be your best self zone,” Miracle Makers Education Director Ellen Mays said.
“If I can think, ‘I am a good learner, I do try hard,’ these positive affirmations are not just fluffy,” Mays said. “They actually rewire the brain for kids to feel happy.”
Mindfulness classes offered to parents also have been popular. Parenting classes are held throughout the year on other topics, including helping kids with homework, discipline, literacy or interviewing skills. Some days workers from the nonprofit Family Services Association come in to provide mental health services.
“The whole idea for the neighborhood school center is a wraparound model for the family, not just for the student, but for the family,” Lolli said.
Down the hall, a group of students with cellos, violins and violas harmonized in an impressive performance of “La Paloma.” It was one of three Q the Music classes offered with support from the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.
In other classrooms, children engaged in other hands-on projects called “sparks,” exposing them to topics such as robotics, gardening, theater and photography.
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“That’s half the battle, is getting kids interested in reading or interested in learning in general,” Mays said. “All of these extra experiences and all of these resources are in order to see themselves as successful learners, which in turn motivates them so they can learn.”
As the kids worked in the classrooms, another worker hurried from room to room to help children with more pressing home needs, such as clean clothes or access to social services. A volunteer clinical psychologist who lives near the school sees students in group settings.
“We’re trying to remove all possible barriers kids would have to doing well in school,” Mays said.
‘A major impact’
Ruskin has 561 students. Miracle Makers has 210 spots filled mostly by kids signed up by their parents, with spots saved for referrals from teachers and the neediest students. Many are from immigrant families and English is their second language.
In the 2017-2018 school year, 90 percent of program participants showed growth in standardized reading and math scores, according to an independent analysis of the program by the consulting firm Metis Associates. Half showed more than a year’s worth of growth, indicating a closure of the academic achievement gap.
A survey of students in the program in the 2017-2018 school year found 91 percent of students believed coming to Miracle Makers helps them to “do better in school and improve their grades.” And 85 percent said it helped them “stay out of trouble” and “avoid violence and fighting.”
Classroom teachers and parents also overwhelmingly reported improvements in students’ behavior and academic performance that they attributed to the program, according to the survey.
The school received a C on its most recent state report card, among the best grades in DPS. If the district had a C grade, it would be among the highest performing urban districts in the state instead of being ranked last and facing possible state takeover.
Miracle Makers has been part of the school for more than a decade. Lolli said DPS has tried unsuccessfully to measure the impact of Miracle Makers on Ruskin, so can’t say to what extent the program is responsible for the school’s comparatively good test scores.
“We just can’t prove it statistically, (but) we believe it has a major impact,” she said.
‘There’s such a need’ at other schools
Across town at Fairview Elementary School, hundreds of children are in need of the same supports available at Ruskin. With an F on its state report card grade, Fairview is one of the city’s lowest-performing schools.
Fairview is also a neighborhood school center that was sponsored by Premier Health until last year. That support ended when Good Samaritan Hospital closed and stopped funding a site coordinator position at the school.
“After the person in the site coordinator role voluntarily chose to accept a position elsewhere, sponsorship of the site coordinator position shifted from Good Samaritan Hospital to another community organization since the hospital was preparing to close,” Premier said in a statement when asked by the Dayton Daily News why funding ceased.
“Our health system remains committed to supporting … redevelopment in the future at the former Good Samaritan Hospital campus and surrounding neighborhoods.”
The neighborhood school center at Fairview was taken over by Omega Community Development Corp., which is working to build up the program.
Omega received a grant to offer an after-school program at Fairview last year. The program, called Scholars of Hope, provides 75 students with two hours of math or reading instruction a day, as well as enrichment activities such as chess, martial arts or music. It also provides a hot meal for every participating student provided by Dayton Cooks.
It has started a young bankers club with Fifth-Third Bank, and a STEM program with Think TV. It works with Shoes for the Shoeless for kids who need shoes.
The program has capacity for 100 students, Omega President Vanessa Ward said. The school has more than 400 students.
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“My hope would be 100 percent of the students engaging, there’s such a need,” she said. But first, “what I look at and aspire to is what East End has.”
The biggest obstacle to enrollment is transportation, said Ward, who’s also a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board. Because it’s an after-school program, there’s no bus afterward to take the kids home. Miracle Makers expressed a similar concern.
“There are children who could benefit from the program and we have seats for, but they are not able to come because they have to take buses home and there’s no one to pick them up at the end of the day,” Ward said.
And they need more community support, in terms of funding, partners and volunteers, Ward said, such as reading buddies to help children with literacy.
Key to turning the district around?
With the right leadership and support, Ward believes “very strongly” that growing neighborhood school centers is the key to turning the district around.
“We need more of them. I believe it is key. I think it’s the right idea,” she said. “The Dayton Public Schools didn’t get into the situation it’s in overnight, and it requires all of us working together to try to support where we can.”
In addition to Ruskin and Fairview, the other four neighborhood school centers are Edison, Cleveland, Kiser and Westwood elementaries. The scope of their programs differs dramatically. Some don’t have an after-school program but work to incorporate additional services during the school day.
Each has a partner like East End or Omega that works to marshal community resources to help students. Their goals are essentially the same.
“At Edison, (the center) is moving toward a focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math,” said Andrew Diamond, site coordinator with sponsor YMCA of Greater Dayton. “Creating good partnerships with businesses in the area is crucial in order to achieve this goal.”
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It’s unclear how soon an expansion could happen however. At a recent DPS school board meeting, board member Mohamed Al-Hamdani asked: “Is there an opportunity to expand our neighborhood school model to other schools, is that something we should consider?”
Lolli responded with uncertainty about how to pay for it. DPS spends $165,000 a year supporting the additional programming at all six sites; the rest comes from grants and private donors.
Before working to expand the neighborhood schools, she said they need to standardize the ones they have.
“Everything we are trying to do relates back to our goals and collecting the data to prove what we’re doing is working to improve things for students,” she said. “Either attendance data, discipline data, academic data is indirectly involved, making sure what we do is causing a true impact in a positive way.”
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To help stabilize the existing neighborhood school centers, the district and Huber Heights schools together applied for a $1 million grant from the nonprofit Together for Students. They hope to use the money for behavioral and mental health specialists at the six sites, more parent workshops and additional funding for site coordinators.
The Miracle Makers program costs about $2,400 per student a year, Lepore-Jentleson said. East End uses a combination of state and county grant money, as well as funding from the school district and the organization’s own donors.
“It’s serious business in education, it’s not play time,” she said. “There’s a lot of people out there who assume, ‘Well, after-school programs, that’s for volunteers to do.’ No, volunteers supplement. But this is serious education work that needs to be respected and recognized for what it is.”