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Two State of Lorain City Schools speeches pointed toward efforts by the district to meet needs and overcome obstacles of families in poverty.

The speeches April 25 at a gymnasium at Lorain High School at 2600 Ashland Ave. in Lorain, were sponsored by the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce.

Executive Director Tony Gallo said there was a time when chambers did not get involved in education, but times have changed.

Education is very important to manufacturing and business, Gallo said.

Lorain Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Graham said he looked out at people he truly knows because they are active and engaged in the goings on in the community.

The district received a designation of academic distress because of low test scores four years ago, Graham said, and improvements made have not lifted the district from that designation.

So, a new academic distress commission was appointed this month.

After a chair to the commission is appointed by Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, the commission must appoint a chief executive officer within 60 days to run the district with most of the powers of a superintendent and a school board with operational, managerial and instructional control, Graham said.

“There are some things I don’t know and can’t share about what’s going on in the district,” he said. “But we have five people on the commission and they get it.”

Graham cited international studies rating student proficiency by country and accusing the United States of not performing academically in science and math compared with other first world countries.

However, when districts are sorted on lines of 10 percent to 20 percent poverty, then United States students lead the world, he said.

“Where we struggle is educating students in poverty,” Graham said, adding 90 percent of Lorain Schools students are in poverty. “Every student has needs, and children in poverty have different needs.”

Graham said he’s a product of generational poverty, explaining his mother grew up in Cleveland projects and his father grew up in a two-room house in Kentucky with five siblings.

“I grew up in poverty,” he said. “I lived in it with all of my brothers and sisters.”

Graham said a school consultant suggested the district needs to do extra things for students to counter the effects of poverty.

The district created a survey asking families what they most need to be successful, he said.

Families said they needed access to health care, so the district provided space for three health clinics in school buildings, with dental and eye care following, Graham said.

“The service for more than 90 percent of our students is free through Medicare and Medicaid,” he said.

A student group told Graham they were hungry, so the Lorain School Board responded with free lunches for all students in the district.

The number increased by 250 lunches served each day, he said.

For the first time in his 14-year career as a superintendent, Graham delivered a State of the Schools speech in Spanish earlier in the day in the same room.

“I’ve been here two years,” he said. “I drastically over-estimated the supports we have in place for Spanish-speaking families.”

Victor Leandry and Javier Espitia translated the speech into Spanish, which Graham read to people.

Graham also apologized to families for not delivering a State of Schools speech in Spanish before.

“From now on, supports for our Spanish speaking population will not be an afterthought,” he said. “I also want to apologize in advance for the fact that I am butchering the Spanish language.

“I took many years of Spanish in high school and college and I’ve been trying to brush up on it. I’m not very good, but I mean well. At the same time, I recognize that this is the same struggle that you face every day. So thank you for your patience with me.”

Sheila Velazquez, 38, who came to Lorain two years ago from Puerto Rico with her eight-year-old daughter and was joined later by her husband, said families appreciated Graham’s efforts.

“It’s perfect, because he took the time to use my language for the concern of my children for better schools,” Velazquez said. “And he came to better the schools.

“I’m worried a little bit about the (academic distress commission and the new CEO). I want them to make sure they choose someone who is interested in resolving issues in the schools.”

The district just finished an equity audit to make sure every student has equal access to programs and services, Graham said.

Since the district is made of about 40 percent Latino or Hispanic students, 27 percent African American students and 24 percent white students, he said, the same racial mix should reflect in all classes and programs.

“And if we don’t, there’s a problem,” Graham said. “Some demographics are underrepresented. Some are overrepresented. The question is, ‘Why?’”

After the data from the equity audit points to problems, the next step is to fix them, he said.

“I think it’s important to discover why,” Graham said. “Once we know why, we need to fix it the right way.”

An example was accelerated classes in the High School, which were underrepresented by minority students, he said.

Administrators learned the problem was found in seventh-grade math, because minority students were not recommended for accelerated classes in eighth-grade math, which was a prerequisite for other accelerated classes, Graham said.

Preschool serves as another equalizer for youngsters regardless of home background, he said.

“Every student in our district should have access to preschool,” Graham said, adding if not next year, then within two years, the district will provide preschool for all students.

“We’re not doing that for test scores,” he said. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. If we continue to do the right things, our test scores will take care of themselves.”

Data and numbers do not drive improvement; programs and activities do not drive improvement; people drive improvement, Graham said.

An undercurrent of both State of Lorain Schools speeches is a love for the children who sparkle throughout the district, said Communications Director Erin Gadd.

In attendance, were groups of students in robotics, engineering, Chess Club, JROTC, student council, Power Girls, New Beginnings Academy, theater, Titan College, arts, College Credit Plus and representing every age group. Students took turns with a microphone, telling about their experiences.

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