ELYRIA CHRONICLE TELEGRAM | JANUARY 9, 2016 | LISA ROBERSON
LORAIN — State Sen. Gayle Manning, a former public school teacher, is ready to pull the public into a fight to keep Lorain Schools under local control.
Faced with more state oversight if the troubled district can’t recover academically, Manning, R-North Ridgeville, is set to propose new legislation in March tailor-made for Lorain’s success to steer the district away from a law known informally as the Youngstown Plan for the way it is reshaping the Mahoning Valley district — although as written, its consequences could befall any Ohio district.
The centerpiece of the new law is the appointment of a new academic distress commission and hiring of a CEO with the authority to act as both superintendent and school board in restructuring the schools.
If a CEO is hired, Lorain Superintendent Jeff Graham, who started in Lorain in August, could be out of a job before his three-year contract is up.
Also, the public will lose the power to vote for a board that answers to voters.
“(Sen. Manning) wants to avoid that and we appreciate her leadership on that,” Graham said.
Manning said she believes the time is now for Lorain to fight against becoming the next district to fall under such state control.
“Our goal is to develop a community-centered plan that allows the school district to continue its progress toward improving student achievement,” Manning said in a statement released Friday. “A change in direction at this point would only disrupt the progress that is already being made locally.
Involvement from this diverse group of stakeholders demonstrates that the Lorain community supports their schools and is committed to being part of a solution that ensures students are provided the best opportunities for their futures.”
Next week and following up in February, the state will release report cards for school districts in two parts. It will be the first glimpse into how students fared on the tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and other graded measurements, and most districts will not face fallout from failure because of a laws passed to ease the transition to new tests, said Chris Woolard, the ODE’s senior executive director for accountability.
“The General Assembly wants to make sure we give districts a break while we adjust to the new state tests,” Woolard said.
Students won’t be promoted or retained based on the test scores. Teachers won’t face consequences and districts will not be subject to improvement measures based on the test scores.
But Lorain is different. It already is in the state’s sights.
“It’s a bigger challenge for us because we are the only district in the state where those scores matter,” Graham said.
In April 2013 the Ohio Department of Education established an Academic Distress Commission for Lorain Schools to address years of lagging test scores and data that showed Lorain students performing below academic benchmarks.
The commission quickly developed an academic recovery plan that was implemented and approved by the state, but with changes in state assessments — and Lorain not being privy to the Safe Harbor provisions enacted last year by the Legislature to protect other districts from dire consequences — it is unlikely Lorain will meet requirements preventing state intervention called for in the new law.
“Research shows that whenever you alter an assessment, there is a dip in performance,” Graham said. “We’re in a special situation, in which all other school districts are held harmless for their scores on the new tests — all districts except those in academic distress, like Lorain. We have the most on the line right now.”
Graham said Manning came to him with the idea of creating a “Lorain Plan,” legislation specifically geared toward addressing academic recovery in Lorain in a way that preserves local control while meeting state benchmarks for performance. Graham discussed the idea Friday with business and community leaders who gathered to talk about providing cohesive wraparound services to students.
“Sen. Manning reached out to us. It will be her plan to deliver, but it will be our district that helps in the creation,” Graham said. “It’s tough to predict what the Legislature will do, but we are confident she will lead with integrity and fidelity, confident we will put together a strong plan and confident she will work hard to get it through.”
While a separate initiative of the district, Graham said a program of wraparound services could be incorporated into the district’s recovery plan.
“We are going to do that anyway because it’s the right thing to do for our students, but crafting a plan for recovery is what is needed now for our community,” he said. “The path we are on now, and I have said this before many times, does not allow us to show that our students and teachers are capable of success.”
Manning already has the support of state Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, who is graduate of Admiral King High School in Lorain.
“I want to make sure we establish and continue firm local control within Lorain and Lorain Schools while striving to improve education,” Ramos said. “But we have to look at the reality of the external factors affecting communities like Lorain. There is the issue of poverty and lack of jobs and we have to take those things into consideration as we look at how we measure excellence in Lorain Schools.”
Before the bill can head to the Legislature, public stakeholders need to provide input. Manning and district officials want to hear from everyone including parents, students, administrators, business leaders, community, civic and faith-based organizations, residents and teachers. Open dialogue, an online survey and personal interviews will all be used.
“This initiative comes at just the right time,” Lorain school board President Tony Dimacchia said. “We feel our administration, board, and commission are on the same page — things are happening as a result. We just need time to keep things moving in the right direction and to do it the right way — with the input of our stakeholders.”
The “Youngstown Plan” was developed by a group of business and community leaders and subsequently adopted, but it has come under fire from many who believe Columbus interests played a heavy hand in its creation. The hope is a repeat will not happen in Lorain.
“No one knew that thing was coming and it passed without any hearings,” Ramos said. “We don’t want that. We want our parents, teachers and anyone who wants to have a say to tell us how we can improve because we want to do better. No one is looking for a pass. We want a quality education for all Lorain kids. But we want to have a say in how that quality education is measured.”