News

2016 State of the Akron Public Schools speech

February 23, 2016

Delivered by the APS Superintendent

Good afternoon and thank you for attending our 2016 State of the Akron Public Schools address. My gratitude to the Akron Press Club, for again sponsoring this annual event. And, to the University of Akron and the staff here at Quaker Station, you are—as always—wonderful hosts. I would like to point out some folks here today. Starting with our school board:

President, Mr. Bruce Alexander
Mr. Patrick Bravo, Vice-President
Lisa Mansfield,
Mr. Tim Miller,
Mr. John Otterman,
Rev. Dr. Curtis T. Walker, Sr.,
And…Ms. Debbie Walsh

And if you happen to be a former school board member joining us, please stand as well.

Next, let’s have our elected officials stand and be recognized. (Recognize the mayor, Russ Pry if present) Thank you.

And, to all of our honored guests, welcome.

Can you believe I’ve been doing this for nearly eight years? It feels longer! But, as I close out my eighth year as superintendent I spent a great deal of time reflecting on the role our schools play in our community. I think this topic is timely given many of the leadership changes in our community this past year.
And this has been a year of tremendous change…even upheaval.

First we said goodbye to long-time mayor, Don Plusquellic. I do want to thank our former mayor for his focus on education and for his partnership on the community learning center project. And also for his guidance and support. Believe me when I say that Don and I had our disagreements, but we could always leave the room with a handshake.

This year we welcomed our new mayor Dan Horrigan. I understand the connection between education and economic growth, and I agree that for a city to thrive it needs a well-educated workforce. I look forward to the continued collaboration with Mayor Horrigan, his administration, and Akron City Council as we build a better future for our children.

You may have seen the recent article in Crain’s Cleveland Business. I was quite concerned with the findings of a report released by the Greater Ohio Policy Center. I’m sure many of you share the same concerns. Of particular importance is the observation that our economic health— in the areas of income, employment, poverty and educational attainment— has declined.

We also face the challenge of increasing our population. The article also mentioned a growing skills gap in our workforce. All of these issues have critical implications for our educational system. As a member of Mayor Horrigan’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, these issues were at the forefront of our discussions over the last few months. I believe that our civic, business, and educational communities have the knowledge, collaborative spirit and some, but not all resources to make positive changes in the coming months. And I pledge my support to work in partnership with Mayor Horrigan and his administration to improve our community.

Collectively though, success in our community takes genuine leadership. Let me level with you, leadership does not come easily because we, as leaders, cannot satisfy everyone. However, I do believe that everyone deserves a chance to prove that they can work for the benefit of our community. In order to overcome our challenges, we must leave our differences at the door and work for the benefit of all stakeholders. In every leadership journey there are missteps. I have made my fair share of them in my leadership experience. However, there comes a time to move on to the pressing issues of the day and focus on the future.

Remember, as leaders we are responsible for scanning our environments and keeping an open mind. Knowing what is acceptable and what is not. Many times we don’t get what we want; who said it is all about us? Many times as leaders we may think we know what is best, but what if the community disagrees? Leadership is about the people we serve, especially in a community as diverse as Akron. All of us in our respective leadership roles face huge obstacles; it’s how we handle these challenges that counts. And…as I reflect on our Akron Public Schools I want to recall some of the challenges from last year to frame my update for this year.

First of all, the Ebola virus came and went. Then, we said goodbye to the old Margaret Park School. And so far, we haven’t really seen much of our friend the Polar Vortex; the crippling “Snowmageddon” has missed us so far. While the weather has been cooperating for the most part this winter, all is not quiet in the field of education. Our district is keenly focused on creative strategies that help students become well-rounded and academically prepared for college and the workforce. This remains a priority. However, the constant churn of new requirements and changing standards makes it difficult for our organization to keep up and stay focused.

Last year we complained about the time it took for students to complete the inordinate number of state-required tests. This year the state reduced the number of hours that our students need to test, and for that I say thank you. However, for our students who will graduate in 2018 and beyond there are new graduation requirements.

Students now have to accumulate a minimum of 18 points on seven end-of-course exams covering Algebra I, Geometry, US Government, 9th and 10th grade English, Physical Science and US History. These Ohio State Tests are administered at the end of each course. Students earn between one and five points per exam. Of the 18 points needed to graduate, students must earn four points in Math, four in English, and at least six points in Science and Social Studies. At the district level, our State Report Card is being released in a piecemeal fashion this year.

Several weeks ago the Ohio Department of Education released a portion of our State Report Card covering graduation rate and Kindergarten to 3rd Grade literacy. The remaining portions will be released this Thursday. This report card is incredibly complicated because the measures keep changing every single year and the tests change every single year. This year, the state changed the tests again, so now we have 3 years in a row with 3 different tests. This year’s report card will reflect the one year of score from a test that has now been abolished by the state. These tests were much more rigorous with lengthy hours of administration resulting in all schools across the state receiving lower scores.

Due to new, more rigorous graduation requirements, our 4-year graduation rate fell by 4.4 points from 78.4 percent last year to 74 percent this year, earning an overall grade of “F.” Even though we have one of the highest graduation rates among urban districts in the state, we still have a lot of work to do. No single measure can tell the complete story of the Akron Public Schools and the hard work and dedication of our teachers, administrators and other staff. I am especially proud of our educators and students because: Again this year, our test scores are ranked #1 compared to other large urban districts across Ohio in the vast majority of subjects across all tested grade levels. Having achievement results among the top urban districts in Ohio, we have now fixed our sights on competing with our suburban districts in Summit County . . . and we’re seeing positive progress.

For example in math and English language arts, our test scores, based on the preliminary results released by the Ohio Dept. of Education, are no longer the lowest in the county in 75% of the grades and subjects tested. We are making progress even though we have the highest poverty rates, highest homeless rates, highest mobility rates and highest rates of struggling students moving back from low performing charter schools.

I’m proud of our APS educators and students because when we tested our students in 2015 using nationally normed tests, our students’ math and reading scores grew in one year’s time far more than the average growth across the country.

I’m proud of our APS educators and students because at the end of last year, our kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade students were reading on grade level for the first time in the history of the Akron Public Schools.

I’m proud of our APS educators and students because at the end of last year, 99% of our 3rd graders were reading on track and successfully moved on to 4th grade, which is by far the highest percentage in all high poverty districts in Ohio as well as highly competitive in Summit County. Only four 3rd graders were retained under the State’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee, because they were not reading on track.

I’m proud of our APS educators and students because our 5 year graduation rate increased again this year to 83.8%. A testament to the fact that we never give up on our students even though some may not graduate in 4 years.

I’m proud of our APS educators and students because when we look at our college and career readiness measures, we are also number one on nearly every single indicator compared to the large urban districts and we are no longer the lowest in Summit County. In other words, our results are now competitive with other districts in the County.

Here are some highlights:

We have one of the highest participation rates for the ACT in the county – because we test ALL of our students for free.

Our percentage of students scoring remediation free scores on the ACT, Advanced Placement scores of 3 or higher, and the percentage of students enrolled in college within 2 years of graduating, are now competitive with some of the other districts in the County. In addition our students earned nearly $11.5 million in scholarships this past year.

We have the 4th highest percentage in Summit County of students earning 3 or more college credits while still in high school.

We are #1 in the county for the highest percentage of students receiving a score of 4 on the International Baccalaureate exam.

Lastly, I’m incredibly proud of one of the most important measures on our state report card that has remained consistent for the last 10 years, our Value Added Results. This measure tells the community whether students are making a year’s growth in one year’s time. Just last night, we received the report from ODE indicating that we are NOT making a year’s growth in one year’s time . . . we actually are making MORE than a year’s growth. We received an A in our overall value added score, we received an A for our students with disabilities growth, we received an A for our gifted student’s growth, and we received an A for our lowest performing student’s growth. Straight A’s on the most important growth measure on the report card.

Could all APS staff stand at this moment so I can speak directly to you? Thank you for your hard work and continued growth. You’ve made me so proud and I’m most appreciative of your dedication to our core mission: “To Prepare Each Child for Success”. These people are the ones responsible all the good work we do each and every day, and I think they deserve a round of applause.

For us to make even more progress towards our goal of being the best urban school district we need dynamic and supportive partners. Partners like LeBron James and the LeBron James Family Foundation. A valuable resource for our Akron Public School students, that continues to grow.
Today, more than 1,000 of our students in grades 3-7 have access to additional educational resources including after school mentoring, technology camps, unique life experiences, and of course, encouragement from LeBron himself, thanks to their participation in LeBron’s Wheels for Education and the Akron I PROMISE Network programs.

This year, LeBron and his Foundation took their commitment to our students to a whole new level with a monumental announcement. Through a partnership with The University of Akron, every single Akron Public School student in the Foundation’s programs that graduates from an APS high school and achieves certain benchmarks will earn a full, 4-year scholarship to The University of Akron. That means college is now a reality for many of our kids and their families who didn’t think it was possible for either financial or other reasons. This is a life-changing opportunity for our students, and I look forward to one day seeing them walk across that stage with a college diploma.

The Foundation’s staff has become a mainstay in our community. When they aren’t crashing school assemblies to deliver brand new uniforms to deserving Akron Public School sports teams, or cheerleading squads, hosting monthly Home Town Hall discussions with our families about how they can better serve our students, you can find the foundation team providing regular encouragement and incentives to our students. And with a new class of 3rd graders joining this program each year, we look forward to the continued growth of this partnership. The more support and resources we can extend to our students and their families, the stronger their education – and the entire Akron community – will be. Michelle Campbell, I thank you and LeBron and your staff for everything you do for our students.

Last year I spoke about the importance of promoting a college-going and workforce-ready culture among our students, and supporting the work of the Summit Education Initiative. Every APS high school is working with SEI to increase the number of students earning a minimum of 3.1 GPA and 6.5 high school credits by the end of ninth grade. For every one of our students who meet these measures, there is a 75 percent chance that they will earn a score of 21 or higher on the ACT, which means they are better prepared for college. In addition we are working with our high school students to complete the federal financial aid forms in the early spring of their senior year.

Graduating with a PLAN to be either employed, enrolled or enlisted in public service is a top priority for us. We also know that overall student success starts before kindergarten. Our Early Learning Program continues to work with SEI and County Executive Russ Pry’s First Things First initiative to increase the readiness of children entering kindergarten.

All APS preschools participate in the Transition Skills Summary, as do all of the Head Start Classrooms and most of the community based preschools. We focus on what our youngest learners need, to be on the best path for success in school.

I also attended SEI’s GradNation Summit, where 130 APS high schoolers spent the day connecting with 250 community members and business leaders about the conditions we need to improve in our community to support students so they don’t drop out.
SEI also surveyed the students to get their take on student success, and we heard them loud and clear. Students want safe places in their neighborhoods, and schools with caring adults providing relevant, career-oriented education.

To Derran Wimer, Matt Deevers and the board of Summit Education Initiative, thank you for supporting our students. Along with SEI we have several very important post-secondary partners who are working with us to ensure student success. This year we continue to partner with Stark State College and other post-secondary partners in the College Credit Plus Program through the State of Ohio. Under this program high school students can take courses at Ohio colleges and earn transcripted credit. Currently 150 students are taking college level coursework; and for our families, this translates into thousands of dollars in savings for college. With a grant from Great Lakes Community Investments to improve college readiness, professors from Kent State University and Stark State College are on our high school campuses teaching courses.

Kent State University is operating the Kent State College Today Program serving 42 students at Ellet High School and 36 students at Firestone High School. Stark State College is operating the Stark PASS Program at East CLC where Stark State professors are teaching courses for 65 students from Buchtel, East, Garfield, Kenmore, North, and the STEM High School. Many of you have heard me say that I am not interested in our students just getting a high school diploma. The end game for all of our children is to get to the career of their choice. That is why we listen to our many industry partners to better understand what their needs are and how to prepare our students for careers.

I am happy to report that we have a variety of new partnerships with local businesses and organizations. Such as Summit Workforce Solutions under the leadership of Sue Lacy. Our Career Education Department has been working with local manufacturing companies who are opening their doors to expose our students to this field of work. I would also like to highlight the work of Joe Kanfer and GoJo Industries.
This past summer GoJo employed five African American male students as part of the Path to Excel! Program. Highlighted at last year’s University of Akron’s Black Male Summit, GoJo teamed up with Lee Gill, UA’s chief diversity officer to identify these young men and to team up with employees at GoJo for a paid internship. At the same time, Tom Malone, CEO at Summa Health System hosted ten of our APS student interns at several Summa Health System facilities.
The partnership between Akron Public Schools and Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio is giving students valuable insight into the vital topics of Entrepreneurship, Workforce Readiness, and Financial Literacy.

Junior Achievement programming occurs in 293 classrooms across 30 APS CLCs, inspiring and preparing more than 6,100 young people to succeed in a global economy. Thanks to President Michael Gaffney and Junior Achievement for your support. We continue our partnership with the City of Akron, the University of Akron, the Greater Akron Chamber, Akron Tomorrow and InventNow with our two National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM schools.

This year we will graduate our first class of STEM students from high school. Case Elementary and Litchfield Middle schools continue to make great progress in joining Firestone High School in adopting the International Baccalaureate Program. Resnik CLC has now started the transition to a full IB school, with King and Portage Path coming up next. And Buchtel NewTech CLC continues its work with the NewTech Network model of STEM education with project-based learning. Buchtel is a state-wide success model for the Ohio Department of Education on how a district can combine the power of local resources and partnerships with federal funds to completely transform a lower performing school into a 21st Century STEM learning community with improved results.

Last year I discussed our goal of converting North High School into a healthcare college and career academy. I am happy to report that the staff at North High School continues to undergo training, and we are working with the Ford Next Generation Learning organization to begin the next phase of intensive strategic planning for this project. With continued support and a $350,000 grant from the GAR Foundation and deepened partnerships with local industry partners, we are moving forward with this national model of bringing together educators, employers, and community members, in an effort to better prepare our students for careers in the health and medical field. This career academy model of education has brought great educational attainment results to the City of Nashville, Tennessee. With our dedicated educators at North High School, under the excellent leadership of Rachel Tecca, we will definitely see similar results. We will use North as a pilot College and Career Academy and have Ford Next Generation Learning consultants work with our district, city leaders, and local business representatives to determine if we should replicate the College and Career Academy model to other high schools over the next 5 years. I want to thank Christine Mayer and Kirstin Toth from the GAR Foundation for their continued strategic support in transforming education.

We all recognize that there are different pathways to student success. Miller-South and the Akron School of the Arts at Firestone High School continue to offer our students clear, successful pathways in the fields of visual and performing arts.

Thirty two career educations programs spread throughout the Akron Public Schools offer students a wide array of career pathways. Our athletic programs, coupled with our academic opportunities to offer students another critical pathway to the post-secondary world.

Last year I lamented about seeing un-sportsmanlike conduct from a few of our student athletes. At that time we formed an Athletic Advisory Council, with the help of former Cleveland Browns player Tom Cousineau. The goal, to make recommendations and inform our planning and decision-making process regarding the overall co-curricular athletic programming. The Board and I also hired a new Athletic Director, Joe Vassalotti. This year we have seen some of the fruits of our labor.

We have made improvements in our compliance efforts with the Ohio High School Athletic Association in the area of student eligibility bylaws. We have improved our Akron City Series by adding an actual Akron Championship for football, the first since 1998. We initiated “Purpose & Budget” statements for each sport at each school, initiated middle school boys and girls championship tournaments, required codes of conduct from our coaches and community service requirements from each of our teams. We developed a student-athlete handbook, created videos of successful alumni to promote college access, partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance to provide coach training, and mCORE, providing free cardiac screenings; began a 6th-grade basketball league with incentives for positive work in school, started to award “Student Athlete of the Month” for boys and girls at the HS & MS level, and created a Twitter account for APS Athletics. For all these positives, we still have some challenges.

There are times when the actions of a few can spoil the enjoyment of many. I am sure that many of you heard about the skirmish at our girls’ City Series Basketball championship game between North and Kenmore high schools. A few players, including one player, who does not attend our Akron Schools – she attends a local charter school, but Ohio law requires us to let her play on an APS team, took it upon herself to ruin a perfectly good game, which resulted in a few other APS players joining in the skirmish. This occurred during the time after the game when both teams were shaking hands and congratulating each other for a great game.

I want to set the record straight however, because two of our school board members were in attendance. This incident was over quickly and I have to congratulate our coaches, security team members and volunteers because this incident was over almost as soon as it began. I know this incident was first described in the media as a riot, but I respectfully disagree with this description. We restored order quickly and we have handled the discipline of the student athletes involved.

Ok, so let me apologize for my “soapbox” moment: When I was a kid, we knew there were winners and losers. When you lost, of course you did not like it, no one likes to lose. However, we did not run over and sucker punch the winners, we regrouped, learned from our mistakes, and kept on trying. Today, when a parent exits the stands and participates in the skirmish, well even I have run out of patience. As parents we must strive to be positive role models for our children. I know it can be a struggle to raise children, but they need to learn character, grit, the ethic of hard work, how to be kind and courteous, and how to get along with others.

Why you ask? Because once our children step out into the real world as adults, such behavior will land you in jail, or worse. And with a criminal record your opportunities to have the “good life” are seriously diminished. These negative behaviors are part of the school to prison pipeline. We have to teach our students how to control their behavior and carry themselves as proud dignified members of the Akron community.

I have charged Dan Rambler, director of Student Services to improve the climate in our schools so that they are safe and affirming. And under Dan’s leadership we have seen referrals of students to the board for serious infractions drop from 3.65 for every 100 students to 2.87 for every 100 students, over the last five years. Over the same period, suspensions have fallen from 13,743 down to 9,370. Student behavior is always a work in progress, and our schools are a reflection of the community. I am happy to report that we continue our partnership with Judge Linda Teodosio and the Juvenile Court, looking for ways to address court-involved youth, truancy, and alternatives to juvenile detention. Our police in schools partnership with the Akron Police Department continues to be a model of collaboration as the resource officers in our middle and high schools also serve as mentors to students who need it the most.

Last year, I spoke about how some of our faith-based organizations like the Love Akron Network, and the Hudson United Church Christ were lending a hand at Findley CLC. Also, St Hillary Parish and Seeds of Change providing tutors for students at Helen Arnold. And, a group of local ministers is forming the EMS (Education, Motivation, and Success) Group teaming up to explore ways to support our children on the road to success. Two community partners capitalized on the Ohio Community Connectors Grant opportunity and were awarded grants to support mentoring programs in our schools.

We partnered with iCARE (Creating Authentic Relational Energy) Mentoring, a collaboration between the EMS Group and Jonathan Greer of The Man-Up Movement, and received a Community Connectors Grant in the amount of $109,000 to bring a structured mentoring program within our schools.
Collectively, our goal is to have our mentors meet with an assigned child, for one hour, once a week for one school year. Ultimately, we want to build student confidence, improve academic performance, and increase chances of graduation, moving on to college and/or career. These mentors can help our students avoid negative influences, and learn how to solve problems peacefully.

To date, we have 190 mentors, with 130 students enrolled in the program in grades K through 11 at 35 schools. Jonathan Greer who coordinates this effort, hats off to you. I thank you for letting us share your dream for building a better future for our students. Scott Myers from SD Myers, I thank you for supporting us in this important effort.

We also partnered with Jackie Silas-Butler and ProjectGRAD Akron, and they received a grant in an amount just shy of $70,000 to support their mentoring program at Buchtel CLC. In fact, earlier this school year Project GRAD Akron and Buchtel CLC hosted a visit by former State Superintendent Dr. Richard Ross. We heard from both mentors and mentees and saw first-hand how successful this program is. I actually think that the mentors may be learning more from our students. Thank you ProjectGRAD Akron and Jackie Silas-Butler for making a difference.

In order for us to continue making strides in academics and academic supports, our finances must be managed in a way where funds are available to support the classroom.

Last year I introduced our Chief Financial Officer, Ryan Pendleton who brought us the financial report. Over the last year I have truly enjoyed working with Ryan on district finances and really give credit to the School Board for hiring him. When you include our general fund, federal funds, and construction funds, the Akron Public Schools is a $562 million dollar operation. We are one of the city’s largest employers with a residual economic impact that we take very seriously. Over the last several years we have earned clean audits, received an Auditor of State award, and a recent review of our federally funded programs was favorable. Our Board Finance Committee with Tim Miller and Patrick Bravo has provided sound guidance to issues related to district finances. Our biggest challenge now is to make sure that we right-size our building footprint to reflect a student population of 21,990 students. We also must keep an eye on the state budget as it relates to school funding. Our current five-year forecast has a positive net balance in each of the next five years. However, that positive balance continues to decline. It is not reasonable to expect to ask our public for more support until we have exhausted every possible option that improves our efficiency.

We are now in the final stages of replacing our schools with a once in a lifetime funding opportunity, with 60% of the funds being paid for by the state. And as we look at building capacity, not only in physical space, but in protecting academic programs that make us special, we must maximize the newer facilities for student learning.

Recently the school board approved plans to close Smith and Lawndale elementary schools which are located in the Kenmore cluster. I am certainly no fan of school closures, however when we look at buildings with enrollments that are half of what they can hold, something has to give. In fact, based on the buildings we have constructed so far, the State of Ohio will only provide funding for 1,256 high school students in our program. Garfield, Kenmore and North high schools, Kent and Miller-South middle schools, and Pfeiffer, Bettes, and Firestone Park elementary schools have yet to be renovated or re-built. Collectively, these buildings represent 3,686 students. Our challenge will be funding the remaining schools without state matching funds because we have built enough square footage to handle our student population.

In terms of progress on our school construction project, Firestone and Litchfield Community Learning Centers will be opening this August. Harris CLC should be ready in October. Construction should start on the new Ellet High School and Case Elementary School projects this spring. We will be working hard to see our building program to completion.

I know there are people and partners that I did not mention. We work with so many of you that it is impossible for one speech to cover all that you do. Know this, at Akron Public Schools, we appreciate the support that many of you have provided to the children of this community. Finally, can I ask my Superintendent Seminar Students to stand? These are just a few of the students that you, as a community, support. For that I am eternally grateful and humbled to have served the community as superintendent for another year.

APS Superintendent Speech