Getting to square one: Longstanding troubles hinder the Youngstown turnaround effort

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In a recent analysis of the Academic Distress Commission (ADC) system currently in place in Youngstown City Schools, my colleague Jessica Poiner shows significant deviations from the six habits of highly effective school district turnarounds. These deviations have undoubtedly contributed to a slow start for much needed reform efforts. But the plan is not solely to blame. Youngstown’s history is riddled with apathy and neglect. Even the most miraculous of turnaround plans would have had to contend with a depleted system resistant to change. Here are a few examples of how this neglect has immeasurably complicated the early work of the current ADC and its CEO.

Transportation

Mere days after taking the reins in 2016, Youngstown CEO Krish Mohip received an in-depth report on the district’s transportation system from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). That report detailed numerous flaws and failings related to bus driver background checks and training, maintenance schedules, efficient routing, and expenditures. With just weeks to go before the start of the school year, every driver had to be rechecked and retrained and every route had to be replanned just to reach baseline operational capacity.

Neither the six habits nor the recent ODE report on the ADC’s progress take into account that getting kids to school in the first place is a longstanding problem for Youngstown City Schools. Even if Mohip could have waved a magic wand and installed the best curriculum and the best teaching district-wide on day one, this structural failing would have curtailed the benefit to students. The immediate problems were solved, but this all-hands-on-deck emergency superseded any other work that CEO Mohip could have been doing in his earliest days. Instead of concentrating on elements of academic turnaround, hiring a top-flight transportation coordinator moved to the top of Mohip’s to-do list. It was time and money well spent, eventually, but it was basic foundation building, not a ramp-up to turnaround.

Special education

Shortly after the transportation debacle, Mohip received another ODE report that documented long-standing inequities and flaws in identifying and providing services to students with special needs. A legacy of low expectations and poor support for some of Youngstown’s neediest students put an immediate barrier between the new CEO and district families. Even with all of the resources provided by the ADC framework, he cannot hope to improve academic achievement before solving this complex structural problem. Despite several important changes under Mohip’s leadership, ODE's most recent review shows continuing problems in this area.

Access to quality

As with all distressed districts, there have been pockets of quality in Youngstown throughout the last ten years—bright spots that any turnaround leader would love to grow and leverage toward more success. Yet these academic oases were isolated and historically inaccessible to most students. Advanced Placement (AP) courses, for example, were traditionally offered at only one high school, while a different high school offered performing arts. Math teaching vacancies were concentrated in certain schools, leaving multiple classrooms with a rotating cast of long-term substitutes, usually in the lowest-performing buildings. Youngstown Early College High School (YEC)—offering accelerated classes and direct access to college courses at neighboring Youngstown State University—has been the crown jewel of the district for nearly a decade. But it is small and full and has a long waiting list, emblematic of the difficulty parents have accessing what quality options exist in Youngstown. It is not surprising that many families simply opted to leave the district.

For those who toughed it out, access issues were exacerbated by the aforementioned transportation woes and a rigid, suspension-based discipline system that could effectively ban students from returning to school buildings for the rest of their academic careers following certain infractions. If the only school open to them is one with poor math instruction, it’s unlikely students will learn enough math to be proficient. Mohip was required to redistribute resources on an ad hoc basis—textbooks, teachers, computers, counselors—and to redesign the discipline code just to build a secure basis for substantive change. These larger efforts—such as expanding YEC and returning to neighborhood schools with AP courses and arts in each building—are the true province of bold turnaround efforts. Is it any wonder that turnaround progress is slow when longstanding neglect of schools and students must be halted first?

Politics

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the political situation in Youngstown slung a hefty albatross around the ADC’s neck before it even officially existed. Critics of House Bill 70 questioned its constitutionality before the governor’s signature had dried, began legal action a month later, and continue to subject the ADC to protest actions today. Despite the fact that stronger ADC legislation could have been avoided if the district had just improved its academics (and indeed, several other Ohio districts have managed stay just this side of the line over the years), the elected school board and their ever-changing cast of superintendents continued to fiddle while Rome burned—protecting the status quo of “the system” that provided them with power instead.

It’s true that ADC leaders were given a “big yes” that could have helped them and Mohip implement changes more quickly and decisively. But HB 70 complicated this authority by keeping the elected board and district superintendent in place, thereby ensuring ongoing institutional antagonism. The elected board of an ADC district can’t be replaced until the district has failed to make substantial progress for four years. Compare that to New Jersey’s state takeover protocol, which immediately replaces elected boards with advisory boards appointed by the city’s mayor. These advisory members must work with the state-selected leader to execute the turnaround plan; there is no question about who is responsible for the success or failure of the plan, and the board is incentivized to improve quickly with the promise of partial authority being returned to them if they do. Ohio ADCs, on the other hand, operate with a perverse incentive toward failure—or at least toward very slow progress.

*****

Youngstown’s current Academic Distress Commission was born under fire and its CEO began his turnaround efforts following years of systemic neglect in the district. Despite the difficulties, district data and ODE’s most recent report on Youngstown’s progress show some measured improvement. Student population loss has been reversed, new allies are emerging, and the state—for now—remains firmly in support of the effort. All students in Youngstown deserve a quality education, and the turnaround process is far from complete. CEO Mohip and the ADC could still make that a reality if they keep the focus on increasing student achievement as purpose and goal.

 
 
Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,