Youngstown students deserve more—let’s not keep them waiting

Five years ago, Ohio established an academic distress commission for Youngstown City Schools that was to oversee wide-scale improvement efforts. Youngstown had slipped into “Academic Emergency” (the equivalent of an F on today’s report cards) and failed to make adequate yearly progress for four consecutive years. It was the first district to sink low enough to activate a statute imposing state intervention.

In 2010, I wrote about Youngstown’s “unfocused, expensive, and misdirected” approach to improving schools, which included spending $2 million on reducing student-teacher ratios, “deploying a comprehensive system of outreach and support” for students that included “a community asset map,” and creating leadership teams whose sole purpose was to foster “collaboration, trust, and communication.” The original improvement plan was riddled with vague and meaningless language. Worse, it demanded no reforms that could actually move the needle on student learning: changes to how teachers teach and are evaluated, how principals make decisions affecting day-to-day operations, or how the district might carve out space for innovations typically stifled by collective bargaining agreements.

Predictably, little has changed since 2010. An update on the district’s recovery plan in March 2013 revealed an alarmingly unfocused approach by the commission, with few results to show for it. Take, for example, their well-intentioned strategy “to embed community partnerships within the structure of the district to ensure that the schools and the community have a culture of high expectations for the students of YCSD.” True, a culture of high expectations is vital for schools to serve impoverished students, and students can benefit from robust partnerships with the community. But consider what the commission wrote in the findings section about whether it delivered on this strategy. They complained about “old language” on the district website, as well as board of education agendas with the “old vision and mission” printed on them. “Even more confusing,” they noted, “when principals and teachers are talking about their schools on a recruitment DVD, they speak about both the old and new vision and mission.” The commission recommended a “part-time contract based person selected from the business community” who would work with the district “to create focused messaging that emphasizes the district’s drive toward excellence.”

This is deeply unserious. Creating a culture of high expectations for the most at-risk students is no easy task, but it won’t happen because a $20,000 part-time staffer updates the district website and recruitment video.

In the 2013 update, the commission also elaborated on its goal to “increase student choice in grades K–9 and 10–12,” but its results here are even more wanting. A committee comprised of parents, teachers, and a principal developed a proposal for a “Discovery school,” a district specialty program that appears to offer extra classes outside of the core curriculum (to which 360 students applied in 2013). The commission reports that “other choices were expanded,” but nowhere in the documents, or in reality, does one observe a meaningful expansion of other forms of choice that would serve the rest of Youngstown’s five thousand students.  

As to whether the original academic distress commission has been effective, results speak for themselves. Little progress has been made since 2010. Fourth-grade reading proficiency has eked up three percentage points, while fourth-grade math proficiency has plummeted by ten percentage points. Modest headway has been made in eighth-grade math (fifteen percentage points), but proficiency still remains abysmal—just 44 percent. Eighth-grade reading proficiency is virtually unchanged. Despite small gains across any of the indicators shown in the graph below, the state standard for student proficiency is 80 percent, a benchmark that was missed across the board. The district’s value-added ratings of F in 2012–13 and 2013–14 corroborate the lack of student progress.

The graduation rate hasn’t budged much, either. 

A deeper look at the most recent data (2013–14) continues to paint a bleak picture:

  • Youngstown’s 69 percent graduation rate is the sixth-lowest graduation rate in the state out of 609 districts.
  • Of those students graduating, there’s little evidence that they’re exposed to the same rigor as students in nearby high-performing districts (like Struthers City or Western Branch Local). Not one Youngstown high schooler participated in Advanced Placement. Just 0.5 percent earned three or more college credits during high school.
  • The district earned the seventh-lowest Performance Index in the state (a measure of absolute achievement).
  • On pass rates for the reading and math portions of the Ohio Graduation Test—a very low bar already—Youngstown had the fourth-lowest and eighth-lowest rates in the entire state respectively (70 percent and 60 percent).
  • Student enrollment, arguably the best metric to illustrate families’ confidence in the district, continues to fall—the district has lost one-quarter of its enrollment in the last five years (from 6,800 students in 2009 to 5,100 in 2014).

Fast forward to July. Just-signed legislation (HB 70) strengthened the state’s recourse for overhauling Ohio’s worst-performing districts. The bill’s original intent was to expand “community learning centers” or CLCs, a model in Cincinnati wherein schools served as community hubs, linking students and families to outside services. A last-minute amendment (tacked on to the CLC expansion) significantly altered what’s allowed in districts run by academic distress commissions. Some of the most controversial provisions included the powers given to a yet-to-be-hired CEO (i.e., to change union contracts and reconstitute failing schools, including re-opening them as charter schools), allowing the mayor to eventually appoint the governing board if the district fails to improve, and allowing for charter schools to play a bigger role via the creation of a new school “accelerator” that would recruit and promote high-quality schools.

The legislation was immediately condemned by the teachers’ union and protested by some parents and community members. Their opposition fell along predictable fault lines: charter schools, modification of collective bargaining agreements, and letting the mayor appoint the new governing board. In August, the district, along with the Ohio Education Association, Youngstown Education Association and others, sued the State of Ohio, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross, and the Ohio Department of Education. The plaintiffs alleged that both the reforms passed in HB 70 and the fast manner in which it passed were unconstitutional. (The state has since filed a motion to dismiss the case.) Youngstown City Schools also asked for an injunction to block the creation of a new academic distress commission and the hiring of the CEO, but that was denied. Unless the district’s appeal proves successful, the new five-member academic distress commission is expected to be appointed by mid-November and the CEO hired before the new year.

Meanwhile, Democrats in each chamber (Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan) have introduced legislation that would water down HB 70. Among several things, it would make it easier for districts to climb out of academic distress, remove the CEO’s ability to change collective bargaining agreements, require the CEO to have “at least ten years of educational experience and work in impoverished areas that face challenges similar to Youngstown,” and eliminate the law’s provision to permit dissolution of the elected school board.

While legal experts determine whether HB 70 violates the Ohio or U.S. Constitution or if the bill was passed in an appropriate amount of public sunshine (and opponents of the legislation push forward their own plan), Youngstown continues to crumble from within. Since May of this year, the superintendent, deputy superintendent, and assistant superintendent for Human Resources have all resigned, and the district has lost about 20 percent of its staff. The district board president has insinuated publicly that the upcoming $21.2 million renewal levy will be jeopardized by the legislation (namely the part that would allow for more charter schools). Meanwhile the district has spent $62,000 in legal fees during the first two months of the lawsuit.

Luckily, there are still many who support HB 70 as a way to achieve reforms that Youngstown’s original academic distress commission was incapable of delivering. Lawmakers should stay the course on HB 70, remembering that the victims of the Youngstown’s longstanding dysfunction are the five thousand students for whom past reform efforts have failed miserably—and who are still waiting for change.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.