The Omega School of Excellence, one of Dayton's first charter schools, is breaking new ground once again. From its inception in 2000, the school's goal was to teach predominantly African-American students in grades five through eight the academic skills and attitudes they needed to gain entrance to, and successfully compete at, some of the best high schools in Dayton and beyond. The school has realized some successes: dozens of their students have won scholarships to top local private schools, and some have moved on to the country's top prep schools.
Omega was founded by Daryl and Vanessa Ward--leaders of the Omega Baptist Church in west Dayton--and modeled on the hugely successful Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Early on, the school ran an intensive, 57-hour week program that emphasized academic achievement, leadership and self-discipline. All of its students wore uniforms.
Recently, though, the school has struggled. Daryl's serious health problems forced Vanessa to shoulder most of the church's work as a whole, at the expense of the school. Absent her critical leadership, teachers and parents alike turned against the extended school days and Saturday classes, central to Omega's early successes.
Declining enrollment brought financial difficulties. And less instructional time led to a poor academic showing in 2004 and 2005. That year, it was rated among Dayton's lowest performing schools, a fact not acceptable either to the school's board, or to the Wards. Omega's board decided in the spring of 2006 to take drastic action and make a "fresh start" for the school.
This fall, the Omega School of Excellence will be "reconstituted." This means Omega will start the year with a new school leader, all new teachers, a new curriculum, new school hours, a new grade structure, and a new approach to leadership and instruction. About the only carry-over are some of the students, the building, the school's name, and most importantly, Omega's commitment to preparing urban children for academic success and future leadership positions.
It is the first charter school in Ohio to undergo radical restructuring. The school will partner with an outside charter school management organization, Dayton-based Keys to Improving Dayton Schools (k.i.d.s.), that will run Omega's day-to-day activities on a contractual arrangement. The board is still responsible for the school.
The mission of k.i.d.s. is to ensure that students attending partner schools demonstrate academic prowess that meets or exceeds state standards. Dr. Robert Pohl, the executive director of k.i.d.s., has a long history in education reform, beginning his career as an inner-city Catholic school principal in San Francisco. He spent many years working in California to turn around underperforming urban schools and he helped launch several schools of choice. He recently served as Santa Barbara's school board president.
Omega and k.i.d.s. share the same goals, and both receive philanthropic support to help pay the costs of this fresh start. K.i.d.s. is working with Omega's board to define clear expectations for teacher and student performance, to create a school culture focused on academic achievement, and to empower teachers and the school leadership to act at all times in the best interest of the children and their education. The school will evolve over the next couple of years from a middle school to one serving K-8 students. If all goes well, the school may add high school grades.
Vanessa Ward, who continues as chairman of the Omega board, has embraced the changes, and Omega church is providing the school with a building at a greatly reduced cost.
"Excuses are not acceptable here," Ward said. "There are no shortcuts to learning, and we will do whatever it takes to be successful."
A common phrase, uncommonly applied.
A similar version of this editorial appeared in the July 24 edition of The Dayton Daily News.
"Omega School of Excellence Tries New Approach," by Scott Elliot, The Dayton Daily News, July 23, 2006.
"The Hard Way to Save a School," by Scott Elliot, Get on the Bus web log, The Dayton Daily News, July 23, 2006.
Note: In addition to being vice president for Ohio programs and policy for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Terry Ryan also sits on the board of k.i.d.s.