The Ohio Education Gadfly recently caught up with the Lebanon City Schools Superintendent Mark North about House Bill 1, the state's rating system for school districts, and how his district is achieving success while spending far less money per-pupil than comparable districts.

Q: What’s your opinion of House Bill 1?

In theory, there are some good things that can be supported with research. My biggest concern – unless you tie in how it’s going to be funded – I don’t know how practical these theories will be in practice. Everything costs something. It’s great to mandate things that will help but if you  cannot tie in how it’s going to be funded it’s more difficult to take those practices, or in this case the legislation, and realistically implement them.… for example, all-day kindergarten. 

In our district, just the additional staffing for all-day kindergarten will take almost $1 million. In addition to that you have to have twice as many [kindergarten] classrooms. We’re growing at 75-125 students per year. We’ve added modular classrooms almost every year. They cost a lot of money to purchase and install and this is money that has to come from somewhere else. It could cost us $8 million-$10 million to build and supply the facilities for all-day kindergarten.

It’s the same with the student-teacher ratio. We have 26-28 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade…..To lower that (to the mandated 1-15) someone suggested we just add another teacher to the classroom. You have already 27 children in a classroom and they are already shoulder to shoulder. You add another teacher and another seven or eight students to get the ratios in line and there is not enough physical space to do it. All-day kindergarten and lower student-teacher ratios are good ideas but if you don’t have the money to pay for it you can’t do it.

Q: The governor’s school funding plan allows districts to ask voters to approve “conversion levies” that would allow local property tax revenue to grow along with inflation. What sort of financial boost would such a levy have on your district?  Do you plan to ask voters to approve one?  Do you think your voters would okay a conversion levy?

In the spring of 2011 we will have to ask voters to pass the current 5.4 mill renewal levy. In addition, we will need to ask for approximately 6.3 mills to just sustain what we are currently funding. We are a district that operates at one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state. This combination of levies totals approximately 11.7 mills. This request to increase taxes does not consider the additional cost of the mandates from H.B. 1. The odds of passing the renewal with the additional levy are extremely slim. The chance to pass any conversion levy to generate revenue for the additional mandates will be impossible.

Q: You’ve had some problems with the way Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is used to calculate the district’s academic rating on the state-issued local report card. It’s really hurt Lebanon. Can you explain?

We try to be excellent stewards of the public’s money. When it comes to the outcome of this rating, it is important that the rating communicates in an equitable manner to the public. It should be [with] some kind of consistency so… all school districts are graded and reviewed and rated in an equitable manner. We achieved 29 of 30 state academic indicators that made our district Excellent with Distinction. We’ve increased our performance index for the fourth straight year. We’re up to 101.6 [out of 120 possible points]. The third area is valued added, which we met.

But our Adequate Yearly Progress, we did not make that. Of the 10 subgroups, two of our subgroups (Hispanic and Limited English Proficient) did not pass reading, and because of that we dropped to Continuous Improvement. Out of almost 3,000 students who passed the test we had 10 students in one particular subgroup that did not pass reading. That’s one-third of one percent. Also, since students can be in both categories – a student in the Hispanic subgroup can also be in the LEP subgroup, if the student does not pass the reading test it counts as two failures. About 76 percent of our Hispanic students are also in the LEP subgroup. (To better understand the problem with the Continuous Improvement rating click here.)

Q: What did you expect? You knew this was going to happen didn’t you?

We had concerns. We made changes to our academic plan last year and also developed a district intervention plan [for at-risk students]. For example, we hired additional intervention tutors but working through the process takes time. We’ve made this a better environment and increased assistance to students. You have to develop a plan and a budget. You just don’t snap your fingers and all of a sudden fix something….On the first day of school, we had a plan in place but when we got our results over the summer we fell short in addressing those two AYP areas.

Q: What’s wrong with that?  It’s the state using the stick.

We have the responsibility to educate all our children. We take that very seriously. We make no excuses for that. We have changed the way we do things. We know we need to do a better job.  The scoring system and its implications is a different issue. We’ve implemented changes to provide better support for various subgroups but, in my mind, that’s a separate issue than the overall final effect when we’re rated.

Q: Is too much emphasis placed on the final rating? 

Too much emphasis is placed on the final rating. It’s very simple to see where a district is doing well and where it’s not doing as well as it should. We met 29 out of 30 academic indicators. Our performance index has increased for four years. Our Value Added is met….We haven’t, however, done as well is in the area of providing support for all of our students to be successful. 

Our Hispanic LEP subgroups are where I’d like to apply my attention….But this emphasis on the overall score rather than the emphasis on each category hurts. When schools get scores, they’re labeled. That’s what the media focuses on and that’s what the public hears. But it’s not that simple. We do extremely well in providing educational support and environment for a large majority of students but where we lacked was providing support for our LEP and Hispanic subgroups. We should focus on taking care of the needs of each child and that gets lost in the overall labeling and discussion of how a district rates. It’s never been about a district, in my mind, it’s about each child.

Q: What kind of effect has the Continuous Improvement rating had on the district?

We are located halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati. People shop for schools and they see this as a big indicator as to what kind of school they’re looking for when it comes to their child. People have that as a high priority. There are eight school districts in our county. We do not make the short list. As far as people who live in Lebanon…most people are very happy with the education their children are receiving. People ask why we’re in Continuous Improvement. I explain to them the system without making excuses….I can explain it. I don’t think it’s a good system but it is the system.

Q: Other districts are getting hammered like this. Will S.B. 167 fix the problem?

It addresses the idea that a school district should be evaluated equally across all categories. Right now that’s not the case. There are districts that pass 16 indicators and they’re ranked as an excellent district. We pass 29 and we’re Continuous Improvement. Some districts pass zero indicators and they’re Continuous Improvement….We know we need to do a better job. Last year, it was Hispanic students and three years ago it was special education (students). We made adjustments in our special education subgroup that makes up between 11 percent and 12 percent of our district students. Our special education students are now passing reading. School districts are responsible for fixing the problem but [the bill] makes it an equitable way to rate schools across the state.

Q: You have been one of the districts that seem to accomplish a lot with a little.

There are three things you try to accomplish. We want to provide the best education and best opportunity and be accountable. Last year we spent $7,440 per student. Only 22 school districts out of 614 statewide spent less. We have maintained an Excellent rating for seven years before this year….We can give [students] a good foundation to set goals and make choices and go after what they would like to achieve. 

On the other hand we are mindful that we rely on the good graces of our congregation. They determine how much they will donate through their willingness to support levies…. Legislators may have good intentions and good reasons but…we must all work together. In reaching our goals, someone has to pay the bills. 

Q: You have an innovative program to help boost test scores. Can you describe that?

It’s our College Life-Skills Class….It’s been going for nine years. Typically juniors take it. They learn how to fill out financial aid forms, search for colleges, even campus safety. There are a lot of different aspects in selecting and getting ready for college. 

The other part is working with students to improve ACT and SAT scores. In Lebanon we’ve been seeing improvements of three-to-five points on ACT scores on average. Some students go up as high as 10 [points]. When you’re looking to go to a particular college and gain scholarship opportunities, those ACT scores are important.

In Lebanon High School, 76 percent take the ACT or SAT. We have 25 percent of our students receiving free-or-reduced [price] lunches so it’s not a wealthy suburban district. We have raised scores from 12 to 16; some from 26 to 30. It makes the difference in getting into a particular college or gaining financial support. We’ve had schools from across the state interested, especially since the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a newspaper article on this program. Districts from as far away as Hawaii, Alaska and Texas have contacted us about it.

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