It may feel like change is the only constant as the Lorain City School District seeks ways to get out of the Ohio Department of Education’s grade of “academic distress.”
It is change for the better, says district CEO David Hardy Jr., although members of the School Board might disagree.
Lorain City Schools and the teachers, students, parents, administration and community have seen successes and challenges so far in the 2018-19 school year.
It is the first full school year to be guided by The Lorain Promise, the academic turnaround plan that Hardy drafted after a 90-day “listening tour” of Lorain. The Lorain Academic Distress Commission adopted the plan in fall 2017.
In his introductory letter to The Lorain Promise, Hardy predicted the journey would not be a short one and there would be difficult decisions ahead.
So far, that forecast largely has come true.
In December, Hardy listened to participants at the monthly Community Business Schools Partnership meeting. He used his “Happy Holidays” e-newsletter to describe the 2018-19 school year.
Hardy also spoke to The Morning Journal about 2018 and the course going forward next year.
Last spring, Hardy stated “Transformation is here” to introduce the new turnaround principals who would lead the school buildings for this school year.
They would be joined by deans of academic outcomes and scholar and family engagement.
Hardy said he continues to be very excited about the building leaders and those who have joined his administration.
The district had a leadership summit in June and intensive, intentional preparation in August for the start of school, Hardy said.
“The work that they put in to prepare for this school year was exponentially greater, deeper, more intentional than I know the first year I was here,” he said.
Early successes, part one
The school year started with heavy emphasis on student dress code, great instruction in the classroom, the importance of building relationships and restorative disciplinary practices when students misbehave.
“Those were all well intended and a big part of what launched our school year,” Hardy said. “I think as a result we’re starting to see some inklings of positive change around, increased number of kids that come to school every single day, increased number of kids that come to school in dress code every day, and seeing an increased number of kids who are receiving and pushing on more rigorous content in school.”
Lorain High School reintroduced advanced placement courses.
The number of students taking college credit courses has grown and in the spring more LHS students will graduate with an associate’s degree, than the district has seen in years, Hardy said.
“These are things that are a product of how we started the year,” he said. “So it’s starting to yield some results and we’re excited to see how much further we can grow this year.”
Early successes, part two
This school year, Lorain added pre-K classrooms to every school.
That change was a “huge lift” by the administration and staff, Hardy said.
“I don’t want to miss out on the unbelievable effort that it took to get pre-K classrooms in every one of our elementary schools, first and foremost,” he said.
The results may not show up quickly. But if Lorain Schools want to find a long-term, sustainable solution to improving education, starting earlier is vital, Hardy said.
“In years to come the fruits of our labor will truly pay off,” he said.
This school year, Lorain City School elementary teachers began using standards-based grading, with a rating scale from 1 to 5, to rate student performance.
The change has caused confusion among students, parents, teachers and community members.
In December, Lorain Education Association President Jay Pickering said the teachers do not necessarily oppose the method, but the teachers had little instruction about the new grades.
Hardy acknowledged the district could have done a better job implementing standards-based grading. The administration will add support for teachers and building leaders to understand the system.
Lorain Schools also can help parents embrace a more detailed view of student report cards, he said.
And part of the difficulty is tradition: Generations of Lorain alumni are accustomed to receiving grades A through F.
But standards based grading also points to a larger problem in Lorain City Schools, Hardy said.
“We’re in academic distress for a reason and we have to change the ways that we do things,” he said.
Looking at the student grades compared to state and national test results, “our numbers just don’t match,” Hardy said.
“There was a disconnect,” Hardy said. “So I had kids who were getting A’s, who were receiving basic and limited on state tests, and receiving 14 and 15s on ACT scores.
“So, yes, it might be nice to see that A on a report card, but the things that will get our kids into places like college, get them off to strong careers, they’re not meeting the mark,” he said.
Hardy said he hopes to explain the differences in student grades and performance in the weeks and months ahead.
Teachers in school
School building leaders have worked hard to encourage students to come to school, Hardy said.
But on any given day, there can be as many as one in four teachers absent, Hardy said. He said the district has “very high teacher absenteeism rate.”
On school days, Hardy said his email in box is filled with notices about substitute teachers coming to the schools.
“We hear a lot from our kids, ‘I just want my teacher here,’ and that hurts,” he said. “That hurts to hear that. And we want our teachers here. We want our teachers to be great.”
Hardy himself has served as a substitute teacher in the district, an experience he enjoyed.
“They are wonderful,” he said about the students.
But it is a challenge to provide continual and high quality education when schools have a rotation of teachers, he said.
Another recent challenge arose when the administration asked almost 900 employees to complete an engagement survey, but received less than 100 responses, Hardy said.
He said he understands concerns about identifying respondents.
“But it is never our intent to punish someone for giving us their feedback,” he said. “We just need to know how to get better, we want to get better.”
School board relationship
Hardy generally does not attend the meetings of the Lorain School Board, comprised of Tony Dimacchia, Mark Ballard, Yvonne Johnson, Bill Sturgill and Tim Williams.
Dimacchia has been openly critical of Hardy, school district operations and an alleged lack of response to public records requests for information.
Johnson and Sturgill have attended some of Hardy’s monthly Town Hall sessions. The school board members generally stay away from quarterly meetings of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission.
As recently as the Dec. 17 board meeting, the board members again lamented a lack of communication between them and Hardy.
Sturgill, Williams, Johnson and Ballard had a dialogue about what information the board members feel they need to make an informed decision about placing a renewal levy on the ballot.
Johnson said she has had serious communications with Hardy and school administrators because she takes the effort to do so.
But Williams offered a bleak evaluation of the level of public trust in Lorain Schools.
“Right now the conditions in our district and the confidence of people make our levy very, very, very, very questionable,” Williams said. “And normally renewals aren’t that questioned.”
He said a lot of residents are in “wait and see” mode about the district.
“I know this: We have a communication deficit, we lack information that for me personally, that I need to make these assessments, and there’s a huge lack of trust,” Williams said. “That’s a reality that we’re in.”
Broadly, the CEO and school board do communicate largely behind the scenes, Hardy said.
“Hence why I don’t respond to the negativity and promote the politics that I think drive certain individuals’ comments because it doesn’t help our community, it doesn’t help unify our message, it doesn’t help us provide the education necessary for kids and it definitely doesn’t show a level of being a role model for a community who needs leadership, who wants leadership,” he said.
In politics, the national landscape currently has an antagonistic environment, Hardy said, and that has crept into a beautiful community with loving and caring people who have a ton of pride about their schools.
“As I reflect on this year, we have a lot of work to do in building the necessary love and care for each other, and that’s each other as adults and each other as adults and kids and that’s kids and kids, so that we are building together and not breaking down each other,” Hardy said.
For himself and the Lorain City Schools team, Hardy said their hearts are dedicated to making sure the students are successful.
“It is something that I hope people will start to see, even though the decisions that we make are very difficult and may change the circumstances for those that have been a part of the school system for some time,” he said.
Hardy said he hopes Lorain residents will realize “that every decision we make is to improve the educational outcomes for our young people.”