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Akron Public Schools try to win back students

By admin Published: January 5, 2012

Leggett elementary, located a few blocks from the Summit County Jail, serves some of the poorest kids in Akron.

The school boasts an ''Effective'' rating on the latest state report cards and a new school building, but Principal Philomena Vincente still faces competition from charter schools.

''There was even somebody out here in the fall who was on the street corner passing out literature [saying], 'Call this number, you can get your kid into school, get a free computer.' So a couple of my parents brought it in,'' Vincente said. ''They wanted to know what it was and they said, 'Mrs. Vincente, they're bad-mouthing you out here.'?''

Vincente writes letters to all the parents in her neighborhood who have chosen a charter school instead of Leggett and follows up with invitations throughout the year to attend events.

Her efforts reflect a district-wide campaign to win back students who have gone to charter schools or have taken the state's EdChoice Scholarship Program vouchers to attend private schools. The district, which has about 23,000 students attending its schools, has much to gain if it can win back some of the nearly 4,000 students who attend charter schools or private schools with a voucher.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately operated; EdChoice vouchers are available for children who attend poorly performing public schools. State aid for all students goes to the school districts, which then must transfer money for the students who attend non-district schools.

Akron is on track to transfer about $24.7 million this school year in state aid for charter school students and $2.7 million for about 700 children receiving vouchers.

The district recently sent mailers to 6,000 homes of families that withdrew to attend charter or private schools and families that are eligible for a voucher because of the poor performance of their neighborhood school.

The mailer includes a 12-page brochure highlighting district specialty and vocational programs and an open enrollment application along with a return envelope. The open enrollment period, which began Wednesday and ends Feb. 3, allows students to enroll in a different district school than the one assigned to them.

''Last year we had a few hundred students who returned applications as a result of the mailer,'' district communications manager Leah Nemeth said. ''Not all were placed due to space limitations at a particular school, or other reasons, but the return rate was extremely successful.''

The mailing costs about $6,000, a little more than the basic-aid amount of money the district transfers for each student attending a charter school.

Attracting charter students

The district also has reacted to specific opportunities to reach charter school students.

When the state ordered one of Akron's oldest charter schools, Lighthouse Academy, to close by June 30 of this year because of poor academic performance on the latest report card, the district pounced with a personal invitation from Akron Superintendent David James.

''We connected to each one of those students via a handwritten letter from David James,'' said Carla Sibley, the district's community relations director. ''We jumped on it early, right after the results came out.''

The state also put 15 other charter schools, including Romig Road Community School in Akron, on notice they could be closed if their report cards don't improve next year.

Romig Road Community School is one of the largest charter elementary schools in the state. It's operated by Virginia-based Imagine Schools, one of the largest for-profit charter school management companies in America.

James sent hand-signed postcards to Imagine parents, too, after the report card release. Both Lighthouse and Imagine parents are included in the most recent open enrollment mailing.

Leggett elementary enrolled 16 children this year who previously had attended charter schools, said Vincente, the school's principal.

''Most of them were Imagine [kids],'' Vincente said. ''Some of them were afraid Imagine is going to close. Some of them did not like their test scores when they were at Imagine.''

One of those children is second-grader William Alexander.

''He never went to Akron Public Schools before,'' said William's mother, LaTonya Alexander. ''He went to Lighthouse first and then he went to Imagine. I wasn't happy with either one. He had behavioral issues at Imagine, and I got a phone call every day for something, which I don't understand because as soon as we moved him to Leggett, I haven't had a problem. I haven't [gotten] a call.''

Vincente said she hasn't had any behavior problems with William, who is doing well academically at Leggett.

''He hasn't shown them here at all. Not in the least,'' Vincente said. ''Nice little boy. We're glad to have him.''

She said the school spends the first few weeks establishing relationships and a team spirit that helps keep behavior in check.

''We wanted them to feel like they were a part of something,'' Vincente said of the former charter school kids. ''You're a Leggett tiger now. This is how a Leggett tiger behaves. This is how a Leggett tiger does homework. This is how a Leggett tiger walks in the hall, just to show them what their expectations are. Because some of these kids that are coming from charter schools haven't had as much structure as we hope to have here.''

''Safe learning environment'' is first on the list of 10 reasons to attend Leggett that Vincente gives to parents of charter school students. Another reason on the Top 10 list is the perfect attendance incentive: a new bicycle.

''I can't offer them a computer, but I can offer them a bike if they're here every day and on time,'' Vincente said.

Local competition

Private school principals also are beating the bushes for students who qualify for EdChoice Scholarship Program vouchers.

''We've had very proactive principals go door to door in their neighborhood with fliers and personally invite parents to explore what they offer at their schools,'' said Sarah Pechan, director of community programs for School Choice Ohio, an advocate for voucher programs.

Akron students using EdChoice vouchers attend 23 area private schools.

The biggest recipient of EdChoice money is Emmanuel Christian Academy with 112 students using vouchers worth $476,000, followed by St. Bernard-St. Mary School with 105 students.

The EdChoice Scholarship amount is currently $4,250 for elementary school students and $5,000 for high school students or the private school's tuition, whichever is lower.

This year, children attending 10 public schools in Akron were eligible to receive vouchers because of their neighborhood building's low rating on state report cards; children at an additional five schools also became eligible under a change in the law that expanded the vouchers to any school in the bottom 10 percent of the state based on test scores.

Students in private schools do not take those state tests, making a side-by-side comparison with failing public schools impossible.

Pechan said Akron is particularly notable for efforts to spread the word about the vouchers because one parent, Erica Brown, has organized an annual fair to share information about the program. This year's fair will be at the Akron-Summit County Public Library's main branch in downtown Akron, from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 22. This year, she hopes to invite charter schools, district schools and private schools.

''When I learned about EdChoice, I was at a store overhearing someone's conversation about a scholarship program for kids to go to a private school for free,'' Brown said. ''I thought maybe I could do something bigger.''

Family explores options

Her children, in third grade and fifth grade, attend Chapel Hill Christian School's North Campus.

''I used to go to Chapel Hill when I was younger, and I always wanted my children to be able to go, but we couldn't afford to send them,'' Brown said.

Brown's neighborhood school is Schumacher elementary in West Akron. The school is not on the EdChoice eligibility list this year, but it was when the children obtained their first vouchers, which can be renewed regardless of whether the assigned public school improves as long as the family still lives in the district.

Brown used the district's open enrollment process for her oldest daughter, Faith Brown, to attend Litchfield middle school. Her daughter competes with the Riverfront YMCA Gym Angels gymnastics team in Cuyahoga Falls. Many of her teammates will be attending Stow-Munroe Falls High School, so she's thinking about that as an option.

She could try to enroll at Firestone High School, but Stow-Munroe Falls High has more of what she wants, she said.

''In Firestone, they don't have a gymnastics team, but they have an orchestra,'' Faith said. ''I know most of my friends in my gymnastics, so I could be with them and still be on the team and be on orchestra there.''

Akron attracts almost 500 students from other districts through open enrollment, but loses about 1,500 to other districts.

Districts periodically have to promote themselves at election time. Akron will try in March to pass a 5.9-mill levy.

But the battle to persuade parents, who have more choices than in the past, is constant.

The Leggett principal said persistence makes the difference, even if it's not always successful.

''I have got a family across the street here that home-schools their kids,'' Vincente said. ''I go over every year and talk to her. She was going to send them when we got the new building, but then her husband won't let her send them.

''You've just got to go out in the neighborhood a little bit. Make yourself available.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.

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