Superintendent David James delivered to the Akron Press Club on Thursday a message of opportunity in his State of the Akron Public Schools speech, his sixth in as many years as the district’s chief.
James challenged educational norms of “drill-and-kill” testing, misleading new report cards and state mandates that stifle creativity and opportunity.
During his speech, he unveiled the district’s improved website, touted the expansion of post-secondary options and showcased the successes of some schools, which unlike suburban counterparts must overcome extreme poverty.
Among the successes is Akron Early College High School, a Blue Ribbon winner with first-generation college-going students. James thanked the school’s staff and the support of the University of Akron. He also mentioned that through strong partnerships with UA, Lorain County Community College and Stark State College, high school enrollment in college courses has more than tripled since last year, with the number of college credit hours expected to grow tenfold.
James also talked of the district’s challenges.
Enrollment continues to fall. Once hosting more than 30,000 students, James warned that enrollment could dip below 19,000 in a few years, should current trends hold steady.
Fluctuating state funding and competition from school choice — mainly open enrollment and charter schools — cloud long-term financial forecasts. The lack of certainty also challenges planning for the last phase of a $800 million buildings makeover. Twenty-eight schools have been finished; initial bids on the combined Litchfield/Firestone project are $9 million over budget; King Elementary should open this fall after delays; and roughly a dozen more projects, including a yet-to-be-announced high school, are either underway or in planning.
James also addressed a slew of state mandates.
Many of the mandates give consternation to educators as the district follows through with a new method of evaluating teachers and principals, reacts to revamped A-to-F report cards (unfolding in piecemeal) and shifts millions of dollars in resources to a Third Grade Reading Guarantee that threatens to retain hundreds of students. The district has invested $3 million this school year to meet online testing requirements, which might or might not be pushed back a year as the Ohio legislature toys with the deadline.
“I don’t know about you,” James said in the opening minutes of his hourlong speech, “but to have a job where you just went through training to learn a whole new set of rules, only to come back to work looking at yet another new set of rules can be difficult, if not frustrating. But this is the reality in education today.”
James gave unscripted responses in a 30-minute question-and-answer session after the speech. He reveled an education philosophy that supports year-round learning, a traditional high school education ending after 10th grade and a concerted push to get students into at least a community college by the time they can drive.
“The high school diploma today is meaningless,” he said, noting that drastically changing the length of the school year or moving to a K-10 system would be nearly impossible to accomplish because of the state’s prescribed methods.
“I’ve met with legislators, testified in Columbus on different things. And they are open to some ideas,” James said, “but a lot of time politics gets in the way.”
Two changes he would welcome, either in the governor’s State of the State address in Medina on Feb. 24 or through legislation, would be flexibility and a way to independently fund charter schools.
James’ request for the flexibility to offer opportunities and not be tied down by prescribed curriculum and data-driven tests received applause from the crowd of 230 people — the largest to hear James deliver his annual address — that included school board members, educators, business people and representatives from the offices of Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
“It’s sad,” James said of pervasive testing. “There’s a saying in education: You ‘drill and kill.’
“It’s really [about] mastery. It’s giving students the opportunity to learn content ... But it’s also giving them the opportunity to apply it. Because we have students that learn differently. That’s kind of the falsehood of just constantly testing a kid.
“Yeah, so they can take a test. But can they do something productive?”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.