Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James gave his fifth annual “State of the Schools” address Thursday, detailing challenges stemming from the governor’s school funding plan, declining enrollment, an urban community that might lack essential student supports and the need to discipline students in a thoughtful and fair manner.
“It’s faced us to realize that we have to improve our game,” James told an audience of more than 200 guests at the Martin University Center on the University of Akron campus at the Akron Press Club event.
That “game” consists of a network of parochial and charter schools in the Akron area that draw kids out of the public district and take state funding with them.
“We’re now thinking about competition more than ever before,” James said in a round of public questioning following his speech.
James said that with the uncertainty of Gov. John Kasich’s budget looming, his staff is swamped with state mandates and initiatives: new teacher and principal evaluations, national assessments, a school ranking system that applies letter grades to each district and a Third Grade Guarantee that would force some students to repeat third-grade reading.
“Our staff is really getting to a point of overload,” he said.
James acknowledged that last year’s issues of more rigorous content standards, holding educators accountable and “most important, graduating students who are college and career ready,” still linger.
To address that last lingering issue, the district has implemented ACT testing in all high schools. Relationships with local universities, including UA, Stark State College and Lorain County Community College, allow for advanced courses where students can gain college credits in high school at a fraction of the college price.
“In essence, we seek to graduate better-prepared students who possess the skills and experience necessary to be successful in continuing their education journey,” James said, adding that proceeds from the sale of Central-Hower High School would fund post-secondary opportunities for up to 50 graduates each year through the newly formed “Innovation Grant Scholarship” program.
For students seeking employment straight out of high school, James seeks to expand on career-based courses to incorporate offerings like horticulture or others related to the oil and gas industry.
“These dreams take vision, collaboration, commitment and, yes, funding,” he said.
This year, James is busy funding online-only tests associated with new, national content standards, also know as Common Core, and, “We’re not even equipped for that.”
James and his staff plan to purchase computers and software, as well as expand the district’s Internet capabilities, over the next two years to prepare for online testing toward the end of the 2013-14 school year.
The superintendent also addressed behavior issues among Akron students.
He cited that 90 percent of the district’s students have no disciplinary infractions. The district still lagged the state’s largest urban districts in terms of overall disciplinary actions in the 2010-11 school year, according to a Beacon Journal analysis. Akron also issued out-of-school suspensions at a rate nearly three times higher than the state average.
James countered those findings by saying that suspension rates have decreased over the past three years because of strategies focused on improving the school climate. He also said that Akron, like many other urban centers, faces unique challenges linked to its demographics.
He acknowledged that more could be done to help students with social and emotional needs.
“If anything, we need more alternative programs that can provide the support that they need. Maybe it’s not a novel idea, but students who struggle academically or have behavior problems, maybe they need more school versus less,” James said.
Following the speech, board President Jason Haas said the district would assemble a committee this year to explore ways to lessen the time and number of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
James voiced a need to partner with social organizations and the juvenile justice system to tackle social issues prevalent in urban settings like Akron.
“I do have concerns about students who cause disruptions in learning; however, I am not willing to purchase their tickets for a ride on the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ ” he said.
James also fielded questions on Akron’s declining enrollment and an ongoing effort to “right-size” the district by eliminating or combining buildings.
Enrollment sits at 22,005 students after dropping 22 percent in the past decade. Though school officials say the rapid decline has slowed, the Ohio School Facilities Commission projects that the district will be suitable for 20,137 students enrolled by the end of the construction program in the 2017-18 school year.
James said he would unveil the final stage of the district’s construction overhaul program in the coming months. Those plans could include more building closures, coupled with expected reductions in staff.
“If that’s what the community wants,” James said, “then we’re going to get smaller.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.