With nearly all Summit Countyís school districts rated excellent or higher on Ohio report cards, why hasnít the Akron Public Schools budged from Continuous Improvement, a C, in six years? Is the district capable of preparing students to compete well for college and career placements? Such questions are posed by residents, and not just parents with children in the schools.

School officials concede it has been a struggle to move the mass of students and the district into the Excellent column ó to accelerate progress beyond such pockets of excellence as Miller South, the STEM school, the International Baccalaureate program and the Akron Early College High School. Worth emphasizing are strategic changes that are laying a firmer foundation across all grades for college and career readiness.

One encouraging example is the attention to turning around the lowest-performing schools, a focus that has attracted $3.2 million in federal School Improvement Grants. The district is extending to other schools proven classroom strategies, including project-based learning, that have been highly effective in the STEM school.

A big disadvantage for districts with large numbers of low-income families that have little to no tradition of college attendance is that many students lack information about how to get on the postsecondary track. For that reason, the Akron district also has made a strong commitment to ensure all students are familiar with the ACT. The college-entrance tests not only open access to colleges nationwide but also enable comparisons of performance across districts and states.

Unusual among local districts, Akron offers the full suite of ACT tests, free of charge to students, the costs funded in part with grants from the federal Race to the Top program. Eighth- and ninth-graders start with the ACT-EXPLORE assessment, take the ACT-PLAN in the 10th grade and complete the series with the ACT test, which is mandatory for all 11th- and 12th-graders in the district. All high schools in the city are designated testing sites for the ACT, which makes the tests accessible.

Districts move up and down Ohioís ratings scale every year. Akron has remained a stable C for six years while others have slipped into academic danger zones. Most encouraging is the way the district isnít settling, adopting strategies with the goal in mind of ranking among the high achievers.