August 16 marked the first day of school for the thousands of children who attend the Dayton Public Schools (DPS). They returned to a district with a new superintendent, but many old problems. Regrettably, Dayton is at the end of a five-year strategic plan that barely moved the needle on the city’s dismal track record for student achievement. In 2014–15, DPS was the lowest-performing of Ohio’s 610 public school districts. That distinction should make Dayton’s citizens cringe.
Superintendent Rhonda Corr—who knows Cleveland well but is new to the Gem City—was given only a one-year contract by the board of education. That’s not enough time to accomplish much beyond figuring out what needs fixing. She’ll need to determine why so few of Dayton’s young people are learning enough to put themselves on track for success in later life.
She may find something nobody has ever spotted before, but previous diagnoses of Dayton’s education woes have uncovered plenty of problems. Some of them are outside the school system’s immediate control, such as the tragic challenge of multi-generational poverty. Others, though, are endemic to the district itself, including a stubborn bureaucracy, eleven different bargaining units, high rates of truancy, and huge numbers of suspensions in the seventh and eighth grades.
Dayton has undertaken numerous efforts to turn the situation around, including the aforementioned strategic plan, DPS’s Contract with the Community, a Theory of Action with all the right buzzwords, Neighborhood Schools, a robust list of community partners, and the mayor’s City of Learners initiative, to name a few. The Council for the Great City Schools has conducted “peer reviews” of DPS at least twice, in 2002 and in 2008. In 2013, the district bravely took a close look at its teacher policies with the help of the National Council on Teacher Quality. The resulting report, Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Teacher Policies and Practices in the Dayton Public Schools, contained over twenty findings that paved the way for some overdue changes in school staffing. These included greater principal autonomy, revised procedures for reductions in force, and the establishment of new committees to work on professional development, tenure, and compensation. (Reading up on this history should be at the top of Superintendent Corr’s to-do list!)
None of these reports and plans have been enough to reboot DPS, which is now in line for a state takeover in 2018 unless student achievement improves dramatically. (See here for a comprehensive report from the Ohio Department of Education outlining the district’s challenges.) So Superintendent Corr plainly has her work cut out for her. While it may seem overwhelming, here are some suggestions she might consider:
- Request a performance audit from Auditor of State Dave Yost. These audits—available to all Ohio districts—identify areas of cost savings; Dayton hasn’t had one since 1998. DPS should put the money saved into rebooting its lowest-performing schools.
- Provide adequate training, management, and support for leaders. This critical piece of infrastructure was identified as the number-one challenge regarding leadership, governance, and communication (here at page 21). The district needs to clarify roles and functions, provide training, and balance workloads. If it can’t keep good leaders and develop sustainable succession plans, we can’t possibly expect anything to improve.
- Staff high-needs schools for success and pilot at least two turnarounds. This recommendation is borrowed in part from Teacher Quality Roadmap. DPS has talented school leaders and teachers. To accomplish it, the district must (a) assemble teams to turn around the two lowest-performing DPS schools; (b) identify school leaders and teachers with several years of success in their respective roles; (c) give the principal freedom to lead the process so that the teams are cohesive, committed, and mission-aligned; (d) study turnaround strategies to identify which one is right for the building and its students and families; (e) pay the team more because they’re taking on more; (f) build in systems for growth into leadership roles, succession, and substantive professional development; and (g), if successful, replicate!
- Closely review curricula and implementation, as well as current testing practices. The DPS website touches on many topics but, amazingly, doesn’t address what’s being used in the classrooms or whether it is being implemented effectively. There’s also lots of information about the state’s new academic standards (a.k.a. Common Core), but putting them into practice has proven challenging.
- Actively monitor family engagement in each building and use it as a measure of school health. The National Parent Teacher Association has found—of course—that students do better when their families are engaged. Engagement means more than open houses, a holiday performance, and a few conferences here and there. Rather, it has to include the proactive engagement of parents, guardians, relatives, caregivers, and students on the individual level of home visits and phone calls. Developing relationships is essential.
DPS already has a lofty and appropriate mission statement: “Equip our students to achieve success in a global society by implementing an effective and rigorous curriculum with fidelity.” The new superintendent’s job—and all people of good will must wish her success and assist her in every way possible—is to begin to make that a reality for Dayton’s children.