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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2012

TPS’ challenge will get tougher without new tax

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

This wasn’t the October surprise that Toledo Public Schools wanted.

Even as TPS is pleading with voters to approve a big tax increase this fall, school leaders are scrambling to explain why a new state-issued report card has downgraded the district’s rating for the first time in five years. TPS fell from “continuous improvement” to “academic watch” — the equivalent of dropping to a mark of D from a C.

That has given the usual anti-tax suspects, who weren’t going to support the levy request anyway, another excuse to argue that providing new revenue to TPS would merely throw good money after bad.

But Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko hopes that more open-minded voters will allow the district to make its case — that the launch of its transformation plan last year, after causing initial disruption, has created a foundation for permanent improvement.

“We made major moves — retirements, displacing teachers, moving students to new schools, a third of our administrators in new positions,” Mr. Pecko told me last week. “That’s huge. We’re stepping into new territory, and some folks didn’t make the adjustment. We knew there was the potential to take a step backwards, and unfortunately we did.

“We’re looking for significant, ongoing change,” he says. “We want this year to be a year of stability and growth. I hope the public will look at the big picture.”

Mr. Pecko notes that the district’s performance index, which measures how TPS students do on standardized tests, didn’t fall enough to cause the downgrade. Instead, the school system dropped a notch because for three years in a row, it failed to show sufficient “added value” — a measure of how much the district, a school, or an individual teacher contributes to students’ annual improvement on tests.

The district’s transformation plan aims to link evaluations of teachers and principals more closely to such improvement. Mr. Pecko says the plan also has elevated the district’s rates of student attendance and yearly retention.

There’s other good news on the report card. Math and science scores are up among seventh and eighth graders. Several of the district’s schools — Early College High School, Toledo Technology Academy, Elmhurst Elementary, Grove Patterson Academy — continue to compare favorably with any other public school in Ohio.

In just two years, Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Boys, which enrolls mostly low-income students, has risen from a rating of “academic emergency” to “excellent.” That’s like a student at risk of flunking out as a sophomore becoming a straight-A performer in his senior year.

Still, more than one-third of TPS students don’t graduate on time, if ever. Nearly 40 percent of the district’s 23,000 students perform at just a basic or limited level. Many of them attend the 18 district schools — up from 16 last year — that the state has identified as in academic emergency or on academic watch.

Mr. Pecko concedes that TPS needs to do a lot more to help these students succeed. “They are our primary focus, and we’re applying our resources to the ones we’re trying to bring up,” he says. Defeat of the levy would deprive the district of many of those resources, he adds.

Without making excuses, the superintendent says that the “safe, contained environment” TPS aims to provide its students in the classroom often isn’t replicated at home. Parents aren’t always present, much less engaged in their children’s education.

“How do we eradicate some of the struggles they are having?” Mr. Pecko says. “I won’t say we can’t do it, but it’s a challenge.”

Sister Virginia Welsh understands the challenge. A member of the Tiffin Franciscans, Sister Virginia is pastoral leader of St. Martin de Porres Roman Catholic Church, the Toledo diocese’s official African-American parish, and executive director of the Padua Center, a central-city ministry and outreach center.

In these roles, she works with students who face suspension from some of TPS’ poorly performing schools, such as Pickett and Robinson. She and her colleagues provide help with homework, coaching, counseling, and peace education, along with lunch and playtime activities.

“We help socialize these children and keep the standard high, but they have a lot of issues — poverty, poor health, poor diet,” she told me. “They don’t get enough food. Much of their behavior is related to worry, a lack of support.”

Urban school districts such as TPS must cope with these obstacles, which the recession has aggravated, before they can begin to teach many of their students. Such matters don’t get factored into a single letter grade on a report card.

Usually, the state Department of Education distributes its report cards around the start of the school year. This year, though, it delayed the release until last week — smack in the middle of the TPS levy campaign — because of a state investigation of several Ohio districts that removed the test scores of chronically truant students from the data they gave the state to assemble the report cards. That practice artificially inflated the districts’ grades.

TPS is one of these districts — another blow to its image. Mr. Pecko deserves credit for ending the practice last summer, soon after he says he learned about it, and voluntarily blowing the whistle on his own district. He says the elimination of score-scrubbing didn’t contribute to this year’s downgrade.

Voters ought to appreciate that kind of transparency, because they don’t see much of it in local government. Whether they will reward it at the polls is another matter.

TPS faces long odds. Over the past five years, voters across Ohio have turned down more than two-thirds of school districts’ requests for new money. Toledo voters rejected two levy requests in 2010.

Yet Toledoans who are looking for reasons to support the TPS tax this year might want to hear from people in the trenches, such as Sister Virginia.

She says: “I don’t know how putting money toward education is ever wasted.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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