Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio


The arithmetic of poverty

A few of the highest-performing elementary schools in northwest Ohio can be found in the sprawling Toledo city school district.

That's a fact school officials take pride in.

And it's a fact that helps boost Toledo's average test scores compared to the average test scores in other urban districts in Ohio.

"Compared with similar large-city districts, our students consistently rank at or near the top in performance on the Ohio Proficiency Tests," the district recently claimed.

But obscured by these higher-performing schools is the dismal performance of schools in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

An analysis of The Blade of Ohio proficiency test scores shows a disturbing level of low performance among Toledo's inner-city schools when compared with other schools across the state that have similar percentages of poor pupils.

Toledo's new superintendent, Dr. Eugene Sanders, said his district needs to be better.

Unlike his predecessor, Dr. Merrill Grant, who butted heads with the powerful teachers' and administrators' unions in Toledo, Dr. Sanders said he is going to collaborate with the unions to change the performance at those schools.

"This kind of data once again brings home the fact there is a clear need for us to identify instructional strategies and appropriate interventions to deal with areas where we have not been achieving as much as we would like," Dr. Sanders said.

He said passage of the 6.5-mill levy on the Nov. 7 ballot is vital to making needed improvements at poor schools.

Starting after the next school year, children who fail the fourth-grade reading exam in Ohio won't be promoted to fifth grade, unless their teacher or principal waives the restriction. The law , increasingly under attack as too harsh, would have resulted in nearly half of Ohio fourth-graders being held back from fifth grade if it were in effect last year.

The Blade used proficiency test scores and free and reduced lunch statistics from the Ohio Department of Education to analyze the performance of more than 2,000 elementary schools in Ohio. The study shows that some schools are overcoming the barriers of poverty by strong leadership, dedicated teaching, and an array of programs.

To analyze Toledo's performance beyond the district's boundaries, The Blade compared low-income schools in Toledo with 400 other low-income schools around the state. About 250 of those schools are in the state's six major urban centers -- Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, and Akron.

Most of the others are in smaller cities, such as East Cleveland, Youngstown, Canton, Sandusky, Fostoria, and Lima. A few are in poor rural districts in southeast Ohio, such as New Lexington.

When compared with the lowest-income elementary schools in Ohio, a few of Toledo's poorest schools are overcoming the odds.

However, many of Toledo's low-income schools do not stack up.

Eight of Toledo's 27 low-income elementary schools ranked in the bottom quarter of similar income schools based on the percentage of fourth graders in those schools passing the state's math and reading proficiency tests.

By contrast, the much-larger and poorer Cleveland school district, which has 79 low-income elementary schools, had only five schools in the bottom quarter. Of Akron's 18 low-income schools, one was in the bottom quarter.

The analysis of 2,002 elementary schools in Ohio shows that to a significant extent a school's reading and math scores can be predicted by the number of poor children at the school qualifying for free and reduced lunch prices, the best available indicator of a school's economic status.

Educators say that poverty correlates closely with test scores because poverty is often associated with conditions that harm children's ability to learn -- broken or abusive homes, poor health and nutrition, and, most importantly, lack of early exposure to reading and learning.

But that is only part of the story.

A school's scores also are affected by the quality of teaching and management of a school.

Dr. Sanders, who took office less than two months ago, has moved quickly to take on the problem of low-performing schools.

As his first major initiative, labeled Project STAR, he named eight elementary schools that he characterized as "low-performing," and said they will be given special attention this year with the goal of raising their test scores.

The district is giving special attention to low-performing schools after four years in which only one school was singled out for attention as underperforming.

The decision was made after district offiicals were shown The Blade's research on underperforming shcools, and after principals and other district officials were questioned about the poor performance of several Toledo elementary schools based on the newspaper analysis.

Larry Sykes, the president of the Toledo board of education, said the board is working on the problem.

He said Old West End Junior High was closed in a round of budget cuts in March largely because of the school's failure to raise proficiency test scores.

Terry Glazer, a school board member who has been critical of the slow pace of reform in the district, said the finding in the newspaper's analysis that Cleveland's low-income schools were doing so much better than Toledo's low-income schools shows that "radical change" is needed.

"Cleveland was in a crisis," he said, referring to the district's financial crisis of 1995 that resulted in the state taking over management of the school district. "When you're in a crisis you do things in a radical way. Incremental changes are not adequate. They realized they are in a crisis situation and they responded in a bigger way."


Leigh Miller (center) arrives to take her daughter, student crossing guard Kenia Quinn, home from Warren Elementary School. A parent whose child has attended Warren since it reopened in near-downtown Toledo in 1995, Ms. Miller says the school's curriculum should reflect the skills tested on Ohio proficiency tests, but it doesn't.


As an urban district with a lot of low-scoring poor schools, Toledo has company:

  • Of Columbus' 50 low-income schools, 16 are in the bottom quarter for math and reading.

  • Seventeen of Cincinnati's 37 low-income schools are in the lowest quarter, as are 10 of Dayton's 29 low-income schools.

    Toledo students may be making up some lost ground as they get older. On last year's sixth and ninth-grade proficiency tests, Toledo had the highest average math and reading proficiency tests of the six urban districts, with 81.1 per cent of ninth graders passing the ninth-grade reading proficiency test and 44 per cent passing the math test.

    In contrast to schools on the low end of the income spectrum, Toledo's higher-income schools mostly performed well in their income category.

    Indeed, Toledo Public Schools had four schools that ranked among the top 25 per cent of all 2,002 schools in Ohio for reading and math test passage scores: Beverly, Harvard, Ottawa River, and Elmhurst.

    Beverly, Harvard, and Ottawa River scored better than any of the elementary schools in the Perrysburg, Sylvania, Springfield, Washington, and Oregon school districts on the reading test, and outperformed all schools in Sylvania and Perrysburg on the math test.

    The Blade's analysis does not paint all of Toledo's lower-income schools with the same broad brush.

    Comparing schools with others in their income bracket shows schools that are doing better than might have been expected, given their poverty level. Sixteen Toledo elementary schools fit that description to varying levels.

    For example:

  • Lincoln Elementary's passage rate on the math test, 25.9 per cent, placed it in the bottom quarter of schools when it was compared to the test passage rates of all 2,002 elementary schools in Ohio. But when its passage rate was compared to the other 400 schools in the state facing similar levels of poverty, Lincoln's math scores jumped into the next-to-highest quarter.

  • Birmingham Elementary in East Toledo made a similar jump, rising from the bottom quarter in reading in the statewide comparison to the second-to-the- highest quarter when compared only with similar income schools. In math, Birmingham rose from the next-to-the-highest quarter -- and above-average statewide ranking -- to the top quarter when compared to other schools of similar incomes.

  • Oakdale Elementary School in East Toledo leapfrogged from the next-to-the-last quarter in math when compared statewide, to the top quarter among low-income schools.

  • And Newbury Elementary in Toled's near South End was one of only 10 low-income schools in Ohio to rank in the top quarter for math test passage rates in the statewide comparison.

    Outside of Toledo Public Schools, only four other area elementary schools rose into a higher performing group in the analysis when compared with other schools in their income category -- Door Street and Holloway elementary schools in Springfield Local, Lake Elementary in Lake Local, and Shoreland Elementary in Washington Local.

    Despite its success stories, seemingly intractable problems exist in Toledo Public Schools.

    The analysis sheds new light on the differences between Toledo's mostly black and poor inner-city schools and its mostly white and middle-class schools in West and South Toledo.

    The Blade analysis found:

  • Of the 18 Toledo elementary schools in which at least half the pupils are African-American, nine were underperforming compared to other similar-income schools in Ohio.

  • Of the 26 Toledo elementary schools in which at least half the pupils are white, only three were underperforming compared to similar income levels in Ohio.

    The lack of academic growth in Toledo's poorest, and mostly African-American, schools in not a surprise in Toledo's black community, which has been pointing to the test scores of white schools and those in the central city for years.

    "If you notice, they will always say we are doing better than all the other urban districts, but they never consider the lower echelon. They just tout that group [of higher-income schools]," said Virginia Haywood-Smith, a retired Toledo teacher who has campaigned for better reading programs in the city schools.

    "They always say we do better than Cleveland, but we aren't doing better than Cleveland. I don't think they expect the children to learn and so they don't teach them like they're going to learn," Mrs. Haywood-Smith said.

    Johnny Mickler, president of the Greater Toledo Urban League, criticized the findings as likely to contribute to "the frenzy that's out there that poor kids can't achieve."

    But he said that success in school results from a combination of resources, in the form of experienced staff and materials, and motivation in the form of making children believe they can succeed. He said he believes schools serving poor families and families of color fail on both scores.

    "I always think services should go to the most needy in the community. We should have our most experienced and best teachers there. Instead, we get the least experienced people," Mr. Mickler said.

    Twila Page, secretary of the African-American Parents Association, claimed teachers -- white or black -- don't want to teach black children.

    "They're going to have to make somebody accountable -- the teacher or the principal," she said. "None of these schools has a reading program that's done across the board. Every teacher does their own thing."

    Liz Watson, the vice president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Scott High School, sounds frustrated when she discusses the shortcomings of the city school district.

    Children are being passed along by teachers who have not done their job, she said.

    "Instead of cram sessions a month before the tests, this is something that needs to be included in the basic curriculum," Mrs. Watson said.

    "We see a ninth-grade kid with fourth-grade skills. How did he get this far? What happened to these teachers?" she said. "We've got some excellent teachers, and we've got some bad teachers; those who are trying to do what it takes in the classroom, and those who just pass them on," Mrs. Watson said.

    "When will the Toledo board of education figure it out?"

    For Cherice Easterly, the mother of a second-grader attended Pickett Elementary in Toledo's central city, a simple phone call might have headed off the reading problem her son is now receiving special attention for.

    Ms. Easterly said her son's language and spelling grade dropped from a B to a D in the last quarter of last year, but she was not notified of the problem until she went to the school in August to get his report card.

    She found out that he has been assigned to a pull-out reading class, based on his reading deficiencies.

    "I had sent a note to the teacher that if there was any problem with my son, call me. I gave three or four different phone numbers, and I didn't receive any response," Ms. Easterly said.

    "I'm glad they put him in it. But I'm not happy with the way he was place in it without my knowing exactly what was going on," Ms. Easterly said.

    Pickett Principal Keith Scott said he could not find out what happened with Ms. Easterly's son because his teacher has left the school. But he said the mother should have received a mid-quarter report and could have gone in the during the three weeks immediately after school ended to get his grade card.

    He acknowledged Pickett's scores were not what they should be. He said the school has gone through a period of high teacher turnover, and that this is only his second year at the school, as well as the second year for his assistant principal, Sandra Ellis.

    "In the past few years there's been a lot of turnover as far as teachers and administration, and it hasn't made for a lot of continuity for the children," said Mr. Scott, whose mother, Ruth Scott, was Toledo Schools superintendent from 1985 to 1990.

    "We're working on new ideas to try and bring more parents into the building on proficiency nights," Mr. Scott said. "We know where we are ranked in the city and statewide, and we don't like that."

    Teachers say they are unfairly castigated for problems they did not cause.

    "Everybody wants to blame the teachers," said Kandy Wagner, a fourth-grade teacher last year at Spring Elementary School. "What about the child's responsibility? What about the parent's responsibility?"

    "We spend probably 90 to 95 per cent of the day on discipline," Ms. Wagner said. "Those kids come from backgrounds in which they are so far behind when they get here. The transiency rate is unbelievable. These are kids who by the time they get here have been to 9 or 10 schools."

    Ms. Wagner said the job facing her and her colleagues would be more achieveable if parents took a more supportive and active role in their children's education.

    She said parents pour energy into helping with activities such as talent nights, Valentine's Day, and Halloween parties. But not enough show up for proficiency nights, equip their children with basic school supplies, or make sure assignments are completed.

    "Kids can't turn their homework in, but if we're planning a field trip, oh my god all those permission slips come right in."

    Other teachers have observed a similar decline in parental responsibility for their children's education.

    Lorraine Kwiatkowski, who retired in the spring after 50 years of teaching in Toledo, said she quit because she was tired of being a policeman and a baby-sitter.

    "Unless we start educating the parents, nothing's going to happen," Miss Kwiatkowski said.

    Activists in the black community see cultural insensitivity in which teachers' criticism of black children's behavior.

    "They start to pounce on everything these children bring with them as a negative," said Lola Glover, who has been director of the Coalition for Quality Education since 1978.

    "Our children are very active in their responses, their attitudes, their behaviors. And the minute one of these kids shoves somebody in playfulness they start getting sent to the office and being labeled as disruptive, when sometimes all it takes is a little understanding, a little nurturing, a little time."

    Margaret Gree, a Toledo Public Schools teacher since 1979 who now teaches at Warren Elementary near downtown, said the lowest-income schools have problems that even moderately low-income schools don't share.

    "It makes a difference if they come to school fed. It makes a difference if they come to school clean. It makes a difference if they come to school, and someone got up to say good-bye."

    At any given moment, Margaret Greer's classroom at Warren Elementary buzzes with activity -- but much of it is from children who are not doing the work they are supposed to be doing.

    Twenty minutes into her class, a girl who was hugging Mrs. Greer a few minutes earlier is now kicking under the desk at a boy who sits opposite. He stands and threatens to retaliate. The girl -- one of the best readers in Mrs. Greer's class -- is made to sit in the time-out chair, a punishment that seems not to faze her.

    As difficult as it is, Mrs. Greer says maintaining order is essential for learning, and she vows to make it work.

    She agrees that cultural differences exist between her upbringing and that of the children she teaches.

    "And that's good. Do we have to help them develop other habits that will help them learn? Yes," she said.

    Leigh Miller, the mother of a child at Warren, said discipline problems and lack of parental involvement are important factors at Warren. But, she said, the school's curriculum and the proficiency tests still don't line up.

    She said the school uses one set of math terms and proficiency test uses another.

    "I've never seen a proficiency test. How can I help my child when I don't know what it looks like?" Ms. Miller asked.

    Her daughter is on the honor roll, but didn't pass the math proficiency test.

    "[Proficiency skill] has to become what they get in school. You have to know how to take the test," Ms. Miller said.

    Casey McKown, a parent of a kindergartener and a second-grader at Edgewater Elementary School, said underperforming schools are a problem of the parents and school board, not the teachers.

    She said teachers have to work in crowded classrooms without enough supplies, such as markers.

    "My daughter's in a class of 27 students and there's no helper for the teacher. It's no wonder those kids are not learning. It's a problem of parents not being involved and the district not giving the schools and the teachers what they need," said Mrs. McKown, who moved to Toledo this year from Nebraska.

    She said the Nebraska school her child attended last year had paraprofessionals in the classroom and weekly newsletters sent home to parents.

    Several national experts, queried about Toledo's test scores, said urban districts that succeed do so by being creative and by exercising building autonomy.

    "Teachers feel disconnected. Families feel alienated," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University in California and the director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

    "It would be useful for the district to look at what you can do to make these schools really good places to teach," Dr. Darling-Hammond said.

    Lawrence Lezotte, a former Michigan State University professor of educational administration and now the president of an educational services company in East Lansing, said inner-city schools fail because the dominant culture ignores their particular needs.

    "The system in place across America was never designed to successfully teach all kids," Dr. Lezotte said. For the most part, the system serves up the same curriculum to every child based on age.

    He said inner-city schools that succeed do so because the principal and the teachers in the building have had the freedom to do things differently.

    Dr. Lezotte said Toledo is a good example of a city where teacher and administration union contracts are so rigid that they resist individual initiative in the schools.

    "The contracts are very tight. What you do is that you tend to suppress anyone jumping out in front of the pack," Dr. Lezotte said.

    For one thing, veteran teachers are virtually exempt from performance evaluations by school principals.

    Under the union contract, teachers who are up for renewal of their individual teaching contracts may be observed in class by the principal only once, on a prearranged basis, for a period of between 20 and 55 minutes.

    And teachers who have received a permanent teaching certificate from the state may not be observed for evaluation purposes at all, without the prior approval of the teachers' union.

    Former Superintendent Grant once estimated that 40 per cent of Toledo teachers were exempt from all normal evaluation.

    The contract also rigidly controls where teachers may be assigned and transferred.

    Dr. Grant, on several occasions, vowed dramatic action to make schools perform better.

    Three years ago, he said he would consider "reconstituting" underperforming schools by replacing all the staff in a school.

    The closest the district has gotten to reconstituting a school is when it was forced by the failure of a tax levy on March 7 to close at least one school. Dr. Grant chose Old West End Junior High School because of its low enrollment and because of a history of low proficiency scores.

    Dr. Sanders has not threatened to reconstitute schools -- even those targeted as low-performing. He said he believes such drastic steps won't be necessary.

    The school district has a process for identifying underperforming schools and turning them around. It requires the superintendent and the presidents of the teachers' and principals' unions to meet as the district's "school improvement committee" and agree on a solution -- not an easy process when the trust level was as low as it was between Dr. Grant and the union presidents.

    Until this year, the process has been implemented only once -- at Mount Vernon Elementary on North Byrne Road.

    The effort -- in which $50,000 was spent on additional staff, tutoring, and meeting time for teachers -- made a dramatic difference.

    In one year, Mount Vernon's fourth-grade reading test passage rate rose from 34 per cent in 1999 to 41 per cent in 2000, and its math scores rose from 11 per cent to 29 per cent. The number of children passing all five of the state's proficiency tests leaped from zero to 14 per cent.

    Francine Lawrence, the president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, said the union signed an agreement to take dramatic action at underperforming schools, but Dr. Grant refused for more than a year to sign the document.

    Mrs. Lawrence said the district's previous management was slow to implement curriculum alignment.

    She said the teachers' union supports the emphasis by Dr. Sanders on underperforming schools -- as long as the money is available to get the job done.

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