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Published: 12/27/2004

Area classrooms are taking cues from boardrooms

BY RACHEL ZINN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In the often-chaotic world of third grade, students in Bethany Merz's class at Toth Elementary School in Perrysburg have carved out a clear mission.

It's posted on the wall in big letters: "At Toth School we read, learn, behave, and have fun!"

Also on the wall is a colorful bar graph that shows how many students have completed their homework each day. It hangs beside a sign that says the classroom goal is for 25 out of 27 students to turn in homework 10 out of 15 school days in December.

"The students know why they are here," Ms. Merz said. "The mission statements and goals are something concrete that they can embrace."

Toth Elementary is one of a growing number of northwest Ohio schools adopting business practices - establishing mission statements and analyzing data - to improve classroom results.

More than 40 percent of Ohio's 612 school districts are setting goals and studying performance data as called for in the Baldrige system, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Participating local districts include Perrysburg, Rossford, Springfield Local, Toledo Public, and Lima City schools.

The Baldrige system, developed in the 1980s, is named for former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige. It originally aimed to improve the quality of goods and services provided by American businesses.

In the 1990s, educators around the country began adapting the system to improve schools.

Ohio was one of the first states to promote the use of the Baldrige principles of incorporating mission statements and data collection into daily classroom activities.

"The philosophy is to begin to take a look at hard data, analyze that data, and then use it for school improvement," said Cynthia Beekley, superintendent of Springfield Local Schools, where about 75 percent of teachers use Baldrige methods. "It forces us to really know what's going on and try to improve."

Several area educators said the best part of the program is getting students involved with charting their own progress.

At Harvard Elementary School in the Toledo Public Schools, teachers and administrators looked at state standards for what students should learn in each grade level and turned them into simple statements so students can track how many standards they meet.

For example, kindergartners who can count to 20 put a sticker beside that skill on their standards sheet.

"It's so great that the students can see they're learning," Harvard Elementary Principal Sharon Ulrich said.

Some teachers require students to keep data folders that contain charts on everything from spelling test scores to how much time the student spent reading each evening.

Another strategy is called a "plus, delta, Rx chart." At the end of each day, students collaborate on completing a table that lists the good things about the day, the bad things they want to change, and prescriptions for making the positive changes.

"This technique has turned my classroom around. The children are being more reflective on our day," said Amy Whitacre, a first-grade teacher at Toth Elementary. "It has helped me see what the students deem important."

Many area educators say it is too early to tell if these business principles are helping improve student performance on standardized tests. But some say they are seeing results.

Since Lima City Schools started using these strategies two years ago, the district has moved from academic emergency to academic watch. Karel Oxley, the district's superintendent, said these methods were instrumental in the improvement.

"When students see that their little piece helps the entire class reach a goal, it puts a lot of positive peer pressure on them," she said.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, districts that use Baldrige methods have a better average performance index score - a calculation based on students' proficiency test scores.

For the 2003-04 school year, the average of the performance index scores for all districts using Baldrige practices was 87.9, which is 3.4 points higher than the average score for districts not using these methods.

"A Baldrige-based systems approach will continue to be our long-term strategy for continuous improvement," said J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

But some educators believe these strategies are a passing fad.

Many districts, including Toledo Public Schools, have been reluctant to require teachers to attend workshops on the topic and instead let each school building decide whether to use Baldrige practices.

Ms. Merz at Toth Elementary admits that finding time to use these methods can be a strain on teachers struggling to help students meet state standards.

"It does take time, but if you're willing to invest the time, it pays off," she said. "It makes the children more effective."

The Ohio Department of Education began giving out grants in 2000 to train teachers on Baldrige methods.

Rossford schools was among a handful of pilot schools in Ohio that started using them.

"We found that teachers needed a hands-on way to implement Baldrige in the classroom," said Tricia Hastings, curriculum director at Rossford schools.

In the last few years, several private companies and nonprofit educational groups around the state have offered "quality in education" workshops for teachers and administrators on specific ways to bring business practices into the classroom.

Teachers from several northwest Ohio school districts, including Rossford, Perrysburg, and Lima, have attended workshops run by the Tri-County Educational Service Center in Wooster, Ohio. In all, the service center has helped teachers from about 170 school districts.

"The Ohio Department of Education is stretched so thin and has limited resources, so they sometimes can't fulfill what teachers need on a local basis. That's our role," said Ed Swartz, superintendent of the educational service center.

The center pays Jerry Marshall, an educational consultant, an annual salary of $70,000 to organize workshops around the state.

School districts pay for the workshops to cover costs of materials and stipends for educators who teach the seminars. A standard daylong workshop for a small group of teachers costs about $3,500.

The educational service center has made up to a $30,000 annual profit from the workshops in the last few years, Mr. Swartz said. The money is used to support other programs the center offers.

The group offered its first workshop earlier this month to teachers from several charter schools sponsored by the Lucas County Educational Service Center. Tom Baker, superintendent of the Lucas County Educational Service Center, said more workshops are planned for next year.

"The majority of our people have really bought into this idea and are excited about it," he said.

Contact Rachel Zinn at: rzinn@theblade.com or 419-410-5055.



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