If you’re the top education official in Ohio, and you want to find a top-notch charter school, the Toledo School for the Arts is probably a good start.
The school in the Uptown district has received top marks by the state seven years in a row. It does so using a blend of intensive arts programs and traditional coursework, often times integrating the two, such as a mural arts project combined with graphing from a math class. It’s one of the few arts-focused public schools in Ohio.
So Richard Ross, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction, toured the school Wednesday after a stop at Bowling Green State University, where by chance both he and TSA director Martin Porter had stints about 30 years ago. Mr. Porter led him on the tour, showing him signed Crystal Bowersox photos and crowing about the school’s first graduate to be accepted into the Juilliard School.
There are dance studios, music recording studios, screen-printing stations, and theater stages, tucked between computer labs, math classrooms, and a guidance office. As Mr. Porter pointed out highlights of the building, Mr. Ross asked about how classes are structured, what techniques are used, areas in which the state could help.
Wednesday was schedule-pickup day for students, so there was an unusual buzz in the building for a summer day. Student Alex Kunzler told Mr. Ross she finds the school more accepting of students who are awkward or unique. Parent Jessica Kerger said having a child at TSA has been “a great experience.”
The school has grown from about 125 kids to a projected enrollment of 675 students this year. It is undergoing another expansion, leasing an additional 5,000 square feet on the second floor at 333 14th St.
It’s an example of how a good charter works: fill a learning environment that’s lacking yet desired and create a successful culture. Not every charter school meets that formula. In Toledo, there are dozens of charter schools, but many score at or below those in Toledo Public Schools. Yet Mr. Ross is firmly in the school-choice camp, although he thinks the state can do better.
“There’s some resistance to community schools out there, which surprises me after all these years,” he said.
For him, it’s about focusing on school quality. While the state can close failing charter schools, it has less authority to screen schools that open, something he said he hopes to change.
The state is starting an experiment called the third-grade reading guarantee. Students who score low on state third-grade reading exams will be retained, at least in reading courses.
Mr. Ross argues it will work because students in middle-school grades who have little or no hope for their future drop out at high rates. Much of that negative outlook, he says, is because they can’t read, don’t succeed in school, and are advanced from grade to grade despite their failures.
Research, however, shows holding back young children is one of the more traumatic experiences they can have and might be detrimental. In a 2006 study, Shane Jimerson, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology, concluded after a study with sixth-grade students that only losing a parent or going blind were more stressful.
Few states have tried the concept for an extended time, and experts say it’s hard to prove results are tied to any one strategy. In many ways, the move is an experiment built on a hypothesis, much the same way the choice movement was.
As with any experiment, there’s a range of results once tested. With its seven-year streak of top marks from the state, it’s hard to argue the Toledo School for the Arts is anything but a success.