No magic formula

What works for the best TPS schools may not work for the rest; quality and access are both important values


Toledo Public Schools operates some of Ohio’s best-performing schools. Admission to these schools often is academically selective and requires extensive involvement by parents. Their enrollments and class sizes tend to be smaller than those of the district’s neighborhood schools.

These schools regularly earn the highest grades on the state’s annual report card. They offer vital reasons for middle-class families to stay in the district and in the city.

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TPS officials properly strive to maintain these excellent schools. But a new report identifies a potential downside to this success story: The top-rated schools, as measured by student scores on statewide standardized tests, tend to enroll smaller percentages of minority, disabled, and low-income students than the district overall.

That should not detract from their achievement. Still, though, parents, taxpayers, and elected officials need to beware of the facile conclusion that Toledo and other urban districts need do no more than figure out how to apply the secrets of these schools’ success across the system.

The study by the liberal advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio looked at the highest-scoring schools during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years in the state’s eight largest urban districts. In Toledo and the rest of these systems, the report concludes, minority, disabled, and economically disadvantaged students are typically underrepresented in the best-performing schools.

The schools studied in Toledo include seven TPS schools — Toledo Early College High School, Toledo Technology Academy, Start High School, Grove Patterson Academy, Elmhurst Elementary School, Beverly Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Boys — and four charter schools: Toledo School for the Arts, Toledo Preparatory and Fitness Academy, Horizon Science Academy Springfield, and the Maritime Academy of Toledo.

The report notes that the percentage of African-American students at MLK Academy exceeded 90 percent; black students make up about 42 percent of overall TPS enrollment. MLK also enrolled a larger share of disadvantaged students and nearly matched the district’s percentage of disabled students.

But the six other top-performing TPS schools in the study generally lagged the district in its proportions of minority, disabled, and low-income students. So did several of the charter schools, which operate independently of TPS.

Critics routinely assert that the existence of such high-performing schools in struggling urban districts means that these districts merely need to replicate such schools’ “best practices” throughout the system. At the same time, they often insist that smaller class size bears little relation to academic achievement. You can’t have it both ways.

Similarly, such skeptics reject arguments that hard-pressed urban districts require funding adequate to compensate for the obstacles to learning, posed by poverty, that students in these systems face. These districts are responsible for educating all children they enroll, not just the ones who score highest on tests.

TPS can be justifiably proud of its best schools. So can the students, parents, teachers, and administrators at these schools. But the district will also be judged, properly, on how well it serves its least-advantaged students.