Stories from The Ohio 8

The Melting Pot of North High School: Helping immigrant students and their families successfully transition to the United States by setting expectations and providing support to overcome unique challenges

If the United States of America is referred to as a cultural “melting pot” because it welcomes people from many different countries, then the same could be said of North High School in Akron. At North, nearly half of the 810 students in grades 9-12 are non-native English speakers who are successfully learning English as a second language.

At any given time, students at North speak between 16 and 18 distinct languages, driven primarily by North’s proximity to the International Institute of Akron, which resettles refugees and provides services to immigrants. Many of the students either have had inconsistent schooling in their country of origin or have attended school in refugee camps that didn’t offer quality teachers or curriculum. Despite the fact these students come to North without the benefit of eight or nine years of consistent, quality education, they enroll in high-school level courses and work hard to meet Ohio’s graduation requirements.

Despite the rigorous academic demands and unique challenges these children face, they are eager to learn and ready to work hard, and it is Principal Rachel Tecca’s job to ensure the children and their families have the support they need to succeed.

“Imagine having to take Algebra I, but your math instruction ended in fifth or sixth grade. These students have to make a connection to deep learning, in addition to learning a new language,” Ms. Tecca says. “These students are capable and bright, but that’s a huge challenge for them. These are amazing kids who have so much potential, and our teachers have to keep pushing hard to make sure they have good outcomes.”

For Ms. Tecca, that means building interventions for all the students, customizing curriculum to meet their special needs, helping to facilitate a network of friends, and supporting teachers to innovate their teaching methods to meet students’ diverse needs.

North High students who are learning English receive 150 minutes of English immersion instruction a day. When students develop solid English skills, they are placed into a general classroom with their English-speaking peers. To improve their math prerequisite skills, they have two periods of math per day. To build friendships among the ELL students and the native-English-speaking students, North is piloting a two-week-long book study. The students will read a book called “Outcast United,” about a small town in Georgia, a refugee soccer team, and their coach. The students meet for an hour a day over two weeks to discuss the book, gain a better understanding of each other, and form friendships across perceived cultural boundaries

The school’s support network extends to parents, too. Two refugee liaisons are available at North 24 hours a day. Ms. Tecca and her staff meet in person with parents to help them understand how public education works. There are between six and eight different language interpreters at North each day, and all school notices are translated for the parents. “We are continually building systems to meet the needs of the families,” she said. “We started having parent meetings explaining expectations and how they can support their children. We personally call with a translator to each parent home to make sure they come to meetings.”

To help students prepare for careers after school, North is moving toward a career-academy model, which will offer students the opportunity to train in in-demand career fields, such as healthcare. Students can receive high school and college credit and will earn credit toward certification in these fields.

“We are getting our students ready for life after school and want them to have access to programs that meet their interests and the community needs. Right now, area hospitals are in desperate need of quality translators, so there is a good opportunity for our graduates to fill those roles,” Ms. Tecca said.

Ms. Tecca says her goal is for each student to find success, however that may be defined. North’s ultimate goal is to help each and every student graduate with a diploma so they can move on to successful futures. Recently, an ELL student graduated as class valedictorian and is now at Kent State preparing to take the MCAT for medical school entrance. Other students are still working hard to overcome the language barrier and the years they went without an education in their home countries. “Not everything is measured by a test score. Success should be measured in multiple ways and is different for everyone,” she said. “Our kids who are learning English, who have had interrupted schooling in the country of origin, may need more time to meet the same graduation standards as everyone else. We’re going to do everything we can every day to help them earn their diploma. We always tell them, it’s not when you get your diploma, it’s that you get your diploma.”

Robotics Program is a World-Class Competitor: Akron teacher shows future engineers and critical thinkers the value of team work and problem solving

Each week at Firestone High School in Akron, a group of two dozen students spend an additional four to six hours after school to learn problem solving, critical thinking, and data analysis skills through robotics.

Led by Engineering Teacher Daniel Spak, the high school robotics club provides a project-based learning atmosphere in which students can explore concepts within engineering. The students are dedicated, sometimes catching buses before dawn to make it to a local or regional competition.

This school year, four of Firestone’s five teams made it to the state competition in VEX robotics. One team won the Ohio State Championship and will compete at the VEX World competition in Louisville, Kentucky. There are 16000 active VEX teams in the world; the top 450 compete at worlds. That places the Firestone team in the top 3% of the world. It is the second time since 2014 that Mr. Spak’s Firestone students have made the world competition.

“Part of my job is to ensure that my students have the motivation and perseverance to succeed when they leave this school,” he says. “I started the robotics program four years ago because it encapsulates everything I think is important in what I teach: open-ended problem solving, learning to analyze things, thinking critically, finding solutions, building solutions and optimizing them.”

Mr. Spak’s engineering program and robotics club attracts a wide range of students; the current freshman class represents nine middle schools, including some outside of Akron whose home high schools don’t offer engineering programs. All students must have at least a B average to be part of the curriculum, which encourages students to achieve in all areas of study. Their love of critical thinking and problem solving is the common thread that unites them and drives them to dedicate so much after-school time to the club.

“Some place along the line we have forgotten that learning can be fun. Kids enjoy doing this,” he said. “They learn a lot, but don’t realize they are learning and preparing for a lifetime of opportunities and success. They are just doing.”

Sixteen years ago, Mr. Spak left the private sector to teach at Firestone (he is Akron Public Schools graduate) so he could help students make their dreams come to life. Students enter the engineering program in the 9th grade. The work intensifies in 10th grade, when the students explore career opportunities and interview professionals in the field through the Project Lead the Way curriculum. In 11th grade, the students identify colleges they are interested in and review entrance requirements. In 12th grade, he helps his students “make it happen.”

The 2015 Firestone graduating class had 17 students in engineering, all of whom went to college and all of whom were accepted into their top three choices of schools. That group of 17 received a total of $420,000 in scholarship dollars, averaged a 29 on their ACT college entrance exams, and had an average of a 3.5 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. In total, Mr. Spak has taught 100 graduates; of those, 64 are engineers.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about making engineers. It is about making happy, productive adults who are excited about getting up each day and doing what they love,” Mr. Spak said. “Not all of them are going to be engineers, but it’s my job to help them find their passion. Robotics teaches skills that work in any field, and that’s what we try for.”

Mr. Spak knows the work his students do in the classroom and in the robotics competition arena prepares them for careers. “I routinely quiz colleges and industry for what they look for in a student and employee, and robotics answers all of that. They want someone who can be a team player. They want them to be able to think, analyze problems, and communicate results. They want students who are capable in programming.  Those skills are almost irreplaceable, and robotics teaches it,” he says. 

School Lunchtime is about Feeding Body and Soul: How one Dayton High School Cafeteria Manager serves much more than Taco Tuesday

Gloria Johnson has been a cafeteria manager in the Dayton Public Schools for 22 years. Each day at Belmont High School, she starts cooking at 6:45 a.m. to prepare 300 healthy breakfasts and 650 nutritious lunches for the students, all of whom receive free lunches through the National School Lunch Program.

[Callout: The Ohio 8 school districts provide more than 36 million meals to their students each year.]

Ms. Johnson would tell anyone that there’s a lot more to her job than serving hungry students the deli sandwich buffets, home-style meals and Taco Tuesdays that they love – and what might be their only nutritious meal for the day. It’s an important job because the proper nutrition Ms. Johnson provides helps children concentrate, learn and excel, but feeding the souls of her students is an important part of her role, too.

“It’s a lot more than feeding children. A majority of our job is to provide nutritious food, but there is a lot more to it," she says. "We become more than providers of meals. Lunchtime is the time when the kids come in and start telling us their life stories. The students want to talk to somebody who is going to listen to them and spend time with them.”

The students at Belmont High School have come to rely on Ms. Johnson, confiding in them when they struggle with friendships and schoolwork, or even when they don’t have enough food to eat at home.

“Many times, children come to me and ask if there is anything left over from lunch that they could take home so they could have something to eat over the weekend,” she said. “Those are the stories that touch my heart. A lot of children go hungry if we are not there to provide a meal to them. I do whatever I can to see that they have food on the weekend.”

In fact, Ms. Johnson’s job feeding the students doesn’t end when the school year does. She helps with a program run in conjunction with The Foodbank in Dayton that delivers backpacks of take-home meals to hungry students in the city parks during summer break, providing what is sometimes the only meal they eat that day. Understanding the critical connection between nutritious food and a student’s ability to focus and learn, the school district seeks more funding to expand the program to weekends through the entire school year.

Ms. Johnson keeps in touch with many of the students who have passed through her cafeteria over the last two decades. The students often write back to Ms. Johnson, letting her know what an influence she has had on their lives. “Students come back years after they graduated and tell me, ‘Ms. Johnson, you gave me money to get lunch that day. You don’t know what that meant to me, what impression you made on my life,’” she said. Some of those former students have gone on to work in the culinary arts, including one who is a chef in Chicago.

The most challenging part of her job is when she sees the challenges some of her students go through – being hungry at home or not having family stability.

“The world they live in today is such a struggle. That’s what weighs on my heart,” Ms. Johnson says. “I can’t tell you the number of days I come out to my car at the end of the day thinking about what we can do for these kids. That’s what weighs hard on my heart.”

Still, she finds working in an urban school setting so rewarding. “There are more needs in urban schools. I feel better as a person if I can give of myself or help in any way," Ms. Johnson says. "I just love my job. These students become part of my family. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Toledo High-Quality Preschool Programs Prove Their Impact in Short Order: Enrolled students are more prepared for Kindergarten, setting the stage for future success in and out of school 

If you were to walk into a Toledo Public School preschool at any given time, you would see busy kids and teachers interacting with them. There are “centers,” stations where children focus on fine motor skills, create art, do dramatic play, use puzzles, and read. Students have breakfast, lunch and a snack every day. They also work on gross motor skills outside on the playgrounds and indoors in rooms where they can jump, climb, push and scoot on equipment.

This is what a high-quality preschool experience looks like, and thanks to a growing push by the Toledo Public Schools (TPS), 1,300 young children ages 3-5 have an opportunity to get a high-quality early start on learning through local and state-funded preschool programs and Head Start, for which TPS is one of the local (Lucas County) grantees.

High-quality preschool is important because research shows that 90% of a child’s brain connections form in the first five years of life, and studies upon studies have validated that high-quality learning opportunities make the most out of that critical window of time. Children who are enrolled in a high-quality preschool go on to be better prepared for Kindergarten and are more likely to meet 3rd grade reading benchmarks, graduate from high school and form better social relationships with their peers.

Sandy Murphy, a kindergarten teacher at Ottawa River Elementary School and a 17-year veteran in TPS, says she can notice the difference in her students who have attended a high-quality preschool program.

“If children have been in a high-quality preschool program, they typically are more confident when they arrive for the first day of kindergarten. Not everything is new to them; they know how to interact with each other, so they have that jump start socially,” Ms. Murphy says. “They have been exposed to language, books and pre-math skills, so they are able to make familiar connections to the kindergarten curriculum. Preschoolers are also accustomed to spending time away from mom and dad and used to the rules and structure of a classroom, so the transition to kindergarten is smoother for them.”

Yet, the cost of high-quality preschool – well over $10,000 a year on average – puts these important learning opportunities out of the hands of many lower-income families. Dr. Amy Allen, Transformational Leader of Early Childhood and Special Education for TPS, said that is why TPS has made a greater effort in recent years to open up more affordable high-quality preschool opportunities for all families if they choose it for their children.

“My belief is that all families want what is best for their kids,” Dr. Allen says. “Low income doesn’t equate to families that don’t care. Families want their kids to be successful, and for the most part kids are anxious and willing to have those opportunities.”

She says that the exposure to high-quality programs is making an immediate impact on Toledo’s children. Students who were enrolled in the Head Start program scored higher on the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment than children who entered kindergarten without attending a high-quality preschool, with 61% of Head Start enrollees approaching readiness and 11% demonstrating readiness, compared to 31% and 9 % respectively for non-Head Start preschoolers.

What makes these programs high quality? Dr. Allen says all programs have applied to the Ohio Department of Education for their license and star ratings; Crossgates Preschool was just awarded a 5-star rating. The classrooms use a research-based curriculum and the student-teacher ratio of 2:17 is lower than what the state requires. All 43 head teachers in preschool have at least a bachelor’s degree; 43 assistant teachers have associate’s degrees. They are paid public school teacher rates.

“We believe stability for kids is the number one thing we can do to improve quality of education for our children,” she said. “We are very aware of the need for continued professional development, and we offer competitive salary and benefits in a profession that is typically underpaid and undervalued. Last year, we had zero turn over. That means that all of the children in our programs had the benefit of one teacher for the entire year. This is a key factor in learning: students and teachers are able to build relationships that allow them to take risks in the learning process."

The district serves a mix of children in Head Start, students who have disabilities, and typically developing students. Some children receive full-day preschool for free through Title I funds or ODE expansion grants; other families pay a modest fee of $250 for a half year. Families in Head Start receive a variety of additional services, including a family advocate who is responsible for connecting families to resources that help them become socially and emotionally healthy. Much like Toledo Public School’s broader enrollment, the children the program serves are often from low-income families.

And while 1,300 children in high-quality programs is a good start, it is just the tip of the iceberg. There aren’t enough 3-to-5 Star Step Up to Quality rated child care centers in Toledo to meet the demand; there are at least 10,000 children eligible for Head Start in the county that are not being served.

“We are moving things in the right direction, and it’s exciting when you open up people’s eyes to the opportunities that are available for their children,” Dr. Allen said. “Preschool provides a lot of stability for our kids who are not in stable environments. It builds social-emotional and pre-academic skills and connects them to a positive system at an early age, which really helps them to think about school.”

The district will continue to monitor preschool students’ progress; the first group the district is tracking is now in kindergarten. The expectations are that the children will continue to do well, mirroring studies that have found nationally that children who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to meet 3rd grade reading benchmarks and graduate from high school.

Keeping the Buses Running on Time, Heat On, Lights Bright, Meals Hot, and Buildings Clean: Columbus City Schools operations help set the foundation for student success

Keeping the Columbus City School District running smoothly is a big job. With 51,000 students 965 buses and vehicles, 36,000 computers, and 138 buildings to maintain (every $1 spent now saves $4 later), it’s akin to running a small city and has the transportation fleet, custodial staff, IT system, and food service operation to prove it.

It falls to the Chief Operating Office, Maurice Oldham, to make sure the atmosphere in every school is conducive to learning. The way Mr. Oldham sees it, children can’t concentrate if they are too hot, too cold, hungry, sitting in a dark room or using a dirty bathroom. He has 2,100 full-time employees in 11 different departments charged with creating a safe, comfortable, and productive, 24/7 learning environment that contributes to student success and achievement. That includes custodial services, equipment and service purchasing, safety, transportation, food services, human resources, IT, building and grounds maintenance, among others.

“If the environment isn’t set up right, it creates stress for the kids. If we do our jobs right, it allows the rest of the district’s staff focus on education,” he says. “We like to think of what we do as having an indirect impact on the children. We focus on good customer service for the teachers and administration, and for the children, too. For example, we want our bus drivers to set the tone with the kids so they have a good day. We work very hard to provide what our children need.”

He likes to talk with the students to see if they have suggestions on how to improve things; his food services team always previews new foods with the students before making menu changes. He’s keenly aware that the food his staff serves at school may be the only nutritious meal students receive each day, so he wants it to be of the highest quality. Each day, his team prepares more than 26,000 breakfasts and 37,000 lunches. Recently, the Children’s Hunger Alliance honored his food service team for providing one of the best school food programs in Central Ohio. The Ohio Foodbank also partners with the district to provide fresh produce for families at some of Columbus’ schools for meals at home or on weekends.

To get children to school safely and on time, Mr. Oldham’s transportation fleet travels more than 8.1 million miles a year and use 1.1 million gallons of diesel fuel--that is comparable with the public transportation system in the region! This past year, he’s overseen the wiring of all school buildings for wireless connectivity, so children can use technology to learn in the moment and not be tethered to a computer lab. As a former administrator in healthcare, he wants his staff to use hospital-grade disinfectants to create a germ-free environment that keeps children healthy and in school.

He’s also one of the people who is working in the middle of the night to determine if the district needs to have a snow day. “I don’t sleep very well in the winter,” he laughs.

While food service, custodial services and technology are important at school districts of any size and in environment, working in one of Ohio’s largest urban school districts brings challenges and considerations not seen in many other areas. No two schools are alike. Many of the schools have students who are non-native English Learners (EL), and Mr. Oldham makes sure his staff understands all the different cultures so they can work with families and students in a respectful way. His team also makes sure students have the “wraparound services” and interventions to ensure student success in school and life.

Safety and security is also a special concern in the urban environment. “If there is a violent incident in our city, no matter what part of town, we partner with our law enforcement to find out if one of our students is involved, directly or indirectly.” Mr. Oldham explained. “We dispatch a care team to work with and support youngsters who may be grieving.”

Even though maintaining the operations of the school district is full of seemingly different responsibilities, for Mr. Oldham and his staff the children remain the top focus. “We want to make sure we are touching lives. Our children have a lot of unique challenges, but those challenges create opportunities for our students,” he said. “We have a spirit of success here, and the reward for us comes on graduation day when we see our kids walking across the stage.”