Lincoln Elementary kindergartners enjoy story time with teacher David Wells. Photo courtesy of Springfield City Schools
While Springfield, Ohio schools cope with a growing number of poor families, an achievement gap and a declining population — similar to many other districts nationwide — the community is tackling those challenges head-on.
“We don’t let barriers get in the way of progress,” said Springfield City Schools Superintendent David Estrop.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch and I visited Springfield several weeks ago to learn firsthand how Springfield City Schools are working in innovative ways with the community to meet its challenges and to see how federal funding is supporting its progress.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Massie Ritsch reads 5th grade math students’ promises to strive towards high goals at Lincoln Elementary, following the school’s motto to “Be the Promise.” Photo courtesy of Springfield City Schools
Like many cities throughout the Midwest, Springfield has lost manufacturing jobs over the past few decades. Although NCLB data show a significant achievement gap between Springfield’s children from low-income families—76 percent of its students—educators, parents, elected officials, and students, as well as members of the business and higher education communities, have devoted time and resources to identify problems and build solutions. It’s that arduous effort that seems to have generated real improvement in students’ year-to-year achievement growth, despite the district’s designation under NCLB as not meeting adequate yearly progress.
ED funding plays an important role in several ways:
Keifer Academy is an alternative school for K-12th– graders that was once among the lowest-achieving in the state. The school — which serves Springfield students who are not progressing in traditional environments — has undergone a transformation with help from a $1.65 million federal School Improvement Grant. The grant has enabled Keifer to bring in a new principal, add new staff for more customized support, develop new programs through community partnerships, and increase teacher training. Early results are promising: the percentage of Keifer 10th graders who are proficient in reading jumped from 23 percent in 2010 to more than 41 percent in 2011.
Awarded a special $718,000 Innovation grant from Ohio’s Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, Springfield is developing a Family Academy that will provide learning opportunities for students and parents, as well as meals, childcare and transportation on weekday evenings. For children, activities will include enrichment projects, tutoring and college readiness courses. Adults will have learning options like GED programs and Clark State Community College classes, as well as social activities such as line-dancing.
Through the district-wide Race to the Top Transformation Team — funded with $160,000 of Springfield’s RTTT allocation from Ohio – a committee of district teachers and administrators work together to analyze student performance issues and make changes to improve. We had the opportunity to join the team’s discussion of the best practices of the district’s most successful teachers. Subcommittees reported on the schools they’d visited and identified common threads like “teacher collaboration” to develop improvement strategies throughout the district.
Even though the district applied for, but did not receive, a Promise Neighborhood grant from ED, the district has gone ahead on its own to develop the Lincoln Promise Neighborhood initiative. The effort aims to improve Lincoln Elementary, which serves the district’s poorest students and has posted low achievement scores, while simultaneously addressing the needs of its neighborhood. Through this endeavor — supported by private foundations and some RTTT funds — the school has established new mentoring and tutoring partnerships, after school programs and a summer camp.
Most striking, though, is the philosophy to “Be the Promise” that’s reflected in Lincoln’s staff and students. Fifth-grade teacher Steven Holliday embodies this emerging culture.
Recently hired from a district where 98 percent of his students were proficient in math, Holliday tackled his new charges’ proficiency levels – just 22 percent last year – with determination. He inspired his students to ask themselves: “Who are you? 22 percent or 90 percent?” The walls of his classroom are lined with student-written promises to achieve the higher goal, and “77 percent posted proficient scores on a recent assessment,” he told us.
Over the past two years, the seeds for many of the district’s innovative programs – such as the Family Academy – were planted through the collaborative community engagement initiative. The consensus-building process can be painstakingly slow, but Estrop believes community-developed plans will have more long-term value than any quick “magical solution.”
“It’s hard work,” he said, “but we’re building community through the investment in our kids.”
Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region