The threat of a state takeover of Dayton Public Schools creates urgency to address long-unchecked problems in a district where race, poverty and a culture of failure have dragged like an anchor, erecting barriers children struggle to overcome.
A Dayton Daily News investigation found a wide achievement gap between black and white students, racial disparities in discipline, chronic absenteeism, a large number of classes taught by substitutes and students who face staggering obstacles at home.
Westwood Elementary Principal Akisha Shehee says she has students who live out of cars. DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli says many of the district’s students enter school two to four years behind their peers in suburban districts.
Racial inequality and poverty aren’t unique to Dayton, and they aren’t the only problems the district faces. But the demographics of the district demand they not be ignored. Dayton Public Schools has the highest percentage black student population of any of Ohio’s large urban school districts, and the third lowest median income.
As part of our initiative, The Path Forward, the Dayton Daily News is seeking solutions to problems — some deeply entrenched — that keep the region from reaching its full potential. As the region’s largest district, DPS is responsible for preparing more than 12,000 students to become productive citizens. But its continued struggles are widely seen as hampering the region’s economic prosperity.
THE PATH FORWARD: The region must rally to fix the Dayton Public Schools
The Dayton Daily News examined data from past years on student performance and discipline, the racial makeup of the teaching staff, teacher vacancies that have meant some buildings were not adequately staffed, and poverty statistics showing the roadblocks many students encounter because of where they live.
Here’s what we found (Each bulleted item is followed by a link exploring that issue in more detail)
• The achievement gap between black and white students starts at an early age. About 29 percent of black third-graders in DPS read proficiently at grade level, according to state tests, a result that puts them 15 percentage points behind white students of that same age. In eighth-grade math, only 17 percent of black students are grade proficient, compared to 31 percent for white students.
Both black and white students in Dayton score well below their peers across the state. In third-grade reading, 44 percent of white third graders in DPS scored proficiently, compared to 72 percent across the state.
• Black students are disproportionately disciplined in the district. Black students make up 65 percent of the students at DPS — the largest percentage among the state’s largest urban districts — yet they accounted for 84 percent of all out-of-school suspensions in the 2016-2017 school year.
• The largest staffing shortages have occurred in schools with the highest percentage of black students, leading to an over-reliance on substitute teachers. Fairview Elementary School, which is 85 percent black, used subs to fill in for absent teachers more than seven times as often as Horace Mann Elementary, which is 23 percent black.
• Black teachers are under-represented in the district, as they are in many districts across the state. Last year, 28 percent of the teaching staff in Dayton was African-American. “I never had a teacher that looked like me,” said Ejovwokoghene Odje, assistant principal at Thurgood Marshall STEM High School. Research shows black students do better when there is diversity in the teaching staff.
• Chronic absenteeism is a problem, perhaps growing out of poverty more than race. In Dayton, black and white students — both male and female — miss school at a rate well above the state average of 16.4 percent.
• Some students face obstacles from the moment they’re born. A study by Public Health – Montgomery County shows that not only poverty, but health and economic factors associated with low opportunity are concentrated in parts of the county that disproportionately house black families.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS AND OTHERS WEIGH IN:
Lolli, who is beginning her first full year at the helm, said the district is making changes this year to boost student performance, including adding cultural sensitivity training for staff to address potential bias.
“The first thing that we’re going to do is try to close that achievement gap and it doesn’t make any difference what the student’s race is,” she said.
Central to Lolli’s plan is making sure all students can read. She is launching targeted, small-group reading classes that were tested last year and will be expanded this year for the youngest students.
“Where it was implemented (properly), we saw some gains and some gap closing,” she said. “This year we anticipate that we’re going to see some major gains in closing those early achievement gaps.”
A computer-based program called MindPlay is also being expanded for grades two to nine for children who need to catch up in reading skills.
“The research has shown that if you use it at least four days a week for 30 minutes a day, you will see a year and a half worth of growth on the Ohio achievement test by the end of the school year,” Lolli said.
The black-white achievement gap is a problem across Ohio. Statewide, black eighth graders lag more than a year behind their peers in academic progress, according to a report released in April by the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute.
The report found Ohio is headed in the wrong direction. From 2003 to 2017, most states made gains in closing the black-white achievement gap, while Ohio had the third largest increase nationwide.
Study author Michael Hanson said in an interview that measures that have correlated with a decreased gap in other states include racial and socio-economic integration and the hiring of minority teachers.
The Ohio Board of Education released a strategic plan in June that called educational equity “Ohio’s greatest education challenge.” More students are facing learning inequities, the report says, and the state’s education system “is not effectively meeting the needs of specific groups of students,” including African Americans. Half of Ohio’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the report.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: The Path Forward: Dayton Schools Facebook group
“The path to equity begins with a deep understanding of the history of discrimination and bias and how it has come to impact current society,” says the report, which was drafted following input by parents, educators, employers, business leaders, state legislators and students from across the state.
The Brookings study, which examined data from each state, found Indiana made the most progress, closing the gap by the equivalent of more than a half year.
Robin LeClaire, Indiana’s director of academic and school improvement, said her state works with the NAACP and other groups to develop and promote cultural competency in “teaching and curriculum (and) hiring and responding to students’ cultural needs so we can close that gap both in academics and with behavior and discipline.”
The Daily News reached out to some of the leading experts in education policy to identify why poor kids — and particularly poor, black children — fall behind, and what can be done about it.
While poverty is part of the problem, it doesn’t tell the whole story, said Tom Lasley, whose group, Learn to Earn, issued the report “Know the Gap. Close the Gap.”
“One of the most disturbing things in the report is that if you look at some of those charts, one of the charts will show that the African-American males from more affluent homes perform about the same or a little lower than the poorest white students,” Lasley said.
“That means there’s something else going on.”
Jo’el Thomas-Jones, who ran for the Dayton school board in 2017 and serves on the board of the advocacy group Neighborhood Over Politics, said children in Dayton need to see more investment and opportunity in the neighborhoods where they live.
“There are many neighborhoods here in Dayton where if you go down the street, you think you’re in a war-torn country,” she said. “People talk about creating a balanced child, a smart child. How do we create a child who understands communities when there are no neighbors to the left and no neighbors to the right?”
Her group is working to devise a block-by-block plan to address these low-opportunity areas, largely with efforts aimed at workforce development.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, co-founder of the local civil rights group Racial Justice NOW!, said poor and black students lag behind primarily because their families lack resources — jobs, health care, education — that help them succeed. She said the widely used term “achievement gap” should be replaced with “opportunity gap” because that more accurately characterizes the situation faced by many children.
But Sankara-Jabar also challenged the school system’s new board of education majority and new superintendent to prove they are serious about doing what it takes to bridge gaps in student performance.
“I do not see the political will to get things done,” she said.
John Rogers III, who heads DPS’ Office of Males of Color, which develops anti-bias training for staff members and also works directly with students, said there is reason for optimism, particularly if the district can showcase some of the successes that are happening.
“When you change the narrative, young people in the community start to see themselves in a positive light,” he said. “The young people’s mindset changes. The schools change. The community changes and then we have a better self-concept of who we are as a whole community.”
What would it take to change the narrative? Research shows one measure is crucial: teachers, parents, community leaders — all of us — have to believe in the potential of these children.
In a study last year, Ohio State University professor Roger Goddard found one of the biggest factors in closing the achievement gap is teachers believing they can.
“Where teachers had a robust belief that they could educate all the students in the school, the achievement gaps were lower,” Goddard said in an interview.
Lolli also stressed the importance of believing all students can succeed.
“We have to change the culture to a culture of belief, as opposed to a culture of disbelief,” she said.