By Melanie Williamson
Last week the newest round of state report cards were released based on last year’s state test scores and data. The state grades districts in six different areas: achievement, gap closing, K-3 literacy, progress, graduation rate, and prepared for success. On the surface, Vermilion, as well as most other Ohio school districts did not score well.
The issue of how these grades are assigned was raised last year as superintendents from all over the state met in Columbus to share their concerns. At that time, The Ohio School Board Association President Eric K. Garmann released a statement encouraging others to not judge districts solely on their state report card grades.
Ongoing criticisms of the grading system include the fact that districts are not provided any feedback regarding the tests the students took. They are simply provided a grade, and teachers have no way of knowing what specific areas the students need to improve on. There was also criticism on how the state actually comes up with their grades. This criticism was acknowledged by Germann, who stated, “school board members and administrators have expressed legitimate concerns about the report card methodology and measures.” Despite acknowledging the concerns are legitimate, little has been done to remedy the situation.
Vermilion Local Schools District received a “D” in achievement, an “F” in gap closing, a “C” in K-3 Literacy, a “C” in progress, an “A” in graduation rate, and a “D” in prepared for success. For achievement, the state looks at the overall test grades. For indicators met under achievement, the majority of districts statewide received an F, and only 23 out of the 608 districts earned an “A.” Gap closing looks at how well schools are meeting the performance expectations for specific population groups based on the state test scores.
Despite receiving a “C” in K-3 Literacy, 100% of the third graders met the Third Grade Reading Guarantee requirements set by the state. Additionally, 25 students who were considered “off track” meaning not reading at the level they should be reading at were moved to “on track.” Progress looks at student scores from one year to the next to judge how much progress they made. This is not an indicator of whether or not the students made progress, but rather how much progress.
Vermilion’s graduation rate is over 90%, which resulted in the district receiving an “A”. Yet the district received a “D” in prepared for success, which looks at how many students take the ACT and SAT and how many pass on the first try. It also looks at how many students graduate with an honors diploma and how many score a three or higher in advanced placement tests.
Reflecting on the grades given to Vermilion, superintendent Phil Pempin was clearly frustrated. He stated, “It’s the system we have, and we have to accept that as a district and as a community. We are more and better than that. Are we perfect? No, but we are better than that. The grades are disappointing because they do not provide a true reflection of everything the district has to offer students or how hard the teachers work to provide for all students.”
Pempin went on to say, “We can start strictly teaching to the test and our state grade would improve, but that isn’t what we want to do because it is the students that suffer in those situations.”
One of the issues the district is working to address is that close to half of the students in the district are living at or below the poverty line, and this impacts them academically because many are not going to preschool and do not have access to the resources that many other students have. Assistant superintendent Jim Balotta explained that they have been working hard to provide more programs outside of school hours to help students strengthen their core skills particularly in reading and writing.
A big part of this plan has been expanding the preschool. He went on to explain that teachers have been working with students that start kindergarten already two years behind their classmates because they were unable to attend preschool. For many parents in our area, preschool is too expensive, or they cannot get their child to and from preschool due to their work schedule.
Last year when it was first proposed to the school board to offer preschool scholarships, special education coordinator Karen Blackburn shared with the board a variety of statistics demonstrating the fact that there is a proven educational gap between low-income students that attend preschool and ones that do not. Additionally, for many students, that gap never goes away. These students are more likely to experience continued struggles all the way through school. Additionally, they are statistically more likely to need interventions throughout their schooling.
Starting this school year, Vermilion has expanded their preschool program from being able to accept 16 students to being open to 48 students. The preschool is open to children as young as three and scholarships are available for families with a financial need. Vermilion is also providing transportation for each of the preschool classes in an effort to remove any barriers that may be preventing families from sending their children to preschool.
In addition to preschool, Balotta emphasized the two summer programs that were offered this year, which provided students fun and educational activities and experiences focused on science, reading, and writing. Balotta also shared that the district is working with the Boys and Girls Club of Lorain County to offer an afterschool program for students at Vermilion Elementary School and Sailorway Middle School. The program is being paid for with a grant, so it will be absolutely free to families. Similarly to the summer camp, the afterschool program will offer fun activities focused on helping students with writing and reading.
Pempin added that the district as a whole is still very focused on personalized learning, which they feel is essential to meeting the needs of all students while also giving them a chance to take ownership in their learning experience. He went on to say that the district is also focused on “writing across the curriculum” which was introduced last year and works to incorporate writing into all areas of learning. Reading and writing are the specific areas of concern.
Pempin stated, “We can do better. We can always do better.”