Some students in the Alliance, Fairless, North Canton, Northwest, Plain and Perry school districts are now eligible to receive state-funded vouchers that will help pay for their tuition at a private school.
Tabitha Dowell of North Canton already has been thinking about removing her son from traditional public school.
She wanted smaller class sizes and more student diversity than what Greentown Intermediate School in North Canton offered him.
“He’s multicultural and there are very few African-American or multicultural students in the school,” said Dowell, who moved from Texas to North Canton eight years ago. “He just doesn’t feel so comfortable.”
But she believed the cost of sending him to a private school would require some significant financial sacrifices for the family.
Then she learned through a mailing from Heritage Christian School her son might qualify for Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program because Greentown has been designated an EdChoice school for the first time. The taxpayer-funded scholarship provides students from underperforming public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools by helping to pay for tuition.
“I at least want to look at it,” Dowell said.
Dowell and her son plan to take a tour of Heritage Christian – one of the 17 private schools in Stark County that accepts EdChoice scholarships. The family has until April 30 to apply for the scholarship. A second one-month application window begins July 1.
New EdChoice schools
Greentown isn’t the only new Stark County school to be added to the EdChoice list for the upcoming school year.
Students who next school year will attend Middlebranch Elementary in the Plain Local School District, Lohr and Genoa elementary schools in the Perry Local School District, Stinson Elementary in the Northwest Local School District, Rockhill and Parkway elementary schools in the Alliance City School District and Fairless Elementary in the Fairless Local School District are eligible for the EdChoice vouchers, which pay $4,650 toward the cost of the elementary child’s tuition at a participating private school.
Previously, only Canton City students and young low-income students were eligible. The EdChoice program offers up to 60,000 scholarships.
The additional eight Stark County schools have been placed on the EdChoice designation list because they scored poorly on the most recent state report card and had a bad score in the same area in either 2013 or 2014.
This is the first time in four years the schools have faced consequences for poor grades. For the previous three years, the schools had been shielded from the consequences by “safe harbor” provisions that lawmakers created to allow schools to adjust to the new tougher Common Core-based standards that began in 2015 and the new state tests in math and English language arts introduced in the 2015-2016 school year.
Defending their schools
Multiple Stark County superintendents said just because their school building is on the EdChoice list doesn’t make it an underperforming school.
Of the eight new EdChoice schools in Stark County, seven of them earned a C or higher for their overall grade on the most recent state report card. Only Parkway received an F for its overall grade.
What tripped up all eight of the schools was the “Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers” component on the state report card, which measures how successful the school is at helping struggling readers get back on track. It does not measure how well all students in the school read.
Ohio law states if a school receives a grade of D or F on the Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers component on the 2014 and 2018 report cards, it will be placed on the EdChoice list.
Greentown Intermediate, which received a B for its overall report card grade, received an F on the K-3 Readers component. It had 19 students who were not reading at grade level when they were assessed in the fall. Because the district helped improve the reading of only five of those students to where they are now considered “on track,” the school received an F on the measure. The school scored a D on the same component in 2014.
North Canton Superintendent Jeff Wendorf, who said the district has tried to appeal Greentown EdChoice designation without success, said the component fails to take in account 99.4 percent of Greentown’s third-graders read well enough to meet the state’s threshold to be promoted to fourth grade. It also doesn’t factor in 82 percent of Greentown’s third-graders passed the state English language test. Statewide, only 61.2 percent of third-graders passed the same test, he said.
Wendorf doesn’t believe Greentown will be designated an EdChoice school for long.
“We know that Greentown is a very high-quality school that attains great student achievement and growth, and we have the data to prove it,” Wendorf said. “So we are very frustrated with how the state law is written on the component of how a school can qualify to be on the EdChoice list.”
For Middlebranch, Lohr, Genoa, Fairless Elementary and Rockhill, the safe harbor provisions that were meant to protect them actually harmed them.
Back to 2014?
While each of the schools posted poor scores on the K-3 Readers component in 2018, they each had passing grades on the measure in 2017. But since the state shielded the scores on the report cards in 2015, 2016 and 2017 from consequences under the safe harbor provisions, it used the schools’ scores for 2014 to calculate the EdChoice designation. Each of the schools scored a D on the K-3 Readers component in 2014.
Plain Local Superintendent Brent May questioned the state’s use of the 2014 scores.
“We’re comparing data from 2014 to 2018, the information is four years old and it’s two different tests,” he said.
Despite the concern, May said the district is reviewing its curriculum and ensuring the lessons its preschoolers learn align to what’s happening in its kindergarten classrooms.
“We’re working on it every day,” he said.
Perry Local Superintendent Scott Beatty said he was surprised to learn Lohr and Genoa elementary schools were designated EdChoice schools, but the district continues to assess where it needs to improve and is giving its teachers and staff the supports they need.
“Responding to these types of designations can be frustrating due to the ever-changing targets but it is our job to address the issue as it is presented,” he said. “… I have no doubt, now that this designation has been made, that we have the people in place to rectify in a relative time.”
Debora Clark, director of instruction at Northwest Local Schools, said schools similar to Stinson, which serve grades 3-5, already are at a disadvantage with the K-3 Readers component because their scores are based on a single grade level – third grade – and not averaged among multiple grade levels. Greentown also is a 3-5 building.
“If Stinson was a K-5 building, we wouldn’t be sitting there with that F,” she said.
She said another issue with the K-3 Reader component is third-graders have less time to prove they are improving compared to students in the lower grade levels. While all students’ reading skills are assessed in September, only third-graders are reassessed in March due to the state’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law, which requires third-graders to pass the state test in order to move on to fourth grade. All other students are reassessed the following September.
Clark said Northwest is phasing in a phonics program called Fundations to help improve its reading scores. The district already has seen some “strong impacts” from the program in its kindergarten and first-graders, she said.
“We know we’re moving them forward,” Clark said.
It’s too early to tell how many parents will seek to use the scholarship like Tabitha Dowell has.
More than 400 Stark County students already are enrolled in a private school under the current voucher programs. Most of the students live in the Canton City School District and are enrolled in first through eighth grade, state enrollment records show.
Sharla Elton, superintendent of Heritage Christian School in Canton, said her school has begun an awareness campaign, which has included posting messages on its social media accounts and mailing fliers to parents in affected districts, to make parents aware their child might be eligible for a scholarship.
“Even if they don’t choose our school, we’re just trying to get word out that they do have choices,” Elton said. “I feel like there’s a lack of awareness.”
So far, she’s fielded calls from nine families who are interested taking a tour of the school and learning more about the EdChoice scholarship. Elton said many of the prospective students attend the new EdChoice schools and their grade levels range from kindergarten to those interested in the sixth-grade class Heritage plan to reintroduce next year.
Elton estimated the more than 80 percent of Heritage’s current students use an EdChoice scholarship to help with their tuition.
“They are hugely popular once families know,” she said.
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