Education Reform Produces Options for Dayton Parents

Published May 1, 2001

As in many urban communities across the nation, Dayton, Ohio residents have watched their local public schools deteriorate as three decades of forced busing and subsequent middle-class flight took their toll.

But the recent introduction of alternative educational options, particularly for low-income students, is having a long sought-after effect: motivating the Dayton public school system to turn itself around, creating a win-win situation for area parents.

Once a city with a predominantly white population, Dayton’s population is now over 70 percent black and disproportionately poor. Serving a student population of 60,000 in the 1960s, Dayton Public Schools (DPS) now serves only 20,000 students. Enrollment has dropped by 6,000 students since 1999, when the system seemed to hit rock-bottom.

A state-issued report card that year gave DPS a passing grade in only one of 18 state standards, while a state audit revealed DPS was facing a nearly $23 million deficit that district leadership either did not know about or did not care to divulge. The state auditor called DPS’s financial condition “treacherous,” and warned the district was spending an inordinate amount of its resources on administration at the expense of instruction.

The DPS school board asked then-Superintendent James Williams and Treasurer Kennon Goff to pack their bags. But despite new leadership, DPS met just three of the state’s new set of 27 standards the following two years, thus earning the undesirable label of “academic emergency.”

According to one Dayton parent, the problems with DPS are inherently “race related.” Mary Pounds, whose children attended DPS and whose granddaughter is enrolled now, believes African-American students simply are not held to the same high standards–in terms of academics as well as behavior–as white students.

Visiting her granddaughter’s school, Pounds confronted a classroom in which she “couldn’t distinguish who was (her) peer in the classroom. The teacher’s desk was placed behind the kids so their backs were to her.” She has concluded she needs to find “new avenues” for her grandchild, Daria, Fortunately for Pounds and other parents, new education avenues are appearing in Dayton.

Options Come to Dayton

Some Dayton students are enjoying new options in private schools, thanks in part to the Parents Advancing Choice in Education (PACE) scholarship program, which helps low-income families with tuition.

PACE was one of three privately funded scholarship programs recently evaluated by a Harvard University team led by Dr. Paul Peterson. The analysts found significant gains in reading and math achievement among African-American students participating in the private scholarship programs. (See “Vouchers Lift Black Student Scores,” School Reform News, November 2000.)

Nearly 3,000 other Dayton students are enrolled in charter schools–called “community schools” in Ohio–and more soon will be. Dayton already has 12 of them, and up to seven more may open by September 2001, making Dayton one of the strongest charter school markets in the nation.

Dayton parents are pleased with the charter school option. In a survey last spring, 60 percent of charter parents said they were “very satisfied” with the academic program at their child’s charter school. By contrast, just 19 percent of DPS parents said they were “very satisfied” in a 1998 survey.

Although most charter schools are too new to pass definitive judgment on their academic performance, the first-year results of a before-and-after testing program, implemented by the Dayton Alliance for Education, showed that most Dayton charters are making solid progress in bringing their students up to grade level.

Dayton parents have a new organization working for them, too. The “Parent Network,” associated with PACE, recently launched a campaign to inform Dayton parents about education options–and to encourage them to seek more options–at a schools fair held at the city’s convention center. At the fair, attended by some 1,300 people, attendees were able to prospect among local public, private, and charter schools and to meet Parent Network director Daria Dillard-Stone and DPS Superintendent Dr. Jerrie Bascome McGill.

Ready to Compete

McGill is well aware that DPS must now compete for students as never before. If not, DPS’s own projections show enrollment could fall below 12,000 in five years. McGill has boldly admitted “[DPS needs] to communicate a sense of urgency. We must shrink the district [overhead], or we could fall into state takeover.”

To get started, McGill took “field trips” to Houston and Milwaukee, cities that boast some of the country’s most effective education renewal efforts. On those visits, McGill met with such cutting-edge reformers as Howard Fuller, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Don McAdams of the Houston school board.

On March 22, McGill announced a promising district reorganization plan intended to cut staff, reduce spending on building operations and administrative costs, and focus more resources on classroom instruction. Her plan would reshape Dayton into at least three “academic regions” of no more than 4,500 students each. She believes this structure would help direct more resources to the classroom and “redeploy administrators.”

The Dayton school board is starting to focus on solutions too. Board member Joey Williams has invited the charter schools to rejoin the district, hoping to work out an agreement that would benefit the district while providing needed facilities to the charters.

Business Will Benefit, Too

Students and parents aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the community’s increased educational options and improved public education system. The Dayton business community, long involved in trying to help reform K-12 education in the area, is pleased with the increase in competitive school options as well as with Superintendent McGill’s fighting response.

Bryan Bucklew, vice president of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, is overseeing the creation of a new school resource center that will work with charter schools, traditional public schools, and private schools alike to the number of effective educational options available to Dayton students.

“It is laudable that Dr. McGill had the courage to finally give an accurate state of the Dayton Public Schools system. . . .” said Bucklew. “The business community, as it always has, stands ready to assist in any way possible.”

Kelly Amis is program director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, DC. Her email address is [email protected].