After Class -- Commentary: November 23, 2010

November 23, 2010
By Scott Stephens
Catalyst Ohio

The Council of the Great City Schools issued a report earlier this month warning that the performance level of black male students in America's schools is a national catastrophe.

Among the report’s sobering findings: Some 50 percent of black male fourth-graders attending urban schools were performing below basic. One out of three black children live in poverty compared to one in 10 white children. Black males were nearly twice as likely as white males to drop out of high schools.

Ohio's not immune to those depressing numbers. But new numbers suggest the Governor's Initiative for Raising the Graduation Rate, a statewide program launched in 2007, is actually having remarkable success in erasing them.

The initiative, created by former Sen. C.J. Prentiss, was designed to lower the dropout rates of high-risk freshmen students in urban and rural high schools with the highest dropout rates. The kids were identified as “at-risk” because they failed two or more classes in core subjects during the eighth grade, were absent 36 or more school days, were suspended from school for five days or more, or were overage for their grade.

The students are given a mentor with whom they have daily contact. They also participate in field trips and other activities – a visit to a college campus, for example – that are beyond their normal realm of experience.

The early results of the program were promising. The promotion rate for black male freshmen at each of the 12 participating high schools in Cleveland rose the first year, in some cases by outstanding percentages. At John F. Kennedy High School, for instance, the promotion rate improved more than 56 percentage points in one year. At East High School, it improved nearly 36 percentage points. At Glenville High School, the improvement was some 23 percentage points.

Now, many of those freshmen who participated in the program are getting ready to graduate. I'm told that at John F. Kennedy, seven of the top-10 graduating seniors next spring are African-American males who participated in the program. In fact, some 77 percent of the kids who started the program in Cleveland are on track to graduate this spring – remarkable because the participants, by definition, were students likely to drop out.

"There's definitely proof positive that the governor and C.J. were right on the money," says Bob Ivory, former linkage coordinator for the program at JFK. 

A 2009 report by Policy Matters Ohio tracked the program's progress and concluded its cost-benefit is considerable. Students who complete their high school education go on to college and jobs. Too many who don't go to prison.

I think the Ohio initiative works because it addresses poverty rather than pedagogy. The Great Society programs of the 1960s that helped reduce the income gap between rich and poor Americans actually helped close the achievement gap in education. In 1975, the percentage of white, black and Latino kids who went to college was equal. That all started to fall apart when those programs were dismantled in the 1980s.

“Had we stayed on track, we would have actually erased the achievement gap,” Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond said recently.

It's not too late to stay on track with Ohio's initiative. Rarely does a program enjoy such dramatic success so quickly.


Speculation continues to swirl around the fate of Ohio's $400 million Race to the Top grant.

Federal officials have warned states they risk losing their grants if they stray too far from the plans they submitted. That became a worry in Ohio after governor-elect John Kasich vowed to scrap Gov. Ted Strickland's evidence-based education funding model – the mechanism for achieving the state's Race to the Top goals.

But on Monday, state education officials told the Board of Control they were confident they'd be able to implement Race to the Top regardless of what mechanism the state uses to fund education. However, Assistant State Superintendent Michael Sawyer said the feds want Ohio to put together a “transition plan” that will detail how the state plans to achieve Race to the Top goals under new state leadership.

The board on Monday approved a request to create appropriation authority of the Ohio Department of Education to spend the first $100 million of the grant.

Stay tuned.

“Children are the innocent victims of a very bad economy and a tough time.” -- Lorain schools Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson on the defeat of her district's levy. Lorain hasn't had a new operating levy in 20 years. 

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