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APS making strides, but hard work ahead, James says

2/21/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

APS Superintendent David James noted during his 2013 State of the Schools address that the district needs to continue to cut costs due to uncertainty in state funding.
Photo: Kathleen Folkerth
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Akron Public Schools (APS) students are showing gains in achievement, Superintendent David James said during his annual State of the Schools speech Feb. 14, but much work lies ahead for the district’s staff and teachers.

James appeared before a sold-out lunchtime crowd of more than 200 at The Martin University Center on The University of Akron (UA) campus to share the district’s highlights and challenges at the annual Akron Press Club event.

Among those in attendance were Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, UA President Luis Proenza, Ohio Sen. Tom Sawyer (D-District 28) and members of the APS Board of Education.

James, who is in his fifth year heading up the APS district, said one of the biggest challenges of the past year was working to pass the district’s operating levy after it failed in the November 2011 General Election.

“We learned many lessons from that loss, and to a great extent I took it personally,” he said.

He noted that in preparing for the ballot issue in the 2012 General Election, the district worked to highlight the good going on in the district through the “APS Proud” campaign.

Despite the passage of the levy, which came after the district cut millions from its budget and closed three schools, the district once again will be looking to make cuts.

But James held off on discussing specific numbers for the upcoming cuts in light of the uncertainty surrounding the state’s school funding.

“Gov. [John] Kasich recently released his education plan, and at the time it was released it showed a lot of promise,” James said. “However, after seeing the initial simulations, there are some questions that we need to explore. We need to understand more fully how some wealthy districts received increased funding while very poor districts did not.”

He added he hoped there would be “thoughtful dialogue” on the plan as it moves through the General Assembly.

“For us, the fact of the matter is this: We must continue to right-size our district,” he said. “We must continue to reduce expenditures. We must innovate and continue our path toward becoming a 21st century organization.”

The superintendent also noted several areas in which he would like to see public schools move, such as offering students an educational platform so they can access their courses anytime and anywhere. He also added he’d like to see the school day and year extended, and for there to be more flexibility in the school day so that some teachers and students would start and end their school days later.

Among the achievements in the district this year, James said the district’s Performance Index score on the state report card last year rose to 85.9 from 84.6. There also have been continued improvements in elementary and middle school reading scores and increases in almost every grade in mathematics.

APS’ graduation rate of 75.3 percent ranked it second highest among the state’s urban districts, James added, but the district is tops in urban districts in the state for its five-year graduation rate of 80.8 percent, which the audience applauded.

He also gave a shout-out to King Elementary School in West Akron for earning the Excellent with Distinction rating, and he also thanked the school’s PTA for donating $60,000 for new technology for the new school building being constructed on the site of the old school on Memorial Parkway. [For an update on that, see related News & Notes item on Page 3.]

James thanked the APS staff and teachers for their hard work in helping the district move forward. But he acknowledged their efforts must continue due to the implementation of new teacher performance evaluation standards, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, changes to the state report card that will see an A through F ranking system and new education standards based on the Common Core State Standards, as well as new tests and assessments.

“A lot of change is expected in a short time,” he said. “For us, it is imperative that we reassess what we are doing in order to make room for the things that we are required to do instead of the things we want to do, and strike a balance based on collaborative input, keeping in mind that our students are the first priority.”

James also touched on the district’s school rebuilding project, noting that the Firestone/Litchfield Community Learning Center is in the design phase. He said he looks forward to completing the program and specifically mentioned the Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and North, Ellet, Garfield and Kenmore high schools as being next in line for new facilities.

He added he would meet with board members and city and state officials to reconvene the school facilities planning committee to review the district’s master plan and “propose revisions that will get us to program completion.”

James’ speech can be read or viewed at www.akronschools.com/news.

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