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APS focusing on digital needs, offerings

8/28/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Becky Tompkins

DOWNTOWN AKRON — In an effort to make the Akron Public Schools (APS) more competitive, the district is hiring three new administrators to boost both the district’s and its students’ digital capabilities.

Superintendent David James has encouraged the Board of Education to hire some specialists, and at its Aug. 25 meeting, the board approved three new positions and immediately filled two of them.

Traci Buckner, who has been the principal at the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Middle School in Downtown Akron, was approved to become the new director of specialty programs.

These include the popular STEM program; the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is now expanding to Case Elementary and Litchfield Middle schools; the visual and performing arts programs at Firestone High School's School for the Arts and Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, among others.

Buckner said she is looking at other innovative new programs, such as one in the medical field and a digital course in environmental science, to be piloted at the STEM Middle School.

“You’ll find it’s a good investment,” she told the board.

Howard Lawson, the longtime director of career education, was approved to be the new executive director of data and accountability. This position is “critical,” said James, as the Ohio Department of Education’s (ODE) Education Management Information System (EMIS) rules are changing. Public school districts are required to report information to EMIS on demographics, attendance, courses, test data and financial reports, with data requirements increasing every year. This year, all the students will be tested online, and teachers will be evaluated by their principals.

“This data is supporting what happens in the classroom,” said James.

A third position approved by the board is a digital learning specialist. This job was not filled, but will be posted, James said. The specialist will work to expand the district’s online offerings, providing more electives and flexibility to compete with many types of schools the APS now finds itself vying with for students.

Board member the Rev. Curtis Walker said, “We are competing against groups that spend a lot of money” on such programs. “Now we are doing our best to offer a wide range of curriculum and choices,” he said.

Before unanimously approving the three new positions, board members discussed their total $300,000-plus cost in light of the district’s need to be fiscally responsible.

James said it’s “about slicing the pie a little differently. The board asked me to push the envelope … to keep us moving with our vision. I look at it as an investment.”

He cited recent sources of additional funding — the operating levy passage in November 2012, the negotiated increase in the amount that employees contribute to their health care costs, administrative cuts over the last several years and the closing of low-attendance schools and the resulting need for fewer staff members — as sources of money to help pay for the new positions.

Walker, the longest-serving school board member, recalled, “We made cuts, got a levy passed, continued to cut and downsize, and now we’re looking at some positive results.”

The board also approved spending $223,000 to get the IB expansion at Case and Litchfield off the ground. Most of that is the cost of professional development for staff at the two schools, James said.

At the same time, the APS is receiving a 21st Century Grant of $200,000 from the ODE for after-school programs at 30 APS elementary and four middle/high schools for the coming year. The board also accepted another grant, in the amount of $185,000, from the City of Akron for after-school programs at 30 elementary schools in the 2014-15 school year.

Thirty-four teachers and numerous substitutes and tutors were hired in preparation for opening today, Aug. 28.

The board’s next meeting is set for Sept. 8 at 5:30 p.m. at the Sylvester Small Administration Building, 70 N. Broadway St.

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