Kudos and criticism aired at Reynoldsburg school board meeting

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Staff members of Herbert Mills Elementary School were recognized by the Reynoldsburg school board Nov. 20 for being named an Ohio "School of Promise," but a high school senior believes the district could be doing a lot better to challenge students.

The board presented staff members with a proclamation congratulating them on the honor presented last month for helping all students achieve despite its high poverty rate.

"Schools of Promise" must have at least 40 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, and have at least 75 percent of its students pass reading and math proficiency tests. They must also meet adequate yearly progress standards for this group.

There are 1,607 schools in Ohio with at least 40 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged and there were only 194 honorees, including 10 in Franklin County.

"It’s a very strict criteria," commented Superintendent Richard Ross.

Herbert Mills has 48 percent of its students receiving assistance. In 2006-07 testing, its third-graders had a 77.1 percent passing rate for reading and 88.1 percent for math.

Eighty-five percent of fourth-graders passed the reading and math tests, and 91 percent passed the writing test, pointed out Principal Craig Seckel.

For its adequate yearly progress goals, 98.9 percent of its economically disadvantaged students passed the reading test and 100 percent passed the math exam. The state standard is 95 percent passage.

Teachers illustrated some of the unique learning experiences offered to the students at Herbert Mills.

Last year, second-grade teacher Teresa Cotner taught a unit on poetry that culminated in Snoopy’s Dog House Cafe poetry night, a theme selected by the students.

The project, which is being repeated this year, is one that is designed to engage the students in authentic, multi-disciplinary learning, Cotner explained.

"It’s a daily challenge to spark a love of learning," she said.

Students wrote letters to local businesses soliciting donations for the evening event.

On the night of the event, in a room decorated with student art projects and a Miles Davis jazz CD playing, students and parents wrote and read poetry while sipping hot chocolate from mugs glazed by the school’s art teacher. They also sang a "welcome song" composed by music teacher Nicole Nightingale.

In keeping with the theme, the participants tried instruments at Schroeder’s Sound Station, checked out books from Linus’s Library, composed verse at Lucy’s Language Lab, and read their own "Spring is When…" poems at Charlie Brown’s Kite-Eating Poet-tree.

Cotner said she observed students’ reading and writing skills, as well as their confidence and self-esteem, improve due to the project.

Strengthening the character of students has also been a focus at Herbert Mills, reported third-grade teacher Greta Clouse, chair of the character education committee.

At monthly Tiger town meetings, educators emphasize pride, respect, responsibility, determination, caring and honesty, with teachers acting out skits that show the wrong and right ways to exhibit these traits.

At the assemblies, students wear t-shirts emblazoned with the school’s mission statement. T-shirts, donated and printed by local merchants, are presented to new students to make them feel welcome, Clouse said.

To show their caring, students have adopted 400 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be writing letters and sending snack packages to them.

Students of the month are recognized at PTO meetings, which encourages more parents to attend, Clouse said.

Kudos to criticism

Amid the kudos for the Herbert Mills staff, Danni McConnell, a Reynoldsburg High School senior, presented a petition with 250 signatures from students, alumni, residents and parents who believe that the district’s academic standards are too low.

"Imagine the OSU football team playing at middle school level," McConnell said. "Now imagine students capable of college schoolwork learning at a 10th grade level…I know from experience that this occurs daily at Reynoldsburg High School."

McConnell faulted the district for simply preparing students to pass state standardized tests, and claimed that Reynoldsburg’s scores on these and the ACT have been declining.

She pointed to research that shows 76 percent of 2006 high school graduates, who have taken recommended core courses, are unprepared for college-level work.

This appears to hold true for Reynoldsburg, as well, McConnell asserted, as half of its graduates drop out of college within their first year.

The malaise extends to the lower grades, McConnell believes.

"I’m tired of asking my sister… an incredibly intelligent sixth grader," what she learned in school that day and getting the answer "nothing," McConnell said.

The student said she was prompted to address the board after the Student Council president failed to deliver a scheduled speech.

She said she has been researching the topic since September, and most of the information is available on the Ohio Department of Education’s web site.

Board President Cheryl Max responded that she has had two children graduate from Reynoldsburg schools, and has one still enrolled, "and I have always found opportunities for my children to engage in curriculum that stretches them."

Board member Mary Jane Underwood added that students have to take responsibility for directing their own learning, and asked McConnell to come up with some specific recommendations to raise standards.

Superintendent Richard Ross said he disagreed with a lot of what McConnell said, but agrees that American educational standards as a whole are too low.

After the meeting, McConnell, who plans to study to become a teacher, said she thinks it is up to the board to come up with ideas to bolster learning.

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