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Village schools— New year, new requirements

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A host of newly set alarm clocks are going off about the same time near dawn each weekday across the village as the 2017–18 school year gets underway at Yellow Springs Schools. Classes started with enthusiastic fanfare Friday, Aug. 25, at Mills Lawn, McKinney Middle School and Yellow Springs High School as teachers and staff welcomed students to a new academic year.

Police Chief Brian Carlson helped, too, setting up a streamer-festooned canopy outside Mills Lawn’s entrance to greet elementary school students with a cheery “good morning” and junior officer police badge stickers.

With the new school year also comes a variety of new initiatives and policies — some the result of changing state and federal requirements and funding.

New graduation requirements

Particularly significant are graduation requirements, which are determined by the state Legislature.

This year’s seniors were given a bit of a reprieve earlier this summer on a set of additional requirements signed into law in 2014 and meant to be effective with the class of 2018. Softened by the inclusion of alternative channels this school year, the new requirements remain intact for subsequent graduating classes.

The 2014 legislation — House Bill 487 — eliminated the Ohio Graduation Test, but in its place prescribed the acquisition of 18 points, earned by passing a series of end-of-year tests, among other academic means. The points are in addition to the minimum 20 course credits required to graduate as well.

But school administrators across the state complained that the new requirements are an onerous burden that threatened the graduation of more than 50 percent of their senior classes.

In a recent interview at the school board offices, Yellow Springs Superintendent Mario Basora called the legislation “another unfunded mandate” by lawmakers. “We were pretty strongly opposed to it in Yellow Springs,” Basora said.

But while opposed to the new requirements, the local district will be “less affected by these new rules than other districts,” Basora said. With a small student population, “less than a handful of our kids” will have difficulty finishing, he said, and an attentive staff can identify trouble early. “We can really work to target and help them be successful graduates,” he said.

Meanwhile, in response to the statewide criticism, the General Assembly in June modified the rules for 2018 graduates, offering supplemental completion pathways.

If a current senior doesn’t earn the specified minimum 18 points, the student can still graduate by meeting two of nine other options, according to the Ohio Department of Education website. Those options include: having a 93 percent senior-year attendance; earning a 2.5 GPA in at least four full-year senior classes; completing a senior-year capstone project; and completing 120 hours of senior-year work or community service.

In a recent interview in his office, McKinney Middle and High School Principal Tim Krier noted that some of the alternative options, including the “capstone” project and community service work, are already part of the Yellow Springs High School experience.

Moving all students toward successful graduation is a main goal for the high school staff, Krier said, adding that Yellow Springs has achieved a 100 percent graduation rate for the past three years.

He said the additional tests and requirements add more anxiety to an already stressful time in students’ lives, but he said he was confident nonetheless that Yellow Springs students could meet the new state provisions.

One of the superintendent’s biggest concerns lies with the amount of testing involved. “The kids are going to be really over-tested,” he said. What’s more, the staff — particularly the school counselors — will be spending more of their time on testing, rather than activities that could be serving students better, he said.

The state requirements aside, Krier said that the high school staff has spent the last couple of years developing a set of criteria and accompanying rubrics that outline “skill sets and knowledge for what students should be able to do when they graduate from Yellow Springs.”

Called the “Essential Attributes of a Fearless Thinker,” and unveiled to students and their families at the Aug. 21 open house, they consist of five  desired academic facets: agency, innovation, academic rigor, collaboration and professionalism.

Each attribute includes a defined competency. Academic rigor, for example, means students “[d]emonstrate the curiosity, academic content, and critical thinking to acquire new knowledge, develop understanding, and make connections beyond the classroom.”

The five “essential attributes” will guide curriculum development, with particular emphasis on the district’s project-based learning format.

“This is where we landed as a staff,” Krier said. “I’m really excited about this.”

Changes at Mills Lawn

Changing legislative winds have also affected Mills Lawn, where an 18.5 percent — $20,000 — reduction in federal Title I funding this year has meant some reshuffling of resources at the elementary school in order to meet the needs of struggling readers.

“We’re used to some cutting in the last few years, but this year’s is a significant reduction in our allotment,” Mills Lawn Principal Matt Housh said in a recent interview in his office.

Title I is a federally funded general education support program tied to percentages of children from low-income families. Primary support is offered to help struggling readers.

The latest reduction is “not due to population or needs changing,” Housh said.

Reading help is especially critical in light  of the so-called “Third-Grade Guarantee,” a state law that requires all students pass a reading competency test before progressing to fourth grade.

The school’s Reading Center has in recent years had a staff of three or four people, including the Title I teacher, Kristin McNeely, Housh said, but this year, because of the funding cuts, the staffing has been reduced to McNeely and an aide. The cuts also necessitated some reshuffling of financial resources, he said, “just to have that baseline of services.”

All in all, however, Housh said he is excited about the new year.

The new PBL Foundations class will be a great addition, he said. The purpose of the class is to help young students in kindergarten through third grades learn some of the essential components of the district’s PBL curriculum, such as collaboration and communication. The hands-on nature of the class will be “awesome,” he said. “They’ll love it.”

Related to the PBL focus, Mills Lawn staff members have created some new “maker spaces” in the school. The after-school program’s former office off of the gym has been turned into a recording studio, with computers and audio-visual equipment that can be used there or borrowed for projects in the classroom or out in the community.

A custodial storage area has been cleaned out, with the janitorial supplies moved to an outside shed, and the space turned into a wood shop, with a miter saw, circular saw, drill, staple guns — “all the tools that you would use for simple wood-working projects.”

Housh said he is also excited about the ongoing development of an outdoor education area, where a newly paved path and several picnic tables allow for better group use for science and environmental lessons.

Getting students outdoors is important at Mills Lawn, Housh said. Where many schools report reductions in outdoor and recess time, “we’ve rebelled and gone the other way,” he said. “We’re not forcing kids to sit at desks and do test prep.”

In a piece of good news on the testing front, the social studies test for fourth and sixth grades is no longer required, though it is recommended. “That’s one less test we have to give,” Housh said.

The newest statewide change concerns attendance and truancy. “Instead of days absent, they’re looking at hours of absence,” Housh said. The exact particulars have yet to be distributed to the schools, but staff will send a letter to families when details are known.

All the administrators agreed that the new year holds a lot of promise.

“We’re pumped about the future,” Superintendent Basora said.

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