ELYRIA — It was a normal Wednesday at Elyria’s Franklin Elementary School.
Students were drilled on math problems, read aloud to their teachers and Principal Lisa Licht stopped by classrooms to ensure the business of education was at hand. There was no mention of the big news to come later in the evening at the Elyria Schools board meeting.
There, roughly two hours after the school day ended, officials announced a reform project with the potential to turn around Franklin, chronically one of the district’s academic weak spots. With a financial commitment of $1.25 million over five years from the Stocker Foundation, a new educational strategy will be implemented at the school on the city’s south side.
The focus during the next five years will be in the areas of preschool, early education, literacy, technology and parent involvement.
“This is the most creative, fantastic plan with more dollars attached to it to come across my desk in 40 years of education,” said Superintendent Paul Rigda. “We have found something in the Stocker Foundation that is rare — a partner that has listened to what we want to do, and understands our needs.”
Rigda, who is in his last years at the helm of the district and likely wants to leave with a legacy of across-the-board academic achievement under his belt, could not contain his excitement as details of the plan, appropriately called New Beginnings, was unveiled. He has long said with the right team, right support and right approach, Franklin could be just as successful as any other school in Elyria.
Patricia O’Brien, executive director of the Stocker Foundation, sat just feet away with the district’s Director of Academic Services Ann Schloss.
For the foundation, New Beginnings is about fulfilling a pledge made years ago when its board members decided the direction the philanthropic institution would make.
“We wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t have the faith you can do this,” O’Brien said.
When a school pledges to reform, it basically means it wants to blow the doors off what is deemed traditional education and try something new.
“Franklin Elementary has gained ground academically and we’ve tried many ways over the years to tweak instruction and learning, but at some point tweaking doesn’t do it anymore — you need to make effective change,” Schloss said. “This is a catalyst for that kind of change. What’s more, the staff at Franklin is ready for change. They’re motivated to try something new.”
So what is the “new” in New Beginnings?
n Two preschool classes for 4-year-old children residing in the Franklin neighborhood. They will attend classes 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. four days per week.
n All other students will attend class from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., which equates to 45 minutes of additional instruction time.
n Arts and technology will be heavily incorporated into the classroom.
n The building will be wired for WiFi. A technology lab for students, parents and community members will be built.
n Tablet stations and carts will be available throughout the school and a full-time technology coach will be hired to help staff members embed technology into the curriculum.
n Students will spend more time in core subjects.
n Teachers will work with parents once a week to address student needs. Parent workshops will be facilitated by teachers with support from Lorain County Community College.
n A Franklin-based home liaison and school counselor will assist parents.
Starting in the fall, the status quo will no longer be the story at Franklin. So much so, Schloss said the school may even change its name.
“We don’t want people to think we are getting this money and going to do the same things,” she said. “This is going to be a big change that everyone has to get behind.”
Licht had little to say during the meeting in regard to a plan that would change her day-to-day life. But that was not because she is not behind the plan. She wanted to show her support for the big announcement, but returned to the school for the school’s literacy night. While she was at the meeting, teachers were meeting with parents and students to talk about way to increase the school’s reading scores and get youngsters more excited about reading.
“We’re asking for change, primed for change,” Licht said.
Rigda said the school’s unions were consulted on the reform plan early on and with a vote of 82 percent, backed the idea of lengthening the school day and taking on more responsibility. Those who did not said it was not because they were not in favor of the plan, but could not personally invest the time needed.
As such, for the next five years the school will be staffed only with the staff who want to be at the school.
It’s not a surprise Stocker is backing Franklin.
“The Stocker Foundation has a tradition of being first in innovative funding,” said school board member Evelyn France. “When the Ohio Summer Food Service program started, Stocker was there first. The same with the Dream Catcher Program and the Women’s Development Program — Stocker has a history of being involved in the community so much that I don’t see them as just a funder, but also as a friend to Elyria Schools.”
In recent years, the foundation has streamlined its philanthropic efforts to focus on one key area: The education of area youth, particularly literacy among younger children. They do it by funding enrichment programs for struggling schools and putting literacy in the heart of communities with the creation and installation of Little Free Libraries across the county.
If there was ever an Elyria school in need of a little extra attention, it would be Franklin.
For years, the students have garnered a bad rap for gaps in academic performance, often putting the school at the bottom of the list when state standardized test scores are released.
In August, the most recent time the Ohio Department of Education released school rankings, Franklin earned failing or low grades in several areas. The one bright spot on the school’s report card was its ability to ensure students learn more than a year’s worth of curriculum in a year. Referred to as value-added, the measurement looks at math and reading scores to determine whether students are making significant gains from year to year.
Elyria educators have long wanted to make changes at Franklin for some time, but lack of funding has stood in the way. Transforming Franklin — much like what Stocker is stepping up to fund — was the proposed project Rigda submitted to the state for funding through the highly competitive Straight A Fund. The idea was rejected by the state, but Rigda said he didn’t give up on the plan.
“But this approach is exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking the governor is calling for,” Rigda said. “Today’s answers to education issues lie in the public sector.”