Hope in Ohio

This week, I made my first trip to visit our Ohio team since joining Fordham last year. I found a lot to make me very hopeful about the Buckeye State, as well as seeing things that made clear to me just how difficult the challenges are there.

On Tuesday, Drs. David Driscoll (former Commissioner of Education in MA and a Fordham Board member) and Tony Bennett (State Superintendent of Instruction in IN) testified before the Ohio State Senate finance committee. Both men articulated the challenges facing state departments of education and the smart solutions proposed by the education reform movement. Many of us were impressed by the respectful back-and-forth between the two of them and senators from both sides of the aisle. Given the riotous protests over SB5 just a few short weeks ago, it was heartening to see lawmakers remaining open-minded in their search for solutions to improve public education in Ohio.

I spent the afternoon visiting KIPP Journey and Columbus Collegiate Academy. The students at KIPP, when asked to describe what the school meant to them, deftly turned arguments about poor home life limiting education on their heads. They all said KIPP was a place where they felt safe, cared for, and challenged ? because some of them lacked these things at home, it was all the more important that they find them at school from dedicated teachers. At least three of the kids I talked to (all young men) used the word "family" to describe the community at their school.

The next day, I was in Dayton. When I was leaving for my trip, a friend from Ohio told me (a bit harshly), "Don't judge Ohio based on Dayton." But what I saw going around to schools there made me hope that others in the state share Daytonians' spirit. The city clearly faces very real challenges; that much is obvious from the shuttered factories, boarded-up homes, and high joblessness figures. Yet the community has also stepped up with support for some great schools like the Stivers School for the Arts, a magnet inside Dayton Public Schools, the Dayton Early College Academy, and others. Everyone I talked to believes strongly that Dayton's troubles needn't be permanent and see education as the best lever they have to reverse its trajectory.

The key constraint in Dayton (as in many other places) is human capital. There are plenty of charter schools in and around the city, but few have the kinds of transformational leaders and high-quality boards needed to move Dayton's kids to the next level. I suspect the other, greener kind of capital would follow if there were a way to entice more sharp, entrepreneurial educators to start schools there. Bringing TFA to Ohio is a great first step, but there's still a heavy lift ahead to create a sustainable pipeline of top-notch human capital into Dayton's schools.

On a more personal note, the highlight of the trip for me was getting connected to Fordham's roots in Dayton. I saw the Finn family plot, where Checker's ancestors dating back to the late 19th century are buried. Terry also took me to see ghosts of schools past, places where Fordham poured a lot of sweat and dollars into charters and after-school programs that weren't long term successes, learning hard lessons along the way.

It all drove home the lesson that education is at heart a local endeavor. National and state policy are critically important, but at the end of the day, their purpose is to clear the ground so that teachers and school leaders can prepare kids for a brighter future. I have a lot of hope that that future can become a reality because of the great things I saw going on in Ohio.

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