Innovative Ohio schools struggle to make ends meet

While funding for most public schools will be flat - and schools will be lucky with that - for innovative schools at both ends of the state's pre-K-12 education ladder, the budget is nothing short of doomsday. For example, the state's Early Learning Initiative program provided major support for preschools and its demise has resulted in the abrupt closure of some of them throughout the state.

"We didn't foresee this happening. We thought there would be cuts but we didn't see the program going away completely," said Nancy Gazzerro, who had to close two preschools in two Dayton-area charter schools as part of the private Mini-University system (see here). In March, one of her schools was the first preschool in Montgomery County to receive the state's highest rating for preschools. "To turn around and have to close the doors was heart-breaking," she said. Gazzerro has reopened the schools but is only running one class in each school. She needs private funding to continue. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the state's nine early college academy high schools are facing possible closure at the end of the school year. These schools offer an intense program to prepare at-risk, low-income, inner-city students for college. They lost a $12-million state subsidy.

In addition to Dayton, early college academies operate in Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Elyria, Lorain, Toledo, and Youngstown. The state, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested more than $40 million in these schools over the last few years. 

"This is a reform movement that has been touted across the state. It's disconcerting. Other states such as Indiana, North Carolina, Utah, and Texas are embracing the [early college] concept," said Judy Hennessey, principal of the Dayton Early College Academy. These states are embracing this as a workforce development conduit for underrepresented kids to college."

DECA's $750,000-a-year state subsidy amounts to about a quarter of the school's budget and, without it, the school will eventually fail, said Thomas J. Lasley, education dean at the University of Dayton. Lasley serves on the DECA board. 

At DECA, where about 96 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, achievement stacks up well. "The kids are walking out with not just high-school degrees but with substantial college coursework under their belts," he said, pointing out the irony of the state hurting schools that are successfully preparing students for higher education at the same time state officials are calling for a 230,000-student increase at Ohio colleges and universities.

"Overall, 80 percent of Ohio's early college students are leaving high school with a semester's worth of college credit," Lasley said. "That's the tipping point for success in completing a degree." 

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