Putting "community" into a community school: Q&A with Sciotoville's Rick Bowman

In both our role as researchers and as a charter school authorizer we have come to appreciate over-and-over again the critical importance of school leaders in making schools great. Yet, there is no harder job than running a successful school building for high-poverty students; nor a more important job. We are fortunate that some of these leaders work in schools that Fordham sponsors and it is our privilege to tell a little bit of their stories and the impact they are having on students in Ohio.

Today’s Q&A is with Rick Bowman, the superintendent of Sciotoville Community School, located in rural Southern Ohio. Tragically, we recently learned that Quintin Howard, a 17-year-old senior at Sciotoville passed away in a single vehicle accident on May 25th. At a candlelight vigil for Mr. Howard, Bowman led a prayer and encouraged the community saying “This is a family. They’re not going to be alone. They’re going to have all of us, and we’re going to have each other to work together to get through this very difficult time.” This is a reminder that school leaders are not only a school’s chief executive and chief academic officer. Sometimes, they’re a community’s consoler-in-chief.

For additional context on Sciotoville, see our documentary The Tartans, which can be viewed here. This is the seventh of our seven-part series on school leadership. (Please see our past Q&As with Dr. Glenda Brown, Andy Boy, Dr. Judy Hennessey, Hannah Powell Tuney, Chad Webb, and T.J. Wallace.)

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Rick Bowman was not there when Sciotoville decided it was not going to let East High School close. But no one should have been shocked by that decision, he said. “Everything in Sciotoville revolves around that school.”

It was 12 years ago that Portsmouth City Schools announced it intended to consolidate its two high schools—Portsmouth High School and East High School—in Portsmouth.

Sciotoville’s stunned parents refused to accept the decision and took advantage of Ohio’s then-new charter school law and opened Sciotoville Community School, and they fiercely hung on to the East High School name and its Tartan mascot.

In 2001, the school opened with grades 7-12. Five years later, grades 5 and 6 were added. Then in 2008, the Sciotoville Community School Board opened a K-4 elementary school.

Bowman, 57, is in his second year as superintendent of the two schools. The former principal, health and physical education teacher and basketball coach said East has struggled to better its grade of a “C” on the state report card. He’s paying particular attention to the achievement test scores of the school’s 5th- and 6th-graders, which have dragged down the school’s overall rating. “Our high school scores tend to be very good,” Bowman said.

Meanwhile, last year Sciotoville Elementary Academy had its “best year ever,” moving up to a grade of “B.”

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Bowman.

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Q: Typically charter schools are in urban areas. Talk more about the history of how  Sciotoville got a charter high school.

A: Sciotoville is its own little burg. Though we are separated from Portsmouth by the community of New Boston, Sciotoville has had a partnership with Portsmouth City Schools.

For many years, Sciotoville had three elementary schools that fed East High School in Sciotoville. In the 1990s, Portsmouth closed two elementary schools because of declining enrollment.

I wasn’t here, but then when the state started its school building program, I have to believe the facilities commission said, ‘You are no longer the size you were. You’re four miles from Portsmouth. We’re not going to build two new high schools, one in Portsmouth and one in Sciotoville.’

Sciotoville has always considered itself to be the poor stepchild in the Portsmouth school district. It didn’t start with the decision to close East High School. That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Before that, there were the hand-me-down desks, books, projectors and equipment.

The community’s and the parents’ passion for East High School is unbelievable. The school is key to the community’s identity.

Q: Do any Sciotoville students today go to Portsmouth High School?

A: Hardly any.

Q: Your Sciotoville Elementary Academy competes with East Portsmouth Elementary School, which is also in Sciotoville. How many children go to the Portsmouth public school?

A: Last year East Portsmouth Elementary had 192 kids; 148 were Sciotoville residents.

Many parents send their children there because it’s new. Our elementary school is in modular building on a church parking lot. A lot of parents say, “I’m not sending my kids to school in trailers.”

In 2008, we proposed taking over East Portsmouth Elementary. We do believe that’s probably going to happen because of the money Portsmouth is spending to run the building. It was built for 350 kids.  They’re busing in children to justify keeping it open.

Q: What’s the relationship with Portsmouth City Schools like?

A: The relationship has not been good. It’s certainly strained. I’ve worked hard to establish a working relationship, especially with the transportation coordinator. Busing is a big, big deal for us. No public school district likes the fact that, by law, it has to bus students to charter schools.

We are an inconvenience to them. But it is our hope that we can develop a good working relationship and that we can all come to agreement on what can be done to best serve all of the kids.

Q: How is a charter school in a rural area different than a charter school in an urban area, or are they different?

A: It’s a funny thing. There are a lot of people in Scioto County who don’t know East High School is a community school. Nothing really changed. East continues to offer varsity sports and marching band and the Key Club. We’re competing against all the same schools we’ve always been competing against.

Many community schools are one- dimensional; they have a school and that’s all.

We never stopped doing all the things we did before when we were part of Portsmouth City Schools.

Q: What has changed academically?

A: Sciotoville Elementary Academy was created almost primarily because of academics. As students moved up and went to East High School, teachers were seeing kids coming into 5th grade who were very unprepared.

The parents and board made a proposal to take over East Portsmouth Elementary. When Portsmouth turned them down, the decision was made to have a charter elementary school.

East High School was formed as matter of survival and for community identity. Sciotoville Elementary Academy was started because the community didn’t want to accept something that was not good.

Q: Can you grow?

A: It’s very possible to grow. A big part of our problem is our facilities.

It seems short-sighted for state government to create charter schools and to tell them to think outside of the box, to look at extending the school day and so on. And then say, Sorry, we can’t help you with your buildings. They’re placing us in a 100-year-old box.

Q: What was it like for you to leave the traditional public school arena? Did you retire?

A: I did retire. I planned on continuing to work. I was going to get back into coaching. That’s my second love – after my wife. But that didn’t work out.

As far as coming here, I don’t think anyone thought anything about it. I know most of the people in Scioto County. I don’t think they look at East High School and Sciotoville Elementary Academy as that much different than other schools.

I have a good working relationship with superintendents. I haven’t noticed any change in how people treat me.

Q: You’ve been superintendent for a little over a year now. What are you most proud of?

A: I’m really proud of the “effective” rating at Sciotoville Elementary Academy. I’m not saying that I had anything to do with it. Still, that was a thrill. There’s been a celebration of that. Now we know an “excellent” rating is within reach.

Also, in the last year we’ve been able to come together as a board and administration and as a community on the things we need to concentrate on. There were a lot of distractions before I got here.

Q: What were they?

A: I wasn’t here. I can’t give you specifics. But there were board and administration issues that consumed a lot of time. It was important to me that I was working with people in a way that allowed us to get our work done.

Q: Tell me about a conversation that you’ve had with a parent at either of your schools that reminded you why you’re running a charter school.

A: A couple things come up with parents and community members. There’s a sense of pride. These folks identify with East High School, and Sciotoville East Academy is seen as a part of East.

They also see the care and compassion we give to our kids. Our kids and parents are very thankful—for the snack-pack program, for the personal relationships, for the free latch-key programs before and after school. They were not getting that in the traditional public schools.

We bend over backward to meet the needs of our students.

Q: Tell me about one of the best teachers in your schools?

A: She’s a junior high English teacher. She is excellent. Her care and dedication to those kids is equal to her ability to help them learn. She is at every event. She is at every game. She does this even though we don’t pay what other districts in the county pay.

Her expectations for our kids are high. When you are in a district with at-risk kids, you tend to lower your expectations. The key to her excellence is that she doesn’t do that. She doesn’t ease up on them.

I have a saying that I use a lot. It’s that kids won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. There’s no doubt in those kids’ minds how much she cares.

Q: You mentioned that you don’t pay as well as nearby public school districts. What’s the differential?

A: Our starting salary is $27,200. Most schools are at $30,000 or above. We’re re-implementing our old salary schedule.  There was a period when we couldn’t afford to pay step increases.  We’re also in the process of implementing a performance pay plan.

One good thing we can give our employees is health insurance. We think we have a Cadillac plan. The challenge will be continuing to afford it.

Q: What mistake have you made in the last year?

A: I’m sure we’ve made plenty of them. Ask me that question next year at this time and I’ll have 15 items. But things have gone very well since July 2011.

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