By Monica Chapman
School superintendent Scott Howard is a student in his own class.
Howard, superintendent of Southeastern Ohio's Chesapeake Union Exempted Village Schools, was instrumental in launching and directing the Ohio Appalachian Educators Institute (OAEI) in 2005. Now, as a participant, he's on the receiving end of his own efforts.
OAEI is a two-year professional development program intended to help educators address the achievement gap facing students in Ohio's 29-county Appalachian region. Developed at Ohio University-Southern, it now is housed at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs on the Athens campus.
On Thursday, Howard was among representatives from six school districts recognized for completing OAEI training.
"This kind of training is what high-performing and more affluent school systems get day in and day out," Howard said. "And that's what thrills me -- to see the teachers in our region getting the high-quality training that other high-performing school systems in the state and the country are getting. We should have had it a long, long time ago."
The OAEI's first-year curriculum, Leadership Systems and Change, is made up of six multiple-day training sessions that introduce district teams to the skills and knowledge needed for school reform. Participating districts will follow up with a student achievement project, during which they will apply skills they learned during year one. District teams comprise eight to 10 school leaders, including school superintendents, principals, teachers and union representatives.
"The backbone of the program is that you have to have all of the people in the school community involved in any change initiative," said project coordinator Terry Murphy of the Voinovich School. "That means the superintendent's office, the building administrators and the teachers. It's more powerful if you have all three of those groups together."
Patricia Frost-Brooks, president of the Ohio Education Association, and Patrick Dolan, author of "Restructuring Our Schools, a Primer on Systemic Change," were among notable speakers at Thursday's ceremony.
The state of education in Appalachian Ohio gained greater visibility in 1992, when the Ohio Board of Regents published a study titled Appalachian Access and Success. It found that 80 percent of high-school seniors surveyed in the region wanted to attend college, but only about 30 percent actually did so. This was substantially lower than the Ohio "college going rate" of 41 percent and the national rate of 62 percent at that time.
According to Lesli Johnson, senior research and project manager for the Voinovich School, inadequate school funding -- largely attributed to an economically disadvantaged tax base -- is the primary concern for schools in Appalachian Ohio. Educators' limited opportunity for professional development poses an additional hindrance.
"The educators in our region have done a lot to make up for the gap in the last several years. Our schools, in many ways, are outperforming a lot of the urban districts," Johnson said. "But while we are closing that gap, there is still some work to be done."
The OAEI seeks to bring about change in schools by supporting leadership development, creating learning communities and facilitating relationships between unions and district management. The organization is a collaborative venture between the Ohio Department of Education, National Education Association, Ohio Education Association and Ohio University's Voinovich School.
"(The OAEI) is not prescriptive," Johnson added. "We work to try to empower the leadership team members to identify what their issues are and the best strategy in their district to address those issues. We have a strong emphasis on using data from multiple perspectives to identify strengths and weaknesses and use them to benchmark progress towards change."
Thursday's graduating class included representatives of Chesapeake Union Exempted Village School District, Gallia County Local School District, Rolling Hills Local, Vinton County Local School District, Zanesville City School District and Gallia-Vinton Educational Service Center. This was the third class of graduates to complete OAEI training. Nineteen districts have attended the institute since its inception in 2005.
"People get engaged and invested and become empowered in thinking that they can look at issues in their schools and make a difference," Johnson said. "We see improved relationships between administrators and teaching staff and a recognition of leadership across all levels of the school organization."
For Howard, the scope of the OAEI is much broader than the six districts comprising this year's graduating class.
"My vision for this is that we will eventually become a recognized model for how you deliver high-quality professional development to rural schools across the country," Howard said. "My hope is that this program continues to renew itself and get better and better and better."