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How One Ohio School District Is Beating the Odds

Steubenville, Ohio has proven to be one of the nation’s highest achieving high-poverty districts. In fact, Steubenville’s third and fourth graders read and do math at levels comparable to the nation’s wealthiest districts. In a recent series of podcasts, Karin Chenoweth of The Education Trust explores what Steubenville is doing different to achieve those results.

Once a thriving small city, Steubenville, Ohio has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Many school districts in similar circumstances have seen academic achievement plummet. But not Steubenville.

Chenoweth explores why. She finds both a culture of learning, delivered by an experienced staff proud of their community, and a commitment to a strong curriculum are boosting achievement there. This rust-belt school district both starts early with well-developed pre-kindergarten program. And it takes steps to head off the inevitable slump that comes in secondary school.

Back in the late 1990s, Ohio adopted a law that said that fourth graders who couldn’t pass a reading test would have to be held back a grade. Steubenville educators realized that some of their students would get caught up in that law and were determined not to let that happen.

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They researched some possible programs that might help and settled on Success for All (SFA), a program developed at Johns Hopkins University. Chenoweth interviews Robert Slavin, one of the founders of SFA, who describes how the program's mix of consistent curriculum, scripted lessons and cooperative learning contribute to student achievement. An aggressive push in the early grades helps set up students for success.

But Steubenville, like many other school districts, finds that achievement begins to diminish after fourth grade. "Not for long," the district's educators tell Chenoweth. The district brought Success for All to middle school, which took some getting used to. For one, the program requires students receive reading instruction for 90 minutes a day, something that most middle school teachers are not accustomed to doing.

At the high school level, more than 93 percent of Steubenville students graduate, compared to about 83 percent across Ohio. Still, the rate is lower than at some of the state's wealthy white schools. The district has responded by providing upper level classes that can provide college credit. Some of them are taught by college professors brought into the high school. The program is open to all students.

The city also had to deal with a non-academic crisis: two Steubenville high school boys convicted of rape in a highly publicized case. They brought in a program called High School That Works that combined the college-ready curriculum with targeted career tracks. They chose aviation and engineering to create opportunities for students who don't plan to go to college.

The Steubenville podcasts are part of The Education Trust's series: “ExtraOrdinary Districts: ordinary school districts that get extraordinary results.” Chenoweth profiles three school districts – including Steubenville – that demonstrate the power schools and districts have to educate all children, no matter what their background.

All three parts of episode three on Steubenville, as well as the entirety of the podcast, are available on Sound Cloud, iTunes, and Google Play.