NEWARK — On the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, many challenges remain for Licking County schools.
At a State of the Education forum Wednesday at C-TEC, presented by the United Way of Licking County’s Community Partners Council, administrators from public and private institutions discussed what lies ahead, how they’ve dealt with it, and what the future holds brings.
One of the biggest challenges remains staffing.
“It’s hard to find people who want to work and stay at work, so we have to provide incentives,” Newark Superintendent David Lewis said. “Eighty percent of our costs are salaries and benefits, but we’ve been able to find good candidates,” Licking Valley Superintendent Scott Beery said.
“Can we act fast enough to meet wage demands or get people to come back?” asked Treasurer Kim Pulley of Johnstown-Monroe, which faces explosive growth with the coming of Intel. “We have to get young people excited about teaching and education. They are our next generation,” said Lakewood Superintendent Dr. Mark Gleichauf.
Southwest Licking Superintendent Dr. Kasey Perkins said growth is the biggest challenge for her district.
“We currently have 4,800 students and have grown by 500 in the last 10 years,” she said. “We’re projected to grow by 2,000 over the next 10 years. We have new facilities that are almost full already.”
Schools are still grappling with the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Student behavior has been influenced because our younger students started their education at home. They’re just learning to play at school,” Lewis said. “The social emotional aspect,” said C-TEC Superintendent Dr. Joyce Malainy. “Some had to be hospitalized, more than we’ve ever seen.”
Beery said Valley dedicated much of its money to K-3 students and hired four “learning loss” teachers.
Gisele James, head of Par Excellence Academy, said the lack of affordable housing for families has been a problem. “We lost students because of that,” she said.
The political atmosphere did not help the cause and created its own challenge. Administrators try to keep politics out of the equation.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Beery said. “We can never be conservative enough or progressive enough.”
“Defining truth is a challenge. Who defines truth?” said Josh Sexton, principal at Granville Christian Academy.
The panel was asked what their districts are doing to provide an equitable experience for all students, particularly disadvantaged families.
Lewis pointed out that more than 60% of Newark families are economically disadvantaged. “Fortunately, we have great support from the community, from agencies and others,” he said. “We offer after-school programs, social workers, student advocacy, and summer camps.”
James noted that Par Excellence has no fees or tuition and there are no barriers to enrollment. “We serve five districts and also have a dynamic after-school program based on STEM,” she said.
Sexton said that while Granville Christian does charge tuition for a Christian education, they constantly try to make it more affordable. “We create scholarships and try to engage students in how they can give back to the community,” he said.
Johnstown is already seeing an influx of students who need to learn the English language, Pulley said. So they’re trying to meet that demand and keep providing internet hotspots for those who need them. Perkins said Southwest Licking has partnered with outside organizations, the state of Ohio and local churches, and also plans to do home visits.
Beery said Valley has a fairly high poverty rate and is helping to address it through its Panther Pantry program, which provides food for 5 to 10% of its population. “I delivered food,” he said. “It helps build relationships.”
Graduation rates for 2021-22 ranged from 82.6% for Newark to 98.1% in Granville, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
“Ours were up, but we were down because of COVID,” Lewis said. “Improving parental engagement is an important key.”
Perkins said that while Southwest Licking has a pretty high 95.9 percent rate, “what happened to that 4.1 percent who don’t graduate?” The district has focused on early literacy for K-3 and has had a particular focus on grades 4-8 through the provision of various clubs. “They pick something that interests them, a meaningful connection, something that makes them want to go to school,” she said.
Gleichauf is disappointed with Lakewood’s 91.4 percent completion rate. “School isn’t relevant to them, so we have to connect what we’re doing to work in the real world,” he said. “We need to create pathways for all students, whether they’re going to college, the military or straight to work.”
Beery said one of the biggest challenges is attendance. “We don’t have many problems here, but when we do, it’s significant,” he said. “How do we stay relevant as public educators?”
Sexton said Granville Christian works with his parents to build within families. “We educate both our parents and our students,” he said.
Faced with the challenges of COVID and other factors, Licking County districts have had some successes, particularly academically. Gleichauf said Lakewood’s test results matched pre-pandemic numbers exactly. Malainy reported that C-TEC had a 98% completion rate. “Our greatest achievements have been our academic results, which have taken a lot of effort, and our attention to social and emotional issues,” said James.
Perkins explained that Southwest Licking was able to offer a full in-person option in fall 2020 and “our turnout was one of the highest in the county,” she said.
Sally Mummey, principal at St Francis de Sales School, said they had introduced a classics educational model, with students reading and studying the classics. “Our students have become stronger critical thinkers and better writers,” she said. “We also have a lot of contact, like our third and fourth graders with Ukraine, our pantry, with Heartbeats and with our golf cart service for the homeless.”
Mummey said her school is also constantly reaching out to industries and companies for support. “You must ask. Don’t be ashamed to ask,” she said.
C-TEC is not only committed to business and industry in the district, but also in the region. “We need to develop more specific programs based on what the jobs are,” Malainy said.
Discussed was a recent article in the Columbus Dispatch reporting on the possible usurpation of the authority of the State Board of Education by the state legislature.
While there’s no definitive answer as to how to fix Ohio’s education, one thing is certain, Beery said. “The system remains broken.”
Lewis said Licking County has a built-in advantage.
“There are many quality school districts in this county. I’ve been to different areas of the state and would put her up against anyone, including Franklin County,” he said. “Let’s do our job with our people.”
United Way of Licking County last had a State of Education four years ago. Dale Lewellen, Superintendent of the Licking County Educational Service Center, assembled this week’s panel and Deb Dingus, executive director of United Way, served as moderator.
“United Way is about bringing people together and that’s why we have both public and private schools up here,” Dingus said. “We need to come together for better education and that’s why we’re here.”