Dr. Joseph A. Vanfossen, Jr.
As you know, Dover City Schools has major changes on the horizon. On October 9, 2018, the last day to register to vote and a mere four weeks before the 2018 Ohio General Election, The Times Reporter ran an article, featuring imagery of the new Dover High School that is currently under construction, but barely tangentially related to the content of the article as the levy is an operating levy and is not tied to the construction of the new facility. The article titled “Dover school officials outline cuts that would be made if levy fails in November” provides an outline of cuts to come if the levy fails that are slated to become active in the 2019-2020 academic year. Some cuts have no effect on the student population, such as the elimination of senior citizen passes to school activities. Others have a major impact on the student population, including pay-to-play extracurricular activities, including athletics, and a restructuring of the district’s elementary schools. While it is important to consider other impacts, the primary focus of this piece is on the plan for restructuring the elementary schools.
The model being used for the restructuring of the elementary schools is commonly referred to as the “Princeton Plan.” Now, when I hear the term Princeton Plan, my mind wanders off to a group of giants in the academic world working at an Ivy League university with positions named for the endowment that generated the post. So, what can be wrong with this plan? Well, the Princeton Plan has its roots in the civil rights era, and the end of segregation in schools. In 1948, Princeton, New Jersey was the type of community that you might imagine hosting an elite university. It had an affluent white population that was well employed, and a smaller ‘ghetto’ near the town center where the lower-middle income African American population was concentrated.
Being a community ahead of its time, in 1948, Princeton decided to integrate its school system. Under the Princeton Plan, the towns two ‘separate-but-equal’ K-8 elementary schools were merged and striped by grade level as K-5 and 6-8. As a secondary benefit the school system was able to merge the staff of each school and eliminate a few positions because of the change to the distribution of the student body. The plan was implemented swiftly and heavy-handedly as a means of forcing integration and intentionally eliminating time for an opposition to form. Do not get me wrong, the integration of schools and changes to civil rights policies are among the best things to happen in the United States of America since the abolition of slavery, but I must to raise the question, “Is adopting a heavy-handed 70-year-old plan the best method to solve a twenty-first century fiscal situation?”
I ask you to implore yourself. What is it that makes our communities in Tuscarawas County great places to call home? One thing that will come to mind is the enormous sense of pride associated with each of our communities. I bet that one of the first few questions that you ask an alumnus of your high school is, “Which elementary school did you go to?” The elementary school that you attended is something with which the vast majority of us who have had the privilege of learning in a neighborhood elementary identify. I am a 2000 graduate of Claymont High School and attended Eastport Elementary for grades K-4, in case you were wondering. We certainly had our share of school pride. My favorite athletic cheer was “Mustang Pride” call and response where one individual would call out Mustang, and the team would respond Pride. The call and response repeated three times. When I was a sophomore in high school we had a new football coach, and he said that he would choose our cheers during practice and games.
Well, it wasn’t long before we had a great practice, and at the end we did “Mustang Pride.” At that moment, it was clear to me that with a sense of pride and a strong will that traditions could be allowed to continue, even under adversity. As prideful as my Mustang community is, and there are few things that can compare the feeling of pride I got stepping onto the wrestling mat my senior year before a packed house in “The Pit,” but the residents of Dover are on another level. From the time that I started dating my wife and we attended our first football games and basketball games together, it was clear that Dover takes things to another level. Everyone I have met in this community has great pride in its schools and its athletics. It is only in Dover that football fans leaving at half-time stay to watch the marching band show, or that the football coach will strategically use timeouts to allow the band to perform a half-time show that had been stripped away by the home school. Everyone knows the lyrics of the alma mater and the fight song, often learning them in elementary school.
Fast forward a few years, and my daughter is enrolled at Dover Avenue and my son at Dover South. From the first day of school my children have come home with an immense sense of pride surrounding their elementary schools and Dover City Schools. On Labor Day, September 3, my son appeared in a photograph in The Times Reporter highlighting the End of Summer Celebration at the Dover park. Renee Sattler, Principal at Dover Avenue, recognized him as the son of a former Dover Avenue Kid, my wife, and the little brother of a current Dover Avenue Kid, my daughter, and sent home a laminated copy of the image. It is the little things like this that make the neighborhood model of schools such an endearing model. The teachers and administration develop a strong bond with their pupils because they see our children and interact with our children daily for up to six years. When the administrators at these schools have the presence of mind to identify with students, who are not under their direct care, it provides incredible anecdotal evidence for why neighborhood schools are a good thing.
If we remove the sense of pride associated with our neighborhood schools, what will the long-term effects be in regard to community pride and support in the future? Will we still go to Crater Stadium on Friday night to a packed house? Will the community have the same sense of pride?
Literature shows, based on analyses of large administrative data sets, that students who experience a transition to middle school at the start of either their grade 6 or grade 7 experience a statistically significant drop in their learning trajectories and struggle to recover compared to students who remain in a K-8 school. With the Princeton Plan, the students are being asked to transition four times, twice during their K-5 years, once to transition to middle school, and once more to transition to high school. One of the “pros” of the Princeton Plan that often gets touted is that the middle school transition no longer matters, because the students have transitioned twice already. If a single transition results in a statistically significant impact on the students’ learning trajectories, I am not convinced that increasing the number of transitions and making the transitions at younger ages is going to alleviate the impact that transitioning has on students. Transitioning comes with its share of stress and emotional tolls as well. During the 2017-2018 school year, I took a position that relocated my family from Dover to North Carolina. The transition manifest itself in alterations to my children’s behavior and learning in ways that I will not air out in this writing. When the opportunity came this spring to take a position that brought us back home this fall, I could not pass it up. Even though the transition home was a bit easier, it has still manifest itself again in my children’s behavior and learning outcomes.
Chardon Local Schools in northeast Ohio has been working on a reconfiguration plan since 2014 with a goal of implementing the plan by 2020. Their process has been much more open with documentation provided to the community. Chardon Local rejected the Princeton Plan for reasons including “no increase in curricular benefits,” “impractical transportation,” and“impact on parents with multiple children.” When Dover City Schools asked for funding to build a school on the north end of town many in the community railed against the location because of logistic issues. Under the Princeton Plan, EVERY elementary student will be in need of transportation for at least four years of their pre-K-5 years meaning that children will be spending significantly more time on the bus. For instance, a student that gets picked up in the morning and dropped off at the third elementary school a bus visits or transfers from one bus to another can easily spend an additional 20 to 40 minutes per day on busing.
If restructuring is necessary, then it should be a plan that is evidence-based and lead to enhanced learning outcomes. Dover City Schools may be in need of considering options for the future, but by no means is the time period between November 2018 and August 2019 enough time to properly study, share the district’s vision with the community, get all stakeholders on board, and properly implement a drastic reconfiguration of the school district. The manner in which this plan was introduced to the community has the feel of using the proverbial sledgehammer to drive a finishing nail. I would like to ask the school administration, “Is adopting a heavy-handed 70-year-old plan the best method to solve a twenty-first century fiscal situation?”