It’s the beginning of a new school year at Taft Elementary, and kindergartners are learning an important life skill: how to navigate the cafeteria.
Walking in a single file, surrounded by stainless steel refrigerators more than twice their height, the kids hand over a yellow lunch ticket to a cafeteria attendant in exchange for today’s meal: a ham and cheese stromboli plus a side of fries, before they’re each faced with a tough question.
"Chocolate?" the lunch lady asks.
The student replies, "Uh, milk."
"Yeah, I know" says the lunch lady. "Chocolate milk or white milk?
The decision? "White."
Apprehension and suspicion
As far as first days go, officials say this one was pretty typical. But behind-the-scenes, that’s not quite the case.
"I’m a little apprehensive about my job security, that’s what I think a lot of teachers are; they’re just worried," says Lori Clarke, a Youngstown teacher who, like many in her union, is worried about House Bill 70.
Over the summer, lawmakers introduced and passed the measure within 24 hours, with little time for public comment. H.B. 70 allows for the state to essentially take over districts that have been continually failing for years. A new committee would appoint a CEO to oversee all of the district’s administrative functions, including hiring staff, overseeing class sizes, and having the option to reopen teachers’ collective bargaining agreements.
Youngstown first on the list
"It happened so fast that I think everybody’s scared," says teacher Lori Clarke. "Like people are gonna come in and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this school is horrible” when really it’s not. There are a lot of dedicated people and I think maybe the way this happened is making people apprehensive about how we’re perceived.”
It happened through a series of meetings with leaders in Columbus and members of a so called “cabinet” including the president of Youngstown State University, the bishop of the Youngstown Catholic Diocese, a former Youngstown school superintendent, and the Youngstown Chamber of Commerce president, Tom Humphries.
The 5,000 left behind
“The breaking point was the fact that we have a potential of 10,000 students in the City of Youngstown," says Humprhies. "Of that, 5,000 go to open enrollment or other school districts. The concern was, nobody’s helping that 5,000 left.
"So that’s really what drove it, was the fact that we had 5,000 kids that didn’t seem to have an out and the system they were in didn’t seem like it was providing an adequate result."
Youngstown’s graduation rate clocks in at 69 percent. Schools have consistently earned Fs on state report cards. And only 1 percent of the Class of 2013 tested ready for college.
The schools’ ills mirror the city’s struggles.
When Youngstown’s steel economy collapsed in the 1970’s and 80’s, the city’s population took a huge hit. Today, 36 percent of the city’s roughly 70,000 residents live in poverty.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Humphries says the new state law could change all of that.
"This school district is going to be classified as one of the best urban-center school districts in the next few years."
An engineer of the change
The new school plan already has one famous fan: Ohio governor John Kasich.
Earlier this month, the GOP presidential hopeful used a chunk of his time at an education event in New Hampshire to talk up the plan, saying it should serve as a model for urban education across the country.
"I actually believe what’s gonna happen in Youngstown, which has been a hard-hit town, where jobs are now coming back, I believe what we’re doing in Youngstown to improve those schools is gonna save the city.”
Not a bunch of idiots
Not so fast, says the area’s Democratic state senator, Joe Schiavoni, who’s not happy with the governor or the Ohio Department of Education.
“Kasich did what he wanted to do, ODE did what they wanted to do, but I’m not going to allow them to make us and Youngstown look like a bunch of idiots across the state, like, that the great Gov. Kasich had to come and save us from ourselves.”
Schiavoni’s thoughts are echoed by many people across the city.
Last week, a handful of local and statewide groups, including the Youngstown City Board of Education and the Ohio Education Association, sued the state to stop the takeover.
They're gambling on a technicality: They say the law didn’t get the required number of hearings in the Legislature, which violates the Ohio Constitution. They also say the law wipes away residents’ local control.
Now, the fate of the plan sits in the hands of a Franklin County judge.