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Five takeaways from Akron Public Schools Superintendent Fowler-Mack's State of the Schools

Akron Public Schools Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack behind a podium speaking at the Akron Roundtable.
Eman Abu-Khaled
/
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Public Schools Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack speaking at the Akron Roundtable on Oct. 20, 2022.

Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack said the state of Akron Public Schools is “strong” Tuesday during annual remarks at the State of the Schools, presented by the Akron Press Club, although she made it clear the district is still facing challenges coming out of the pandemic.

Here are some takeaways from her speech today.

Improvements this year

Fowler-Mack pointed to student attendance rates and student performance metrics improving as signs that the school district is recovering some of the ground lost during the pandemic-related school closures.

Plus, she said the district is continuing to expand its academic programming, through its college- and career-readiness-focused academies.

“We continue to refine what it means to make sure that our students are career, college and life ready,” she said.

She said the district has spent time recently trying to open up dialogue with parents and staff members, and that feedback has suggested improvement at the district as well in terms of their experiences.

She reiterated that the pandemic and pandemic-related school closures did serious harm to students’ learning and mental health.

“We have devoted additional staff to making sure that we can support our students’ additional mental health (needs),” she said. “We’re working differently with families and we’re seeing improvement in those areas.”

Akron Public Schools’ state of Ohio report card rating this year showed there’s a lot of work still to do. It earned the lowest score, one out of five stars, on graduation rates and early childhood literacy performance, and two out of five stars in the “progress” and “achievement” categories. However, that doesn't necessarily capture other ongoing positive trends at the district.

Teachers are still without a contract

Fowler-Mack says she’s “very, very optimistic” that administration will arrive at an agreement with the teacher’s union after months of negotiations.

Pat Shipe, president of the Akron Education Association, the union representing Akron teachers, said teachers have been working without a contract since June 30. Shipe has previously said they had hit an impasse with school administration this summer. She declined to comment on the status of their negotiations.

Shipe did say a fact-finder – like an arbitrator – is set to present a report on how to resolve the two sides’ issues soon, which the union will need to consider. If the union doesn’t ratify the proposed agreement, it could move to issue a strike notice.

Fowler-Mack, in response to a separate question, said she recognizes the pressures teachers are facing as teachers continue to leave the profession in droves. She said the district is doing well on maintaining staffing levels, saying over 80% of the districts’ classrooms are staffed at “appropriate levels.”

She said the district is working to offer more opportunities to "promote wellness and ensure mental health services" are accessible to the teachers. Plus, she said the district needs to be a leader in advocating for more support for teachers at the statehouse.

Fowler-Mack wants to move on from negative performance evaluation

Fowler-Mack was in the news earlier this year after some members of APS’ Board of Education were very critical of her performance. They had called her “insubordinate” and said the relationship between Fowler-Mack and the board had “completely failed” due to her “unwillingness, inflexibility and resistance.” Akron City Council narrowly passed a resolution in response in support of Fowler-Mack.

She said during the state of the schools address that she is on “good terms” with the board. She said she welcomes feedback, but wants to continue to move forward, working in partnership with the board.

“Together we are very committed to the goals and objectives of our district in supporting each of our stakeholders,” she said. “And that’s where our focus is.”

N.J. Akbar, president of the school board, declined to comment about the performance evaluation, or on Fowler-Mack’s comments about her improved relationship with the board. He did give kudos to Fowler-Mack for being willing to change the format of the state of the schools address, which typically is just a speech with no chance for audience questions.

“She should be commended for making that recommendation. I think it allowed everyone in the community engage, I think in a more personable way than the stoic way that just standing at a podium for 45 minutes would give someone,” he said.

Akbar said the board is in the middle of working on another evaluation of Fowler-Mack now.

ARPA funding update

Akron Public Schools received almost $150 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government. Fowler-Mack said some of that money went toward safety improvements at buildings, including improving heating and cooling systems and ventilation systems to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But a lot of the money has also gone toward boosting staffing levels, with the school system hiring about 50 more teachers in order to ensure smaller class sizes.

“Especially for our elementary classrooms, knowing that the teachers would be navigating and accelerating learning, but also recoupoing learning loss,” she said.

The staffing increase also meant more full-time counselors in school buildings.

Once the ARPA funds run out, it’s not clear how the school system will be able to continue funding these increased staffing levels, she said.

Plan needs to be developed for aging buildings

Fowler-Mack said there are 11 “legacy” facilities at Akron Public Schools – school buildings that were not renovated through the recent $800-million, 15-year building renovation and replacement strategy. This includes, for example, the Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

She said she and the school board will need to work on a plan to determine what to do with the facilities, and it’s not clear yet where funding would come from if they were to be renovated.

That will mean assessing how much use the buildings are getting along with enrollment trends, as well as gathering community input.

Conor Morris covers education in Northeast Ohio.