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January 13, 2002
Section: Opinion

School renaissance under way
RON PONDER

The word �renaissance� means rebirth or revival, and hopefully that just could be what the Canton City School District is experiencing.
Canton City has many of the impediments that come with being an urban district, including a higher-than-average poverty rate, a dismal overall graduation rate and the fact that it has been languishing on the bottom rung of the state�s ratings category for school districts, academic emergency.

However, as the recent release of the state�s report card on districts proves, Canton City has rapidly improved to the next level, academic watch, and could be well on its way to laying claim to the title �the comeback district of the decade.�

It is not by accident that the district is improving. It is by hard work and broad, good leadership.

Former Superintendent Fred Blosser, other educators, the teachers union and members of the community realized how bad the district was and thus became determined to change whatever they thought needed to be changed to increase the academic standards of the district�s students. Starting with the Timken Regional Campus, a huge grant from the Timken Co. and cooperation from its teachers, parents and the community, the district began to make some changes that would make startling and rapid improvements in its academic standing.

Most of the changes emanated from the Timken Regional Campus, under the leadership and education reform policies of Adrienne O�Neill and her staff. In fact, many of the changes that raised academic achievement there are being hurriedly implemented throughout the entire district.

And the changes are not just academic changes. Blosser has retired, as have outstanding board members Randy Snow and Virginia Jeffries. But they, along with the current board members, have positioned the district to be taken to the next level by new �super� superintendent, Dianne Talarico, and incoming board members Nadine McIlwain and Richard Milligan. McIlwain, a former teacher and principal, and Milligan, a local attorney, both bring to the job intellect, respect and enthusiasm for the reform efforts begun by their capable predecessors.

Talarico, who functions under the premise that all children can learn, has made striking inroads with parents, teachers, administrators and students.

But the renaissance doesn�t stop there.

The Stark Education Partnership, formerly under the leadership of its brilliant executive director, Dennis Gray, played an important role as an educational change agent. However, Gray and others understood that being a change agent meant that your role has a finite existence, which in this case ended with Gray�s retirement and the appointment of the equally brilliant O�Neill as new executive director.

O�Neill, who sees her role and that of the partnership as being different from what Gray envisioned, has changed the focus to emphasize the word �partner.� She has already begun to work more closely with districts and is busy building local, state and national educational coalitions, while providing resources and leadership based on her track record as an education reformer.

But the renaissance doesn�t stop there.

Support for this educational renaissance is also coming from the private sector.

Ward J. �Tim� Timken Jr., in a continuing commitment of the Timken family to community involvement, is co-chairing a special community-based education committee, along with Debbi Embry, president and CEO of the Canton Urban League. The goal of this committee is to seek ways to better engage the community, including parents, businesses and even students in education reform.

Both the young Timken and Ms. Embry, examples of the coming generation of community leaders, have become quick studies of education reform and bring zest, intelligence, credibility and private-sector leadership to augment the successful reform efforts of the district. Their presence will soon be very evident to the community as they turn their research and planning into action.

Parents have also gotten involved in the educational renaissance. What started out as a group of parents who met at a local barber shop to discuss athletic eligibility has itself evolved into a reform-minded group that has had a positive impact on the Canton district, raising academic standards for not only athletes but all students.

And what was truly refreshing to see was that this group of concerned parents, along with the Canton Urban League, Stark County NAACP, African-American Federation and Allen School PTO, recently released a joint statement on education, supporting Ms. Talarico and education reform.

What is significant about this education renaissance is that, unlike past reform efforts in Canton, this one seems to have gained a momentum that has been sustained by necessity, leadership and success itself.

Of course, there is still much work to be done in education reform in Canton if its achievement levels are to continue to increase. And while it is true that the district has great resources, a new superintendent, two new board members, new facilities, a new partner in the Stark Education Partnership, a new, community-based education committee, more parental support, support from the media and President Bush�s focus on education, we must do our part and find the political will, as Blosser says, to �stay the course.�

If not, this renaissance will indeed stop here, and so will the chances of Canton City students� being able to function as productive members of our community and the world.

Ron Ponder of Plain Township is president of PonderSystems, a management consulting company, and part-owner of Advantage Media. He is a member of The Repository�s Board of Contributors.


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