The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

School statistics reflect low wages

Nearly 92 percent of students at Thurgood Marshall classified as ‘economically disadvantaged’

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor -

To grasp how pervasive low-wages and poverty are in Ashtabula, take a look at the state report cards for the buildings in the Ashtabula Area City School District.

The cards include an “economically disadvantaged” percentage for each school. The figure is based upon the number of students receiving free or reduced-rate lunches, says Patrick Colucci, who administers the district’s federal aid programs. A child from a family of four is eligible to receive free lunches if the family’s total income is equal to or less than $26,845. The child qualifies for reduced-rate lunches if the income is $38,203 or less.

The former figure translates into $12.90 an hour, the latter to $18.36. Both are higher than what many of the manufacturing, retail and hospitality jobs pay in this area. Indeed, the former figure is higher than per capita income in Ashtabula County.

It’s little surprise, therefore, that districtwide, 61 percent of Ashtabula City Schools students are classified as “economically disadvantaged.” At Thurgood Marshall Elementary School at least 91.8 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches.

The burden on the educators is staggering, says Joseph Donatone, district superintendent.

“There is absolutely a difference with regard to the socio-economic level of the student and the way in which we educate them,” says Donatone, who has the unique perspective of having worked for both the county’s wealthiest and poorest districts. “In Ashtabula Area City Schools, because it is a low-wealth district, we must provide more resources in terms of personnel and dollars on intervention.”

The district receives about $7 million annually from state and federal sources to help students overcome the roadblocks to learning that accompany them to school every day. That is almost 20 percent of the district’s $36 million annual budget, $22 million of which comes from outside the city.

“We get a lot of money because of the low socio-economic level of these students,” Donatone says.

Like her counterpart in Ashtabula, Mary Zappitelli, superintendent of Conneaut Area City Schools, deals with the double-edged sword of overseeing a district where more than 50 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. The district receives $655,000 annually in poverty-based assistance (PBA), which is used to fund the all-day kindergarten program. Zappitelli feels the money is best spent giving the youngest students a good start on their 13 years of public education.

“Poverty does create its own set of issues, and we need to help overcome those issues when (disadvantaged students) get into the school system,” Zappitelli says.

No administrator wants to get caught stereotyping financially disadvantaged students, yet the realities are undeniable because of the tremendous stress low wages place on family life. It takes a certain amount of money to raise a family, and when that amount is not in the paycheck at the end of the week, it has to made up somehow. For many low-income families, it’s a sacrifice of time — a second or third job — that must be made.

“It doesn’t make you a bad parent,” Zappitelli says. “It makes you a parent who is trying to keep a roof over your child’s head.”

Without parental involvement and/ or the money to purchase educational materials for the home, youngsters come to school ill-prepared to learn.

“These kids come with a lot of baggage,” Donatone says.

Although much of it falls outside “education,” districts with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students first must address the students’ physical and emotional issues if instruction is to be effective.

“They need to be ready to learn, or our best instructional efforts will be of no avail,” Donatone says. “You can’t teach a child who has more pressing things on his mind.”

One of those issues is residential instability. Several years ago, the district did a study of intradistrict transfers: students who moved between or among buildings during the course of a year. Donatone says the district identified some 700 such transfers, which are indicative of unstable conditions within the family. Sometimes, that instability is driven by economics: for example, a family making frequent moves because of evictions. Other times, it is due to a child being shuffled between parents and grandparents because of drug use or relationship-instability issues.

Donatone says these transfers can’t help but disrupt the students’ focus and learning, even though the district takes many steps to ensure a smooth transition.

“Every time a child moves, he or she has to reacclimate him (or her) self to a new teacher, building, peers and different way of instruction,” Donatone says.

Levy pains

The county’s low per capita personal income affects education on the revenue side, as well. Homeowners stressed by rising costs over which they have no control can’t help but be stingy at the ballot box, where they do have a say in how much they’ll pay in real estate taxes. Earlier this month, voters delivered yet another blow to Conneaut’s struggle to raise $1.2 million with an emergency levy, the third attempt.

Zappitelli says the district’s situation has been created by rising costs and declining revenues. On the revenue side, property values are falling, as is the student population. Any reader who has purchased gasoline, paid a natural gas bill or had an increase in health insurance should be able to comprehend the rising-costs portion of the issue.

Staffing levels have been cut, a pay-to-play fee implemented, wages frozen for a year and the number of administrators cut from 17 to 12. Cuts can’t be made quickly enough to make up for the loss in revenue and rise in other expenses, however. Meanwhile, the state refuses to address its unconstitutional way of funding schools.

It’s a mess that is frustrating for administrators and voters alike.

“We’re learning people feel they’ve had to tighten their belts and so should we,” she says.

Trends in the Conneaut district aren’t encouraging. In the 2003-04 school year, 50.9 percent of the students were economically disadvantaged. Three years later, the number had grown to 54.3. The district’s rate of students with disabilities also increased, from 12.4 to 13.7 percent.

“We have more than 400 students who have individualized education plans in place as a result of disabilities,” she says.

To make matters worse, there is an exodus of students, which translates into decreased reimbursements of state and federal funds. Zappitelli feels at least a portion of the decrease is because of a lack of economic opportunity for young families.

“They are leaving this area,” she says. “They are vacating.”

Donatone points to lack of economic opportunity as one of the reasons Ashtabula Area City Schools has lost enrollment, as well. From October 2006 to October 2007, the district lost 155 students. In the prior year, the loss was 49, and in the year before that, 153.

“All the school districts in the county are losing students. People are moving away,” Donatone says.

Statistics from the Cleveland Plus Web site show that, while Ashtabula County overall gained about 500 residents from 2000 to 2005, every city except Conneaut posted slight population losses (Lake Erie Correctional Institution added 1,500 residents during this period). Countywide, the age group to post a population gain was 45 to 64 years. Children, young adults and even the elderly had reduced population numbers.

“What is here to attract people from outside the area?” asks Jim Noyes, executive director of the Ashtabula Metropolitan Housing Authority. “What do we have here that is attractive? We have potential. But people who don’t have jobs don’t bank on potential. Yet, the potential here is incredible.”

Doing their best

Socioeconomic challenges like the ones cited above are not taken into consideration when the Ohio Department of Education promulgates its standards. It expects the same results from the students of Ashtabula Area City Schools as it does from those in an affluent Columbus suburb.

Area educators and administrators say they do the best they can with the limited resources they have.

“We put our arms around these kids when they come through the doors, and we’re committed to giving them a quality education and making sure they are safe,” Colucci says.

“I don’t think the public sees that; the things we do in the district are above and beyond what a lot of districts have to do to educate their students,” Colucci adds. “You get the perception that because you are poor, you are not doing things.”

Ashtabula Area City Schools receives $2.7 million annually in PBA money.

“We use that money to provide direct and indirect intervention with our students because of their low socioeconomic status,” Donatone says. By partnering with other organizations and programs, the money is stretched even further.

The money pays for after-school and in-school tutors, intervention specialists who work with at-risk students; it purchases specialized learning software, and funds a three-week summer camp in conjunction with the After-School Discovery Program. Through partnerships, it also provides services for English-as-a-second-language students. District-wide, 5.2 percent of the students are listed as having limited English proficiency.

Federal grants provide school districts with money to address specific learning issues, like reading and math. AACS receives numerous U.S. Department of Education grants, including Title IV money for a “safe and drug-free” learning environment.

“We really are taking care of the students’ needs academically, as well as physically,” Colucci says.

Ashtabula Area City Schools even is looking into providing preventive dental care, something many working-poor families cannot afford for their children.

Zappitelli says her district has made great strides, taking the district from “academic watch” to “effective.” Conneaut High School’s excellence has received national recognition three years in a row. Zappitelli worries how she can maintain that kind of momentum with the string of levy failures.

Donatone says that, despite the huge economic disadvantage the district must struggle against every day, students are succeeding and excelling in AACS.

“The AACS provides a very quality education to our students,” he says. “We have graduates from Lakeside High, and previously from Ashtabula and Harbor highs, who have gone on to have distinguished careers in medicine, law, engineering, the performing arts and at military academies, which they could not have done if they had not received the high-quality education they received in this school district. We provide an education that can take a student as far as his (or her) ability will allow."

The Issue:

In some county schools, up to 90 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Why it matters:

Educators must spend extra dollars and time just getting children ready to learn.

When Donatone surveys the community he serves, he concludes that the underlying issue is not an adult population that doesn’t want to work, but one that struggles to make ends meet and can’t devote resources and time to helping their children learn.

“I think we have a lot of working poor people in this district,” Donatone says. “There are many, many, many good strong families in this school district. I don’t think any of them want to be given anything; I think the problem is the lack of opportunity for them to find good employment or high-paying jobs.”

Reality Check:




61 percent

Ashtabula Area City

54.3 percent

Conneaut Area City

42.8 percent


44.6 percent

Pymatuning Valley

37.6 percent

Grand Valley Local

34.7 percent

Jefferson Area Local

36.9 percent

Buckeye Local

Compare to:

33.5 percent

Noble Local

(Ohio’s ‘poorest’ county**)

30.1 percent

Madison Local

80.8 percent

East Cleveland


Ohio Department of Education

district report cards,


*Economically disadvantaged = eligible to receive a free or reduced-price lunch, at or below 130 percent federal poverty level (free) or 185 percent (reduced).

**Poorest = lowest per

capita income