June 18, 2008

Omega Charter School’s Run Fell Short


This week an eight-year experiment ends. The Omega School of Excellence, a charter school conceived and opened by people with the best of intentions, will close. Down to 108 students, the school can't afford to stay open.

The Rev. Vanessa Ward, who started the school, was its first director and who is president of the board that voted to close Omega, is humbled. In the late 1990s, Ward said she felt "God's fist in my back," pushing her to do something about the lack of good educational options for the children of the predominantly black Omega Baptist Church. Starting a charter school seemed like a way to take control of the problem, a stopcomplaining, do-it-yourself solution.

After two years of preparation, the school -- then for just fifth and sixth-graders -- opened in the fall of 2000 with a curriculum modeled after the celebrated Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which has started some of the most successful charter schools nationally. That first year 96 students were in school from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. four days a week, until 4 p.m. on Friday, and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The plan was to add a grade each year, ultimately becoming a K-8 school. By 2004, the school had grown to 210 students.

Four years into the effort, Ward, 51, pulled back, never having intended to have stayed so long as the school leader. A new principal was hired. Then in December, 2004, Ward's husband, the Rev. Daryl Ward, became gravely ill, and she took over his ministry at Omega Baptist Church during his recovery. While she was consumed by other priorities, parents and students were becoming unhappy, even leaving the school. Most of the teachers who had started at the school did not come back the next fall.

Funders and supporters say it was all down hill from there on, that the school, on Emerson Avenue in the Dayton View neighborhood, never bounced back. Today there are 108 students spread across eight grades. Fewer than 10 percent of the children are from the Omega church, which, in theory, should be a feeder for the school. Only eight parents showed up to hear the details about the school's closing, though a petition was being circulated to reverse the closing.

Ward is moved to tears when she talks about the school. "Charter schools are very fragile unless you're connected to a bigger entity," Ward said. She had hoped to ultimately affiliate with KIPP, but said that plan didn't work out.

Now in "academic watch" -- up from "academic emergency" -- in the state's rankings, Omega had significant philanthropic help (including money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and support from the church, which gave it space and subsidized its operations. Ward said, even with this aid and assitance from a management company, she and others were overwhelmed.

"You need at least 300 students to make these (publicly funded, but independently run charter) schools work," she said.

Mike McCormick, the superintendent of the Richard Allen Schools and a competitor of Omega, has nothing but praise for the school. He said its closing is a "sad day" and that the school has an impressive cadre of young, dedicated teachers. If he had openings, he'd hire some of the 10 who will be out of work.

Just two years out of Wittenberg University, Megan Hottle, the reading teacher at Omega, says that of 45 schools in Dayton, Omega had the third-highest value-added reading and math scores in the 2006-07 school year in grades 5-8. (Students are tested not just for whether they're reading at grade level, but for the gains they make. Many experts say that a "value-added" measure is a fairer evaluation of successful teaching, though last year was the first year this data was measured in Ohio.)

Hottle said among Omega's most important contributions was speaking truth to the children.

"We had to tell students that they (other teachers) weren't honest with them. If you're an eighth-grader reading at a third- grade level, (we said) you have to work harder. ... We tell them that we can't pass them through the system."

This message also was mixed with hope. Hottle said among things teachers preached was, "We want you to go to college. If you don't go, it's because you choose not to go."

Ward said she often feels like she has failed, and she worries about "what contribution the school has given to the community."

"Maybe -- I hope -- it got us all more concerned about education," she said. "We were part of a movement that got us to think more critically about what we did for -- and to -- our kids."

Ellen Belcher is editor of the Dayton Daily News editorial pages. Her telephone number is 225-2286; her e-mail address is [email protected] DaytonDailyNews.com.

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