Sunday, January 23, 2000

Ripley schools riding wave of success

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Daniella Daniels (center) talks with Technology Supervisor Susan Owens as they work on the student newspaper.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        RIPLEY — For years, some of Ohio's worst performing — and poorest — schools have been along the hills of Appalachia. Few high school graduates went on to college and professional careers.

        In Ripley, a town of about 1,800 residents 50 miles east of Cincinnati, most high school graduates get jobs in nearby factories or farms. But a reinvigorated school staff, spurred by a recently hired administration, is changing that.

        Here in Brown County, where half of the adults do not have a high school diploma, the Ripley Union Lewis Huntington Schools district will send 60 percent of its senior class to college this year. That's a 107 percent increase from four years ago.

        Michele Gray of Ripley said the changes have given her children — eighth-grader Nick, 14, and fifth-grader Katie, 11 — a chance at something that never existed for her — a real future.

Superintendent Stephen Oborn
        “(My husband and I) talk all the time to our children, telling them, "We should have went on to college,'” Mrs. Gray said. “You have to (attend college) if you want to make it in this world.”

        Ripley, whose chief industry is tobacco, nestles up to the Ohio River.

        As industry passed the region by, so did opportunity. The 1990 census shows 25 percent of Brown County's residents live in poverty (a family of four with an income of $13,254 or less) compared with 15 percent of all Ohioans.

        And while Cincinnati has enjoyed a booming economy, Ripley and much of Appalachia are still reeling from factories' closings.

        The turning point came in 1992 when U.S. Shoe closed its factory, eliminating 355 jobs.

        It was then that village education leaders decided to refocus their efforts. The district hired a new superintendent, built a new high school and began to stress the importance of education to the community.

        At the time:

        • Morale among teachers was low and there was little opportunity for career development.

        • There was little emphasis on developing challenging classes. A district in an agricultural community offered no Future Farmers of America chapter.

        • Fewer than one-third of the school's graduates went on to college.

        • Computers were scarce.

        Under the direction of Superintendent Stephen Oborn, hired in 1992, the 1,500-student district set out to change Ripley's future.

        Mr. Oborn, who had made a name for himself leading districts in central Ohio, opted to return to education after a short stint in private industry.

        “I could have gone someplace else,” he said. “But this community had dedicated itself to this school.”

        He was attracted to that determination and saw it as an opportunity to make a change.

        “The first time I met him, I knew we were in for a ride,” said Kristi Scott, who has taught 22 years in Ripley, where she teaches a community resources class and high school special education.

        The staff redeveloped the curriculum and included course work involving students in the community. A television production course lets students create programming for Ripley cable users. Ms. Scott's new community resources class is restoring area landmarks.

        “We want our town to look good,” said Nick, Mrs. Gray's son and a member of Ms. Scott's community resources class.

        In the past six years, the district has earned about $6 million in grants, thanks to a grant-writing effort initiated by Mr. Oborn. In a poor river town without a large tax base, that's a significant contribution.

        The television studio, for example, wouldn't have been possible without grants. Grants also helped to fund a satellite classroom and the purchase of about 600 computers.

        The effort also has helped expand school curriculum. In 1994, there were 39 courses offered in the high school and junior high. Today there are 117 classes, adding everything from high school art courses to foreign language instruction via satellite.

        “These students get to explore a lot more,” said high school Principal R. Brad Moffitt. And that allows them to achieve a lot more, he said.

        Steven Krentz, a 17-year-old junior, wants to work with computers after he graduates. Taking part in a program created at Ripley, he provides technical support to the district's computers.

        “I can see what the work is like,” Steven said.

        Ripley's rising scores on standardized state tests are showing the work is paying off.

        Of the 27 state standards set for proficiency test performance on school report cards for the year 2000, Ripley met nine last year. And they are close to passing in at least three other categories as well. By comparison, Cincinnati Public Schools met six of the standards.

        In communities like Ripley, lack of money, history and opportunity are some of the challenges in getting children into college, said Wayne White, executive director of the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

        The region's frail economy contributes. But a determined community can make it happen, he said.

        “Poverty is not near the problem we make it out to be,” Mr. White said. “Not having the money to go to college is only a barrier if you are considering college.”

        There are grants, scholarships and programs that can help students pay their way. The problem, he said, is not enough students seriously consider college.

        Surveys of Appalachian students found 80 percent want to continue their education after high school. About 30 percent do, he said. That mirrors where Ripley was four years ago.

        Hampering chances is the fact that too few parents attended college themselves, Mr. White said. They cannot express the benefits of higher education to their children and they don't know how to maneuver the admissions process or how to prepare their children.

        What Ripley has done is look for ways to instill the idea of college into students' lives as early as grade school. Taking part in a program with Shawnee State, Ripley developed a program to encourage students to pursue higher education.

        The district opened the lines of communication with area colleges — from promoting campus visits to working in conjunction with universities on programs that involve Ripley students.

        Course work also encourages students to take advantage of area college resources, such as libraries. Homework assignments often deal with college-related issues. Ripley has also started more classes geared toward college preparation.

        Parents are expected to meet with school staff to discuss career options; college preparation is a major focus.

        Programs were created that show students college is obtainable. A new Marine ROTC program that starts this year will make military tuition benefits available. And former Ripley students who went on to college return and talk to underclassmen about campus life.

        “They asked a lot of questions, they really want to know what it's like,” said Allison Wells, a Morehead State University sophomore and 1998 Ripley graduate, who spoke with students last month.

        The class work is designed to let students know the value of higher education, Mr. Oborn said. The programs are proving more effective than the often stale visits by school recruiters, she said. Students are recognizing the importance of education in their daily lives.

        But it has not been easy. When change happens, there usually is some apprehension. A few teachers were replaced, Mr. Oborn said. A few parents didn't understand the new expectations for their children. And changing years of academic malaise will not be done overnight, he said.

        Yet the efforts going on at Ripley are truly an example for other districts, Mr. White said. The district has decided to look for ways to overcome its disadvantages when it comes to money and a poor testing history.

        “Ripley is an excellent example of what schools can do,” Mr. White said. There are about 10 other school districts in Ohio's Appalachian region — most of them in the eastern part of the state — implementing college-boosting programs similar to Ripley's, Mr. White said. The efforts will improve the quality of life for future generations in Appalachia, he added.

        When Mrs. Gray was in high school about 15 years ago in nearby Georgetown, Ohio, there was no push toward college. She estimates 20 percent went onto college.

        Mrs. Gray says she wishes she had gotten a college degree and is glad to see her children are being groomed for college.

        Nick wants to be a civil engineer. Already, as part of a course taught by Ms. Scott, he has written two grant proposals, both approved, raising about $2,000 to help beautify Ripley landmarks.

        His homework has included an essay on his dream job and what it would take to achieve it. He researched job expectations, work environments and pay scales. What did his essay conclude?

        “He needs to go to college,” Mrs. Gray said.


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