There is more to Canton, Ohio than the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Indeed, all the legendary moments enshrined within the Hall pale in comparison to the feats of wonder happening every day within the walls of Canton City Schools (CCS). The school system’s educational programming is helping it set an example for what an urban school district can do despite the scourges of poverty and unemployment.

“The manufacturing base that used to flourish here has dried up. To attract companies to this area, the school system has to produce an educated workforce,” said Dr. Michele Evans, superintendent. “That is something we’ve focused on, and people are starting to understand that post-secondary education is very important for their children to reach their goals in life.”

Serving roughly 10,200 students, CCS is made up of two high schools, three middle schools, 14 elementary schools, five alternative high schools, and one alternative middle school. It also helps the operations of a Montessori school, a digital academy, and an arts academy. For the last decade-plus, CCS has invested heavily in its physical plant. It built 10 new schools thanks in part to a local bond passed in 1999 that covered roughly 30% of the funding. Under the plan, 19 schools are now new or renovated.

Choosing the path

Canton’s focus on high school education has resulted in some of its more successful initiatives. Students are given a choice on which school to attend, McKinley Senior High or Timken Senior High. Each has a freshman academy to help with the academic and social transition to the high school environment. Within the two high schools are small school offerings. Timken students can choose a course of study through arts, services, and technology academies such as culinary arts, health and nursing, and cosmetology. McKinley’s small schools focus on international studies, fine and performance arts, and math and science.

“Although our poverty has gone up, the graduation rates in both of our comprehensive high schools are going up as well,” Evans said. “We were the subject of a case study by Johns Hopkins because of our success for increasing the graduation rate despite the odds we are facing.”

But McKinley and Timken aren’t the only choices. Early College High School (ECHS) is a newer option open to no more than 100 qualifying freshmen applicants per year. The school system partnered with Stark State College of Technology, the Canton Professional Educators Association, and the Stark Education Partnership in 2005 to create ECHS. The reason was simple—to combat an environment where less that 13% of adults had reached a bachelor’s degree or higher educational level and nearly 80% of students lived with severe economic hardships. The idea was to target those students who came from low income and minority backgrounds, had a history of low academic performance, and would be first generation college students.

The goal was for these students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree. The first class graduated in 2009, with 53% of its graduates having earned an associate degree, above the 33% at other Ohio early colleges and towering over the 10% national average. But even for those who missed the associate degree goal, 28% earned college credits, and 91% graduated high school on time. Similar results were seen in 2010.

At every level

Not all of CCS’s success is at the high school age, however. What happens at schools like McGregor Elementary School is just as impressive as the results for ECHS. McGregor is in a poor area with 90% of its students living in a state of poverty. However, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recognized the school for its consistent academic results despite serving an economically disadvantaged population.

Indeed, it has been rated “effective” by the state, surpassed the state’s academic growth projections, and met AYP standards for all student subgroups. But the school isn’t satisfied. It aims to earn an “excellent” state rating through initiatives like the Spark (Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids) program, which focuses on reading, language, and social skills. The school is also building relationships with students and their families and requiring students to take part in summer reading programs and take part in tracking their own academic performance.

Other areas where the district is excelling include mathematics. In fact, the 2009-10 Ohio Urban School Performance Report from the Fordham Institute revealed that CCS has a higher percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in mathematics than the other “Big Eight” urban districts of Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. Overall, the school district’s improvement and performance is due to an understanding of how to allocate resources appropriately.

“Stimulus funds have provided us with the ability to support teacher training and new technology. Indeed, we used a large portion of our stimulus dollars to invest in our infrastructure that would move us forward,” said Evans. “Our technology department conducts a technology refresh every five years that begins with a teacher survey to determine where they feel we should go next.”

Thanks to efforts underway with McKinley, Timken, McGregor, ECHS, as well as initiatives like career technical education and alternative education programs, CCS is demonstrably making progress and blazing a trail toward even greater improvements in the future. The school system is attacking its deficiencies, building on its strengths, and uniting its community behind the principles of education.

“Our budget will continue to be challenging because of the economic difficulties affecting our state, but we are continuing to move ahead with our plans. We want to tackle our middle schools, and we plan to build off the success we’ve had at the high school level with choice, competition, and rigor and recreate that at the middle school level,” Evans said. “We are looking for creative options and building off of what we’ve done rather than adapting someone else’s model.”

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