In Steubenville, Ohio, I experienced a truly memorable moment.
It was in an ordinary school conference room, the kind of room where a principal might meet with a student’s family. On this particular day it was jammed with teachers and administrators from all over the district, crowded in to hear from the retired superintendent, Richard Ranallo.
I had never met Ranallo. But I spoke to him on the phone back in 2008, when he was still superintendent, and wanted to meet him ever since. Back then I visited one of his schools, Wells Elementary, which at the time served a large number of both White and African American students from low-income families and was one of the highest performing schools in the state. (I wrote about it in HOW It’s Being Done, 2009).
The then-principal Melinda Young told me how important district support had been to her school’s success. Not long after that 2008 trip, all three of the district’s schools — all serving low-income families — were all high performers. Like Young, the principals talked about the importance of district support and, specifically, the role Ranallo played in setting the conditions that let them be successful.
Their enthusiasm for their superintendent and district intrigued me. For those who don’t hang around education much, let me let you in on a secret — principals rarely praise their superintendents in that kind of way.
So, when I returned to Steubenville in 2013 I was eager to meet Ranallo and hear how he thought about school improvement.
He had retired a while back and principals, assistant principals, and district administrators used the opportunity of my request to pack that little conference room. They missed him and wanted to hear his reflections as much as we did.
In many ways he exemplifies Steubenville. His grandfather and father had worked in the steel mill that sat rusting by the river that borders the city. He had grown up downtown near the mill and next to one of the dance halls that Steubenville was famous for.
Sitting in that conference room, Ranallo talked about Steubenville’s history and how the once moderately prosperous city has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing. This was familiar history to most of those sitting there. Most of them, like Ranallo, had fathers and grandfathers who worked in the mills. They, like Ranallo, had been lucky and had gone to college.
After Ranallo came back from college he started teaching and moved up through the ranks of administration until he became superintendent. But he never forgot that it was an education that allowed him to have more opportunities than his father had had. He was proud of his father, whose job in the mill allowed him to buy a house and raise a family. But his father’s choices had been limited, and they had been limited in part by his school.
The limiting role the school had for his father became clear to Ranallo when, as principal of Steubenville High School, he had the opportunity to look at his father’s permanent record.
It was located, along with all the permanent records of all of the school’s students, on a card in a steel vault in the high school.
Ranallo found his father’s permanent record, and he repeated the words it held to the assembled educators in that little conference room.
Many of them had been hired by Ranallo, and they were all committed to the idea that schools must provide students who live in poverty with the knowledge and skills necessary to take advantage of opportunities that are open to children from wealthier families. The ethos of Steubenville’s schools is that they are there to change the course of poverty for their students.
So we were all on the edge of our seats listening to Ranallo repeat the judgment that the high school had placed on his father. Emotion filled his voice when he told us what was on that card:
“Poor student, not much chance.”
We all felt the judgment that had been placed on Ranallo’s father, closing off any hope of further education.
It was a moment that demonstrated in a dramatic fashion what had driven Ranallo for all those years to try to open opportunities for his students.
Because at least Ranallo’s father had a mill job to turn to. Today’s students of Steubenville have no such fallback, and the educators in the room know that puts an enormous responsibility on them to help students find new opportunities.
That cramped moment of drama took place a few years ago. Since then Ranallo came back for a stint as superintendent and then turned the job over to former Wells principal Melinda Young.
And recently Steubenville has been identified as one of the top-performing high-poverty districts in the country. If you look at just their third- and fourth-graders, they’re pretty much at the top of the country for any district. After that they tail off a bit.
If you wonder how they have managed that feat, join me as I journey to Steubenville in Ed Trust’s new podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts.