What the state schools chief means when he tells local teachers to focus on the ‘whole child.’

Aug 17, 2018
Xenia schools personnel director Michael Earley introduces newly hired teachers and principals Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 at a school year kickoff event for district staff. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Ohio is launching its new strategic plan for schools, and state education superintendent Paolo DeMaria on Thursday visited Xenia schools, where the district is starting its own “visioning” process to shape the future of the school district.

DeMaria worked to energize hundreds of Xenia teachers and staff at their kickoff event before students return Monday. He focused on the state’s vision statement about challenging, preparing and empowering all students.

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“Keep challenging students,” DeMaria said. “I think so many times we underestimate what students can do. Our hearts tell us to be a little more protective – I’m not sure they can reach that level or handle that kind of work. But time and time again as I go across the state talking to teachers, I find that their socks are blown off because kids always are able to exceed even the highest expectations we set.”

The state strategic plan surprised some earlier this year by putting development of social skills, creativity and leadership on equal footing with literacy, math and other traditional academics. The focus is on the “whole child,” including physical, social, emotional and intellectual aspects.

Second-year Xenia Superintendent Gabriel Lofton said there’s been an increase in teacher training in recent years on those “social-emotional” skills, but he argued the “whole child” focus will not require much adjustment.

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“It’s really not new. Teachers teach those skills every day,” Lofton said. “Every lesson that they present, they’re teaching leadership, they’re teaching creativity, they’re worried about the whole child.”

DeMaria said Xenia’s Visioning Committee is a great step. Lofton said starting with an Aug. 23 meeting, a committee of teachers, parents, business leaders, administrators and others will examine how to provide the best 21st century education.

“The purpose is twofold – to look at the academic side of the school house and develop a strategic road map related to academics, but also look at the operational side of the school house, so we’re going to look at facilities and finances and see what we need,” Lofton said. “We’re excited about that.”

There was plenty of excitement Thursday, as Xenia went all-out to fire up staff —- in addition to DeMaria, district leaders brought in cheerleaders and part of the marching band, and they showed a new video of parents, students and educators talking about the district. The event ended with a motivational speech from pro football hall of famer and former Bengal Anthony Munoz.

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Munoz, who runs a youth foundation of his own, told the hundreds of assembled school staff about mentors who shaped him when he was a child, adding, “I see a room full of mentors here.”

Asked whether the state’s call to improve students’ leadership and social skills would be too much to ask of educators already balancing many academic demands, DeMaria said no.

“Some people think this has to be more additional hard work, but it actually makes the work you do more effective,” he said. “If we can show people what that looks like, I think teachers … can see how that works. You have to try, and it’s not going to be perfect every time, but you learn it and you can make it happen.”

DeMaria said the state plan calls equity of opportunity for students a top priority. Again, that has both academic and non-academic meanings.

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“We need somebody who loves that student, who cares about that student – not simply about whether they’re doing well in English class or math class, but cares deeply enough to know when there’s something wrong and they need a little bit of help, or attention or support,” DeMaria said. “They need someone to be with them and advocate for them. That’s a role that is challenging for us, but that we will step up to do because it is so essential … to helping students learn.”