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Taking responsibility Featured

9:51am EDT July 22, 2002

We’re used to hearing stories about teachers who care more about their next contract than they do about the kids, about communities which care more about professional sports teams than they do about education, about businesses which care more about the bottom line than they do about their employees.

But in the city of Canton, the teachers, the community and one prominent family care about education more than they care about themselves.

Three years ago, the Canton Board of Education asked the Canton Professional Educators Association if high school teachers would be willing to teach six classes a day instead of five. The teachers’ association not only agreed, it set off a domino effect of initiatives that will reform education in Canton and may have an impact on the nation as well.

The biggest push came when Jack Timken, executive director of the Timken Foundation of Canton — a private family foundation established 65 years ago by Timken Co. founder Henry H. Timken Sr. — met with his board to discuss educational reform in Canton. The foundation had long been involved in the city’s educational system, but this time, not even Jack Timken realized how significant the contribution would be.

On a quiet day in late spring 1997, Canton Schools Superintendent Fred Blosser’s phone rang with news that still shocks him. On the other end of that phone was an equally shocked Dennis Gray — executive director of The Education Enhancement Partnership Inc., a not-for-profit organization that enacts school reform — with news he couldn’t wait to share.

Gray had recently talked with Jack Timken, who first announced some news to Gray and then made a request: The Timken Foundation was about to present the Canton City Schools with a $10 million grant to enact significant change in the system. Would Gray’s organization be willing to head the project up?

“It was like a scene out of a television plot,” Gray says. “First, it was not asked for by the school district. Second, it was the largest private gift ever given to a single public school in the history of public education. And third, it was for research and development affecting teaching and learning, which usually gets shortchanged.”

When Gray shared the news, Blosser recalls, “I probably said something like, ‘You’re kidding!’ But he wasn’t kidding. And the Timken family wasn’t kidding. And our teachers’ association wasn’t kidding. And our board of education wasn’t kidding. They truly place educational achievement as a top priority in this city, and they are willing to support it.”

That support began in 1995, when the teachers’ association completed a study of the school district and the needs of its students. A superintendent’s advisory committee was doing a similar study at the same time, and a group called the Timken Regional Campus Development Committee was trying to figure out why enrollment numbers and student success at Timken High School had declined over the years.

The high school, built in 1939 with funds donated by the Timken Foundation, was once a national leader in vocational education.

“Students had to test to get into the school,” Blosser says. “There was a waiting list to get into the school. They knew if they went there and received training they would have good, solid jobs waiting for them when they got out. Then the image, reputation and effectiveness of Timken High School came into question.”

Over time, students who were interested in taking courses that would impress admissions officers at Big Ten colleges attended McKinley High School, while the rest attended Timken. Turns out the Timken Foundation’s original goal — to create a school where students would throw their caps into the air armed with the skills they needed to get a job in manufacturing — needed a renewal.

“Timken High School was set up in ’39 [because] there were a lot of young students who were coming out of school who weren’t prepared to work at companies like ours,” Timken says. “So we’ve kind of come full circle over the 60-some years since Timken High School was started. ... Technology is changing so rapidly, our schools have not been able to keep up. That’s what we’re really concerned about.”

But before anyone knew the Timken Foundation had plans to donate the money, the teachers’ association and the board of education made a deal: High school teachers would teach six classes a day instead of five, but they wanted the school system to invest the $2 million it would save as a result into educational reform. They also wanted the board to consider their proposals to overhaul the system.

Less than a year after the association presented its plans, the board of education accepted its proposal to:

  • Establish an Early Childhood Center;

  • Establish a Freshman Academy; and

  • Develop curriculum around four career clusters: business and marketing; health, human and public services; engineering, industrial and scientific technology; and communications and the arts.

It also accepted the Timken Regional Campus Development Committee’s idea to institute these programs through a college-like setting. Located in a nine-block area surrounding the original Timken High School, the Timken Regional Campus will eventually serve students from five other school districts. Freshmen from both Timken and McKinley High Schools start at the Freshman Academy, which opened last August to much fanfare and has a list of students waiting — and hoping — to get in.

The idea behind the academy is to ease students into high school, considered a very trying year. “The freshman year of high school is a very high-casualty year — lots of suspensions, lots of expulsions, lots of dropouts,” says Gray. The Canton City Schools Department of Pupil Personnel notes that ninth grade students accounted for nearly half the suspensions during the 1996-’97 and 1997-’98 school years.

To curb those numbers, each student receives an advocate, who regularly monitors his or her progress. Teaching is done in teams, where math, science, social studies, family and consumer sciences, and English teachers work together to make classes more interesting. Kids get community service projects that allow them to go into the world and solve real problems.

After the freshman year, guidance counselors help students choose between the four academies — kind of like a college freshman choosing between majoring in advertising or chemical engineering. Even kids who don’t want direction get some — and that’s good for everyone’s future.

While the campus and its four academies won’t be completely up and running for four to five years, “and won’t be in full flower for 10 years,” Gray says, The Timken Foundation’s gift jump-started the project. It also gave the school system resources for research that rivals what private colleges may conduct.

“The grant allowed us to send representatives through the United States and even into Germany to personally visit the best-practiced sites,” Blosser says. “The Timken family knows that you improve by finding models that work, studying those models, and adapting them to your situation. The grant gave us those resources.”

The state of Ohio and voters in the city of Canton may further fuel the project.

In another jaw-dropping development, the state plans to award the district $129 million to improve school buildings if — and only if — voters pass a levy this November that will contribute $38 million to $40 million to the cause. (If the levy fails, the district has three more chances to pass it before the state rescinds its offer.)

The state’s contribution is the result of a 1992 lawsuit in which more than 500 school districts i n Ohio claimed that the way the state funded schools was unconstitutional. Two years after the State Supreme Court agreed, Gov. Robert Taft increased the budget for school construction by $350 million. If the levy passes, Timken Regional Campus will receive $35 million of the $129 million award.

While some citizens have raised concerns about how the district’s plans to raze school buildings and build new ones elsewhere will drive down their property values, Blosser is optimistic that the levy will pass.

“This community has traditionally supported its children, and we have had a very positive record of passage,” he says. “But it’s also a great investment. This community will see $3 for every $1 it invests. If you go purchase a car and the dealer says, ‘I’ll give you 75 percent off,’ you’d probably go to that dealer.”

Blosser also says hiring Adrienne O’Neill as chief education officer of Timken Regional Campus was a good investment. The 55-year-old mother of 10 — who has a doctorate in education — most recently served as president of the Academy of Business School in Phoenix and beat out 170 applicants for the job. Why?

“I want to make this into the very best possible school that it can be,” O’Neill says. “And I want it to become a national model for educational reform.”

That’s exactly what the Timken Foundation had in mind. The Timken family has always believed that it should invest in the small towns where it has plants, “to attract good people and make it a place where they could settle down and raise a family,” Jack Timken says. But the foundation purposely donated a significant amount of money to the Canton City Schools so that their change would be felt here and around the country.

The gesture was not only generous, it showed a tremendous amount of trust, Gray says.

“I’m constantly finding people who are just sort of open-mouthed and surprised and in awe that a small community like this would have such a display of generosity and confidence by a single donor that would say, ‘Here’s $10 million. Take it and make a world-class school out of a school that has fallen on bad times.’ “

That’s exactly why the Timkens donated so much.

“The amount was pretty big, but at the same time, all of us said to ourselves, ‘We have one chance to really to do something, and this is the absolute right place in time to do it,’ “ Timken says. “If you make an improvement in the education system here that is dramatic, it will travel to other places and change the way education is practiced. It will improve our country as a whole.

“You start with the first step in any journey,” he adds. “Once you take that first step and decide where you want to go, then you’re pursuing your dream.”

Blosser says the Timken Foundation has given thousands of students a chance to pursue their dreams — a chance they may not have otherwise had.

“Sixty-four percent of my student body comes from a home that cannot afford to purchase a school lunch,” Blosser says. “As such, we have far too many students who are falling through the cracks and not attempting to grab hold of the American dream. This project is designed to close those cracks and inspire them to grab the American dream through education. It’s their only ticket that works.

“I think the Timkens recognize that,” Blosser adds. “We recognize that. This project will give impoverished, inner-city kids a chance.”