After weathering some nasty, dark years dominated by money worries, Amherst Schools superintendent Steven Sayers has a lot to celebrate heading into 2015-2016.
The Amherst district is on the cusp of launching its long-anticipated all-day, everyday kindergarten program — which, as a bonus, is now tuition-free.
Steele High School boasts nine new elective courses this year, from forensic science to advanced chemistry.
And the first notes will be played this year at Nord Middle School in what someday will become a full-fledged high school orchestra. Music teacher Anna Ballmer has been hired to develop the program starting with early strings classes.
“I just sense that we’re really ready to take off as a school district,” Sayers said Friday, sitting down with the News-Times to talk about what the new school year holds.
“I am very excited about where we’re at and where we’re headed. We’ve got a great staff. We’ve got great kids. We’ve got a supportive community,” he said. “We’re very excited about some of the educational upgrades we’ve been able to make and at the same time remain on track financially.”
Cash is no small worry for Ohio school districts but Sayers feels Amherst is in its best financial shape in 15 years.
Part of that is enrollment.
The student body has been shrinking for a decade and is expected to continue to do so through 2022. But last year there was encouraging news as the first grade swelled and this year the third grade has gotten a 26-student bump.
Harris Elementary principal Beth Schwartz said students who had been enrolled at charter schools or open-enrolled elsewhere are beginning to return as Amherst expands its offerings.
Confidence in what the school system offers is important, not just because of morale but also because each student yields $5,900 in state funding.
The trend over the past decade has been a 20-student per year drop in enrollment in Amherst. Sayers said winning those students back means keeping $118,000 in the local schools.
Under the state biennial budget signed into law this July by Gov. John Kasich, Amherst’s baseline funding is frozen for two years.
“Obviously we’d like to see increases but frozen funding is better than decreased funding,” said Sayers. “When you’re dealing with flat funding you have to work within a budget.”
But he also wants to attract as many students as possible and that means proving Amherst can offer what other schools can’t.
“We want to be an elite district. We feel like we’re one of the top districts in Lorain County. If you look at what our students, our athletes, all our kids are accomplishing we’re doing very well. But we want to go beyond that,” he said. “We never want to be content. We’re not about maintaining the status quo. We’re not about that. We need to continuously push forward.”
Academically, one path forward has been the Comet College Campus program. It aims to allow Steele students to rack up enough college credits to earn an associate’s degree by the end of their senior year — all at the high school with no travel to Lorain County Community College required.
Another big goal this year for the Amherst Schools is improving communication, Sayers said.
“This is an area where we’ve made some progress but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “We have so many things happening in our school district — good things our teachers and students and their families are doing — that we want to continue to promote them.”
That means sharing success stories online, reaching out to your friendly neighborhood newspaper — the News-Times, of course — to celebrate student and staff achievements, and doing a better job of reaching out to alumni.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.