BACK TO SCHOOL: Tech and AC upgrades at Black River

When students at Black River Local Schools return to class in the coming days, they’ll enjoy a new air conditioning system and benefit from an effort to put a Google Chromebook in each of their hands.

The district, stretching across Lorain, Medina, and Ashland counties, will open its doors Aug. 28 for 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Going into his fourth year as superintendent, 1984 Black River graduate Chris Clark continues to bring the schools out of the fiscal watch under which they’ve been placed by the Ohio auditor’s office.

Before taking over the position, he spent 16 years teaching agriculture at Madison Plains High School and then served as principle for 10 years.

“There’s been an awful lot of changes down here,” he said. “We’ve tried to stabilize our enrollment to keep students from leaving the district. We’ve made quite a lot of curriculum changes, brought STEM initiatives to the district to increase our students’ learning in math and technology.”

The Chromebooks, laptops made by Google, are given to students third grade and above.

“We hope to have one in each student’s hands by December,” Clark said. “It was something that started before I got here but it looks like this year we’ll have one out to everybody.”

Energy conservation initiatives have been started in both district buildings courtesy of Ohio House Bill 264, which provides loans for improving energy efficiency.

The money is paid back with dollars saved through the upgrades. The high school, built in 1958, had been relying on a broiler for heat and did not have an air conditioning system. With money from the HB 264 program, four heating and air conditioning units have been installed that Clark says cover 80 percent of the building.

“Our goal is to keep our classrooms between 72 and 74 degrees,” he said. “The education center has a newer heating system. We’ve also done some services on those units and added digital controls to help them work more efficiently.”

Occupancy sensors have been added to all district classrooms that shut off lights and heating withing 15 minutes of the last person leaving.

Black River Local Schools signed on in 2016 with Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that facilitates computer science, engineering, and biomedical programs for students in all grades across the U.S.

A new Cisco Networking program at BRHS is one result of the initiative. In 2015, a full-time preschool program was added at the education center, which welcomes students back Sept. 3.

“Being prepared for kindergarten is what preschool is for and we wanted to have a hand in how that plays out,” said Clark. “In our elementary grades, we were noticing a difference between kids who did go through preschool and those who didn’t. We want all of them and all of our families to have a fair chance.”

Both the high school and education center are part of Schools That Work, a national network established in 1997 by the Ohio Department of Education and Southern Regional Education Board. It aims to enhance high school and middle school curriculum and outcomes by sharing ideas between 1,200 districts in 30 states.

On the last round of state report cards, the district received an overall D grade but earned a B for its 90.6 four-year graduation percentage.

“To be part of High Schools that Work, you have to take a self-evaluation for a full year,” Clark said. “The staff as a whole decides what the weaknesses are and we work to address those things. It’s like taking a bite of an apple without taking a huge bite. We still want to control what we control but also make strides.”

A 7.8-mill operating levy renewal for the schools will be on November’s ballot.

Clark said the district extending into three counties presents a lot of difficulty in drawing up levies due to changes in property tax valuation.

Two years ago, the district started a facilities commission that focuses on areas such as arts and athletics. So far, the group has raised roughly $170,000.

“The amount of money that we generate in this district basically pays our bills,” said Clark. “There’s a lot of little extras we’d all like to do but the financial ability is just not there at this time. Every time one county changes its tax valuation, it changes my millage. A good thing about some recent valuation changes is it looks like the levy will now be spread with a little more parity throughout the community.”

Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.

By Jonathan Delozier