- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

GROVE CITY, Pa. — This community of 16,500 people is highly educated, tightly knit and family oriented, and takes pride in local schools that do much better than the state at large — at a significantly lower cost.

Among the largest employers here are a medical center, a General Electric diesel-engine plant and a private, liberal-arts college.

Located amid miles of dairy, corn and soybean farms in what was once the industrial Rust Belt north of Pittsburgh, the area has a Democratic tradition with many Republican and independent voters making it politically competitive.

Mercer was one of two Pennsylvania counties that supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, then switched to Democrat Walter F. Mondale in 1984, and gave the edge to Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the past three presidential contests.

However, unlike the national school unions that are backing Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, in this year’s presidential contest largely because they oppose President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, school administrators and teachers here support the initiative to improve student achievement and have put their shoulders to the wheel to get it fully implemented.

“The vision is that the children will achieve at their highest level,” said Robert M. Post, superintendent of the Grove City Area School District. “We look at No Child Left Behind as a marathon [that] starts in kindergarten and ends when they graduate [from high school]. So every course builds on the next course.”

Mr. Post was unwilling to say explicitly that students in his schools were excelling compared with the rest of the state and particularly Pittsburgh, just to the south, and Philadelphia, where so much more is spent on public education.

But his district’s student scores on state reading and math tests last year were above the state median at every grade level, except at a privately run, state-funded detention center for juvenile offenders called George Jr. Republic.

Median fifth-grade reading and math scores were 20 and 10 points, respectively, above the statewide average at Hillview Elementary School, where 123 of 179 students, or 68 percent, rated proficient or advanced. The state average was 55 percent.

Eighth-grade reading and math scores were 30 points above the state median at Grove City Area Middle School, where 149 of 240 students, or 62 percent, were proficient or advanced, compared with a statewide average of 55.2 percent.

Similarly,11th-grade reading and math scores were 70 and 90 points, respectively, above the statewide average at Grove City Area High School, where 158 of 255 students, or 62 percent, were rated proficient or advanced, while the state average was 55 percent.

The irony is that the Grove City Area School District’s yearly per-pupil expenditure for all school and transportation costs was $7,192, compared with a state average of $8,295.

One hour south, Pittsburgh’s public-school system spent $11,282 per student — about 57 percent more than Grove City, whose students were doing better than Pittsburgh students in reading and math at every grade level.

Much of the city’s success was its small, rural-community nature, where old-fashioned values and civility are the norm and most families are involved in their children’s schools and education, locals and school officials said. Another factor was said to be the quality of the school leadership.

John Stephens, chairman of Grove City College’s education department, whose graduates include dozens of teachers and student teachers in the town’s schools, said he believed the local district has at least three vital ingredients.

The first, he said, was that “there’s a cultural lag here. Things are slowed down. The [college] students call it ‘the bubble.’ We still have some old-fashioned rules. It’s a rural setting where values are still important.

“Even in this age where families seem to be more dysfunctional, they seem to be able to deal with more” in Grove City, Mr. Stephens said.

Secondly, “everybody’s pulling in the same direction.” The third key ingredient, he said, is “the size of the schools; they’re all small.”

None of the schools has more than 750 students, and all nearby school districts have fewer than Grove City’s total of 2,735 students. Classes average 15.7 students, and fewer than 3 percent of classes have 30 or more students.

“Large schools lose student identity,” Mr. Stephens said. “In small schools, there’s less chance for students to fall through the cracks.”

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