Public school districts often need to draw on additional resources to ensure they meet state requirements and are continually improving their programming. In Ohio, so called Educational Service Centers are more than 100 years old, but the structure has changed dramatically as the times change.

Shannon Cox, associate superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center says that though every county in Ohio had an Educational Service Center when they were first developed there are now 52 in the state.

“Some have gone out of business and some have combined,” she says. “But every school district in the state is served by an (Educational Service Center) regardless.”

Cox just completed her 10th year with the Montgomery County Educational Service Center and today oversees the programming and services. She says that though Educational Service Centers were originally governing authorities over all public schools in Ohio today they have transformed into full service educational centers offering programs and services ranging from professional development to grant writing to even providing school bus drivers.

“Anything a school district may need we are able to provide,” Cox says. “Or we can connect them with other resources.”

The Montgomery County Educational Service Center has a mission, in fact, to support all its major stakeholders, including all educational providers, students, parents and the public. And with Montgomery County home to 16 public school districts, the Miami Valley Career Technology Center and numerous chartered and unchartered community schools, this Educational Service Center is one of the largest in the state.

“We offer a big continuum of services,” Cox says. “We also serve districts in Darke, Clarke, Greene, Miami and Preble counties and have very good relationships with Warren, Butler and Hamilton counties as well as others in the state.

So, what does this large Educational Service Center offer to school districts to help them offer their own quality, yet cost-effective programs?

“We have 300 students in our special needs program,” Cox says. “They come to us for help when they have exhausted all the resources in their home districts.”

Cox says the special education services have been the staple of the organization for her entire tenure, but instructional services, including professional development, and help with curriculum, testing and state department requirements is also a large part of what the Educational Service Center does to help districts.

“The newest service center we have within the ( Educational Service Center) is the social and emotional learning division,” Cox says. “We just started this on Aug. 1 of last year and we already have $2 million in grant money and 50 people involved.”

Cox says the need to help school districts in and around Dayton has continued to grow exponentially over the years, especially with the opioid crisis reaching nearly epidemic proportions.

“If we look at our society as a result of opioid abuse we see that more and more children are losing parents to death than ever before,” Cox says.

The Educational Service Center offers support to districts that have needs they don’t know how to verbalize. The districts just know that their students need help.

That help is provided with the assistance of professional counselors and psychologists who make a game plan, help ensure state dollars are accessible and work with other organizations providing services across the entire county.

“We can really be a one-stop shop,” Cox says. “The needs in our classroom are almost insatiable.”

Over the past six years, the Montgomery County Educational Service Center has listened to superintendents talk about not only the opioid crisis, but also the rising need for foster care and mental health services for kids, even if they haven’t yet lost a parent.

“We had 16 of our superintendents, representatives from the sheriff department and from local police departments here,” Cox says. “We hosted a meeting to raise awareness and encourage collaboration among this group. We know we can’t solve everybody’s problems, but we can help make things better.”

Today the governing body of the state’s schools is the Ohio Department of Education. As such, the department monitors statewide Educational Service Center’s and manages funding, academic standards, achievement testing, teaching licensing and collecting school data.

“When the state department says there will be a new requirement and schools are required to start measuring something we can help the districts respond and manage this,” Cox says.

But not all school districts are created equal. Montgomery County is made up of very diverse districts, ranging from smaller, rural districts, like Jefferson Township, to large, urban districts like Dayton Public Schools, with an enrollment of 14,000. Regardless of size, navigating the requirements and new mandates can often be confusing.

“We make sure to provide resources and connections to all districts,” Cox says. “Even if they aren’t even sure what issues they are facing.”

With a full-time staff of 450 and nearly 150 contractors, the Montgomery County Educational Service Center is much larger than most people realize. They have a full teaching staff and, according to Cox, “the same kind of staff members you’d see in a traditional school district.”

Cox is looking forward to her next role—that of superintendent of the Educational Service Center after the current superintendent retires Aug. 1.

“My board and my superintendent have been supportive and we started this transition a year ahead,” Cox says. “We went through a strategic plan that will lead the work we do.”

Cox herself has developed a five-year plan based on feedback from the Educational Service Center’s major stakeholders and hopes to further strengthen the relationship with the 16 district superintendents.

“We need to make certain that our superintendents get time together to help one another,” Cox says. “This group is amazing and I would put them up against any other in the state and across the country.”

Cox also wants to form a student advisory council with representation from all the districts. She plans to start with students at the high school level, but eventually hopes to include students of all ages.

“We have been providing services in Montgomery County for more than a century,” Cox says. “It’s important to know what this is, what it has been and what it will continue to be.”