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Cincinnati Eyes Top-to-Bottom Restructuring

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Fed up with an academic scorecard that even its superintendent describes as pitiful, the Cincinnati public school system has set out to rebuild itself from the ground up.

Under a far-reaching plan that experts say is unusual and even unique, the 50,000-student district wants to rip up its organizational blueprint and replace it with one that officials hope will bring quick and lasting improvement.

"We're not a Cadillac that just needs a little fine-tuning," said Superintendent J. Michael Brandt. "If we only tweaked around the edges, we'd be sitting here five years from now and the results would be even worse."

Other cities have reached similar conclusions, and elements of the Cincinnati plan can be found in school-reform efforts in Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and Memphis, Tenn.

What makes Cincinnati's efforts rare, experts say, is the extent of its intended shakeup. At the same time the district is reconfiguring its 80 schools and redefining the central office's role in overseeing them, it also wants teachers and principals to rethink their responsibilities.

"Cincinnati is a special case," said Cheryl M. Kane, the director of strategy for New American Schools, a reform group based in Arlington, Va. "I think it's unique in its scope."

Outlines in Place

In August, the school board adopted a draft of a five-year strategic plan known as "Students First," which is now under review by teachers, parents, and the public. The board intends to vote on a final version in December.

Highlights of the plan include:

  • Replacing the typical single-teacher-classroom approach with teams of teachers who take responsibility for a single group of students for two to four years at a stretch.

Four multiage groupings affecting all but the last two years of high school would be created: K-3, 4-6, 7-8, and 9-10. Teams would have authority to decide how to spend money in such areas as textbooks, software, equipment, and even support services such as counseling and truant officers.

  • Eliminating middle schools, which have been plagued by discipline problems and poor student achievement. Except for a few specialized programs, the system would become a network of K-8 schools and high schools--a structure that is highly unusual in urban public education and that runs counter to the trend toward separate middle schools.
  • Requiring all nonmagnet schools to embrace a model for whole-school change. The models include but are not limited to the designs offered through New American Schools, a business-backed nonprofit corporation that is testing a menu of reform programs in two states and eight cities, including Cincinnati. ("Progress Report on NASDC Projects Finds Mixed Results," May 1, 1996.)
  • Setting annual targets for test scores, dropout rates, attendance, disciplinary actions, and other areas that the teaching teams and schools would be expected to meet. For example, 75 percent of entering 9th graders would be expected to graduate after four years by 2000-01, instead of only 46 percent in 1995-96.
  • Giving lump-sum per-pupil allotments to schools and then letting them decide how to spend the money. Schools would be encouraged to devote as much money as possible to the teacher teams, reducing the use of specialized staff members such as art, music, and computer teachers.

The teams would take on many of the functions of those specialists, as well as the duties of social workers, instructional aides, and remedial-education specialists. Schools would also have more authority over hiring.

Trial Runs

The systemwide structure spelled out in the strategic plan builds on a handful of reforms already in place in Cincinnati. Team teaching and multiage student grouping are being tried in 29 schools, for example.

In a change consistent with that approach, the district ended so-called social promotion in 1991 and adopted a new standards-based system for determining when pupils may progress to the next level.

Standards in math, reading, science, and social studies were set for each of three multiage levels--primary (K-3), intermediate (4-6), and middle (7-8)--and students must meet them before advancing.

And as part of a "pilot mini-district" of 10 schools that began in 1991, six schools have converted to K-8 neighborhood schools.

In support of its proposal to abolish middle schools, the district points to figures showing lower suspension rates and better attendance in those schools than in middle schools.

Among 7th and 8th graders in the K-8 pilot schools, the district reported 32.8 suspensions per 100 students and an 89 percent attendance rate last year, compared with 87.7 suspensions per 100 students and attendance of 81.8 percent in the middle schools.

"Our middle schools are not working," Monica S. Curtis, the district's director of public affairs, said. "We really believe that by putting 7th and 8th graders into smaller, more nurturing environments that they will first come to school, and then behave better when they're there."

The district is swimming against the tide by abandoning its middle schools, said Sue Swaim, the executive director of the National Association of Middle Schools, an advocacy organization based in Columbus, Ohio. For the past quarter-century, she said, many districts have sought to address the distinctive needs of 10- to 14-year-olds in stand-alone schools.

But she said her group is less concerned about a school's grade span than about whether its staff follows practices that have been shown to help young adolescents. "Merely changing the grade configuration is not what will make the difference," Ms. Swaim said.

Teachers Wary

The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers has yet to take a formal position on the plan.

But the move to K-8 schools is one of the features that provoke the most skepticism among teachers, according to Tom Mooney, the union's president. A recent union survey showed city teachers almost evenly split over whether K-8 schools would ease discipline problems, boost achievement, or cut the dropout rate.

In general, most teachers feel the reforms are on the right track, reflecting the cooperative relationship between teachers and the district in recent years.

But as they enter talks on a contract to replace the one that expires Dec. 31, union leaders have complained that the plan demands more sacrifices from union members than administrators.

Training Needs Cited

Margaret Holbert, the president of the Cincinnati branch of Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group based in Jackson, Miss., said many parents believe the plan will improve a district that already has many unsung strengths.

But she said some parents view it as ironic that the district's top brass is seeking to impose massive structural changes, all in the interest of devolving authority to the educators who are closest to the children.

The only way that strategy will work, said Allan Odden, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is if the district delivers on its promise to do away with bureaucratic impediments to local autonomy and innovation. On that front, he said, so far so good.

"It's at the cutting edge of districts trying to figure out how to organize to get higher performance," said Mr. Odden, who has been advising district officials as they draw up their plan.

Another authority on school restructuring, Ann Lieberman of Teachers College, Columbia University, cautioned that an agenda so sweeping must be accompanied by extensive retraining.

"The big idea in theory is quite impressive," said Ms. Lieberman, an education professor and a co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching. "I hope the process for getting there is equally impressive."

District officials say they've addressed those concerns. Though some teachers criticize the district for failing in the past to give them enough training to meet evolving standards, the superintendent vowed that will not be the case this time.

But Mr. Brandt added that he does not have the luxury of waiting until everyone is fully on board before making changes.

"You have to make decisions based on what's good for kids, not adults," he said. "We just can't wait for everybody to say, 'I'm ready to ride the train.'"

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