The first order of business for Mary Ronan as the acting superintendent of the Cincinnati school system four years ago was making big changes at more than a dozen of the city’s lowest-performing elementary schools. Many of them had been plagued by stagnant student achievement for more than a quarter-century.
Four years later, none of the 16 schools that Ronan and her team targeted for special interventions is stuck in “academic emergency"—the lowest rung of the Ohio accountability system, and the label most of them shared before the turnaround. A dozen of those schools have reached the level of “continuous improvement"—the midlevel rating—and others have gone on to be rated “effective” or even “excellent.”
“The first year [of the effort] was really hard,” Ronan recalls. “We were asking our teachers to do a lot of extra work; … we got a lot of pushback. There were folks who said we should call it off.” But at the end of that year, some half-dozen of the 16 targeted schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, something they had never achieved before.
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“That was really the turning point,” Ronan says now. That was when the other schools—and the rest of the community in this midsize city along the banks of the Ohio River—realized what was possible, she says.
The schools in what became known as the “elementary initiative” in Cincinnati first had to embrace some major instructional shifts. Each was required to offer 90-minute blocks each of reading and mathematics—as opposed to the scattershot scheduling that some had been using. Instead of whole-class instruction, teachers were shown how to divide their students up into smaller groups based on their abilities and needs.
And school officials created “data folders” to keep track of the academic progress of each student. Teachers were tasked with reviewing the data with their students every couple of weeks.
“That gave principals a tool to see how every child was doing,” Ronan explains. “You’re not just teaching to the middle anymore.”
The schools’ leaders, likewise, were given an extra boost of intensive training. Using money provided under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Ronan sent the principals of the elementary-initiative schools—along with teacher leaders—to the University of Virginia’s educational leadership training program. She chose the University of Virginia program because it promised results, telling Cincinnati that it would be able to help schools make AYP—or gain at least 10 percentage points within two years.
“You don’t get too many guarantees like that out there,” Ronan says.
Training for Principals
As part of that partnership, which began in late 2009, principals learned to set goals, draw up 90-day plans for academic improvement, motivate teachers, and single out and develop leaders from within their existing staffs. Those strategies merged well with the new focus on data that was already at play in the district, Ronan says. University officials followed up several times, visiting the district throughout the school year. The 34,000-student district participated in the University of Virginia program for two years, then incorporated many aspects of its training into Cincinnati’s own professional development for leaders.
The training was enormously helpful, says Ruthenia Jackson, the principal of Carson Elementary School, a K-8 school, which was part of the elementary initiative. Experts from the university encouraged her to “think outside the box,” she says, and use the resources already under her control to greater effect.
With those lessons in mind, Jackson decided to test out some new strategies at Carson, including grouping 7th and 8th graders into single-gender classes. Discipline incidents—like office referrals and suspensions—declined significantly, she says. The idea worked so well that others in the district are planning to try single-gender classes in those grades next year. And the school, which had been in academic emergency, has now been rated “effective"—the second-highest ranking.
To help oversee the turnaround process, Ronan tapped Laura Mitchell, herself a former turnaround principal, to serve as the deputy superintendent in charge of the initiative.
Not every aspect of the turnaround plan has been easy, Mitchell says. Ronan gave her significant political cover when the city teachers’ union pushed back on pieces of the turnaround effort, including staffing changes at four of the targeted schools that replaced nearly everyone—even, in some cases, secretarial workers and custodians.
“There were grievances filed by teachers that came in with her name on them,” Mitchell says. “She took the heat.”
Ronan continues to stand by those personnel decisions. “The culture was a culture of failure,” she says. “We just didn’t think we could transform a school without radically changing the culture.”
The U.S. Department of Education made similar staffing shake-ups a key component of the School Improvement Grant program, the Obama administration’s prescription for turnarounds.
Ronan also used economic-stimulus dollars to extend the school year, adding what she calls a “fifth quarter” in some of the district’s most academically challenged schools. The program eventually added a month to the school year for schools taking part in the elementary initiative, and used the added time to pair academics with enrichment programs, such as art and music classes and field trips offered by community organizations in partnership with the district.
The culture was a culture of failure ... We just didn't think we could transform a school without radically changing the culture.
Ronan is hoping that community partners will help the district continue to offer the services now that the extra federal funding has dried up.
Ronan has also put substantial energy behind an initiative already under way in the district: community schooling. Nearly all the schools in the elementary initiative—and many others—now house a range of outside players, from tutoring providers to dentists to social service organizations for children and families. Mitchell and Ronan helped incorporate those groups into the schools’ overall goals and worked to ensure that the services went to the students who needed them most.
The district’s population includes a number of groups that have traditionally struggled to close the achievement gap. Seventy-three percent of the Cincinnati school system’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and nearly 70 percent are African-American.
Ronan also increased the number of “resource coordinators,” whose job it is to make sure the community groups complement the schools’ efforts, from just nine to 34 across the district. A resource coordinator might ensure that volunteer tutors focus on a particular student’s areas of academic weakness, for example.
Longevity Pays Off
Ronan, 59, has spent her entire career in Cincinnati. She began in 1976 as a middle school math and science teacher, and later moved to a high school. In 1996, she became the principal of the Kilgour School, an elementary school in the district, which received a National Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence in the 2001-02 school year. She then took on leadership roles with the district, serving as an assistant superintendent, and then director of schools, overseeing the districts’ principals.
By the time she was named acting superintendent in 2008—she officially took over the top job the next year—she had served more than 30 years in the Queen City and knew it inside and out.
“I think it has made me more effective. You understand your community, you understand the politics,” Ronan says. “I’ve developed relationships over the years. … I knew to whom to speak when I needed something. I wasn’t groping around to figure out who the power brokers were.”
Ronan has been able to enlist allies among everyone from outside donors—she’s brought at least $30 million in additional grant funding to the district, according to Janet Walsh, a spokeswoman for the district—to classroom teachers.
“She probably knows more teachers than any superintendent,” says Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, a 2,400-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “I think it has been beneficial for her to get buy-in. Teachers feel comfortable talking to her.”
Sellers acknowledges that she and Ronan have had their differences. But when it comes to parts of the elementary initiative, including what Sellers sees as the prescriptive nature of classroom instruction in the turnaround schools, they are always able to come to a resolution, she says. And she praises the superintendent for trying out a range of strategies—from instructional changes to wraparound services—to improve the city’s schools.
“There’s nothing we don’t do in Cincinnati,” Sellers says. “These are the best urban, high-poverty schools in the country.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week