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School & District Management Opinion

How Cincinnati Turned Its Schools Around

By Joe Nathan — January 08, 2008 7 min read
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Despite being plagued by the problems that beset most urban school systems, the Cincinnati public schools have managed to increase the four-year high school graduation rate from 51 percent in 2000, to 79 percent in 2007. Perhaps more important, they have, as of 2007, eliminated the gap between African-American and white students in graduation rates. This feat was accomplished, moreover, as the state of Ohio was raising academic standards and requiring students to pass more-challenging assessments to receive their diplomas.

No one in Cincinnati is satisfied, of course, with a 79 percent graduation rate. But the city’s progress in boosting student achievement is historic, and well worth examining for lessons that may be applicable to other school systems nationwide. Cincinnati is, if not the first, among the first urban districts to eliminate long-standing disparities between students of different races in achieving one of the most meaningful educational markers of all: completing high school.

How did this happen? Over the past seven years, Cincinnati has had a number of partners supporting its school reforms, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the foundation’s suggestion, I began working with the district and its partners in 2000, and my experiences have been eye-opening. This improvement effort is one of the most significant and successful I’ve seen since entering the profession in 1970. Those tackling their own systemwide problems would do well to study what Cincinnati has done. Here, from my perspective, are 10 ideas that worked:

Visiting highly successful urban schools. Cincinnati reformers not only found this exercise valuable, but they also considered it to be the first step toward change. Educators, parents, students, and community leaders took a firsthand look at public high schools, in New York state and Kansas, that were known to have achieved excellent results with students from low-income families, those with limited English proficiency, and others with special needs. Seeing these schools’ successful programs in action made it clear to the people from Cincinnati what could be accomplished. The conversation then shifted from whether progress was possible, to how it would be achieved.

Setting a few clear and ambitious goals. In 2000, the Cincinnati schools superintendent and the Gates Foundation agreed that over the next five years, the district would try to increase its graduation rate to 75 percent and cut the racial “graduation gap” in half. Both goals seemed impossibly ambitious then, but both have been met and exceeded. Having high goals, and maintaining an intense focus on them, gave the city’s reform efforts coherency and direction. Each high school developed its own yearly work plan reflecting these goals, along with one or two goals it developed for itself.

Creating new small schools within larger buildings. This was a central element of the Cincinnati effort. We built on extensive research showing the value of small, focused schools. Several high schools with four-year graduation rates of less than 40 percent in 2000 were subdivided into small schools of choice, open to all, having no admissions tests, and with their own principals. Another low-performing, somewhat smaller high school was divided into small learning communities in which students participated for several hours each day.

Providing professional development targeted at reading, math, and working effectively with urban youths. Grant money from Gates and other funding sources was used to help pay for these workshops for teachers. They were not one-shot, late-afternoon sessions offered when faculty members were tired or distracted. They often were held in the summer, at pleasant retreat centers. Workshops were sequential and in-depth, with teachers asked to try the techniques explored and modeled at one session to be able to discuss them at the next.

Respecting teachers. Both the superintendent and the school board agreed that teachers at the lowest-performing schools would be allowed to select the curriculum and professional development they thought would best help them reach their goals. Maintaining this kind of autonomy was not always easy—for the teachers or for those who advised them.

At one point, a national organization with its own curriculum convinced a senior district official that there should be a districtwide adoption of that curriculum. When some of the faculty members and I questioned this proposal, an officer of the organization bluntly told a Gates Foundation representative, “We want Joe Nathan out of Cincinnati.” The foundation looked into the situation, then promised to stay in Cincinnati so long as the district agreed to continue building-level decisionmaking. Senior district administrators and the school board chair decided to honor the original commitment. And both the foundation and the district asked me to stay, which I did.

Cincinnati teachers were treated like professionals are in other fields. In addition to special off-site workshops, there was recognition for schools showing exceptional progress, along with praise—to the news media and face to face—for educators in buildings with significant signs of growth. Veteran and younger educators alike responded with genuine openness, willingness to learn, and a growing belief that major advances were possible.

Having leadership and teacher encouragement from union officials. The last two presidents of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers had been high school teachers, and they strongly endorsed the change efforts. This made them effective advocates, offering encouragement, support, and advice for teachers. Any urban district trying similar reform strategies should consider inviting such individuals to meet with people in their district as they try to enlist their own local unions’ help in leading change.

Fostering partnerships. Partners important to the Cincinnati reform efforts ranged from foundations and universities to corporations, nonprofits, and advocacy groups. They included, in addition to the Gates Foundation, Cincinnati Bell, Xavier University, the local service agency Families Forward, and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Cincinnati Bell employees provided thousands of tutoring hours at one high school, and gave cellphones to students who excelled. Xavier offered summer classroom space and other services to 9th graders from Withrow University High School, helping the young people feel that they belonged in college classrooms. Families Forward shared some of its space with another high school, and its staff members helped families and counseled students facing personal and socioeconomic challenges. KnowledgeWorks provided grants and technical assistance to several Cincinnati high schools, and did advocacy work for both the district and the community.

Welcoming competition from charter public schools. The Cincinnati school board, district administrators, and city teachers were well aware of the growing competition for students, and this informed their decisions and increased their determination to succeed.

Making accountability more than a catchphrase. District administrators didn’t just talk about accountability for results. Superintendents Steven J. Adamowski and Rosa E. Blackwell, both dedicated, talented leaders, gave authority to principals and held them responsible. They encouraged effective principals, and removed several others whose schools showed little progress. Out of this, a cadre of excellent principals began to emerge.

Creating or expanding service-learning programs. These types of opportunities helped the city’s young people see themselves as capable of accomplishing important undertakings and making valuable contributions now. And this new, more positive self-image was certainly a factor in achieving their academic goals. Service-learning programs also helped students see connections between the school curriculum and their own community.

Looking Ahead

The Cincinnati school system still faces challenges. Enrollment has declined (especially at the elementary school level), and the district has significant financial problems. The current superintendent is leaving after having worked more than 30 years in the district, and, beginning in the 2008-09 school year, the city will have its fourth superintendent in eight years.

But with Gates Foundation support, the district is launching a new strategic plan. It includes, among other proposed next steps, the development of a higher education, district, and community partnership to further increase the high school graduation rate, as well as to expand the number of students entering and graduating from some form of postsecondary education.

Yet the teachers, families, students, and community members of Cincinnati already have made historic progress. Over the past seven years, they have recognized that no one approach will produce the gains they seek, and they have used the best available research—plus their openness, courage, and persistence—to produce truly remarkable results.

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Partnerships Education Reform

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as How Cincinnati Turned Its Schools Around

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