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Cincinnati school district raises high school graduation rates for all

The goal

In the year 2000, the high school graduation rate for Cincinnati Public Schools was 51%. Faced with the dismal figure, Cincinnati’s superintendent of schools set out to increase the overall graduation rate to 75% by 2005 and cut the racial graduation gap in half. These goals were met and exceeded.

In 2005, the district's graduation rate was nearly 77%, and in 2006 Cincinnati became a standout urban public school district by eliminating the stubborn gap in graduation rates between white and African American students. The overall graduation rate has remained above 75% - reaching as high as 83% in 2008 and 2010.

Measures of dramatic progress

The high school graduation rate for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) increased from about 51% in 2000 to 80% in 2009. Preliminary data indicate an 83% rate for 2010. From 2000 to 2009, graduation rates increased for African American students from about 47% to 80% and for white students from about 59% to 84%. For years 2002 to 2009, the rate for low-income students rose from about 54% to 76%. In 2006 and 2007 the graduation rate for African American students exceeded that of white students by several percentage points. The rates have remained close since 2006.

Achievement on test scores also increased dramatically from 2000 to 2009 for the CPS district as a whole.  From 2001 to 2006, the district’s average score on Ohio’s performance index for schools increased by about 24 points, from 57.7 to 81.5, and it stood at 83.1 for 2010.

The percentage of CPS high school graduates enrolled in college went up 10 percentage points to 68% from 2005 to 2008.

Who contributed to positive changes?

Progress in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) was the result of hard work by many actors within the community.  High on the list: superintendents, principals, teachers and the teachers’ union, and teacher teams within schools.  The business community has been actively engaged on reform since CPS embraced recommendations from a business-led commission regarding inefficiencies and a lack of accountability.  The Minnesota-based Center for School Change, the Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Strive Partnership all worked with the district and the schools.  And finally, hard work and dedication by students and their families was essential to achieving these results in Cincinnati’s high schools.

The dramatic improvement in CPS graduation rates may not have been possible without a switch to student-based budgeting.  With student-based budgeting, per-pupil funding goes to whichever school a student attends, and this has increased the control that schools have over budget decisions. Schools receive extra funding for students with higher needs – English language learners, students with disabilities, gifted students, and students living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.

There are other elements that have aided the CPS turnaround.  The Students First plan, adopted by the school board in the 1990s, helped advance the alignment of curriculum with state educational standards, and led to the decentralization of power to schools as well as the move to city-wide high schools with open enrollment.  CPS has also made it a priority to use data-driven instruction in its high schools and at all grade levels. Teaching teams use student achievement data to guide their instructional strategies.

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