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Cincinnati offers lessons on improving schools and closing racial gaps

Date Published: 04/07/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


Entire community got involved, and holistic ‘cradle to career’ approach made a difference

We’ve all heard the stories and seen the movies about that charismatic principal or that inspirational teacher who defied expectations and boosted educational outcomes for a challenging group of students in a tough urban environment.

Policy wonks have a phrase – “bringing it to scale” – to describe the efforts to replicate that kind of success story from a single school or classroom across an entire city, or metropolitan region, or state or nation.

A slight but definite increase in national high school graduation rates across the nation over the last decade suggests that those broader success stories are out there. And one of the more compelling is provided by Cincinnati, a river city and the urban core of a metropolitan area in a Midwestern state, comparable in some ways to the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

Graduation rates on average across the Cincinnati Public Schools district increased from 51 percent in 2000 to 80 percent in 2009. And the graduation rate differential between African American students and white students not only narrowed to nearly equal standing in that time but has remained at similar levels since 2006.

Achievement scores for the district improved significantly on the state of Ohio’s performance index, which is used to gauge academic proficiency for school districts and schools. And perhaps most important, college enrollment and readiness have bumped up, too: Colleges in the Cincinnati area are reporting that more of the city’s high school graduates are enrolling, and more students from the local area are entering academia prepared for the challenges - and staying in college.

How did Cincinnati do it? The Cincinnati story by all accounts truly was a group effort, and the outstanding lesson is that there isn’t really one heroic Geoffrey Canada or Michelle Rhee who emerges as the Superman or Superwoman of the experience. Cincinnati’s success involved multiple interventions along the entire pathway, from cradle to career launch, not just one or two “silver bullets,” such as lower class sizes, aggressive testing, or assigning pass/fail grades to schools.

The contributing factors, rather, included more attention to teaching teams in the schools, student-based budgeting, more autonomy at the school level, and closer working relationships between students and teachers.

Failing neighborhood high schools were converted into several small, specialized schools, and students now can choose from all the high schools in the district. The district also adopted a more equitable method for funding and employed a student-based budgeting model in which money follows the students, allowing schools more flexibility in deciding how the money is spent. Additionally, students who cost more to educate - English language learners, low-income students and gifted students, for example - are supported with more funding. High schools in Cincinnati also now boast strong programs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), performing arts, liberal arts and information technology. And once-failing public schools, such as Taft Technology High and Withrow University High, are starting to catch the attention of the national media.

But one overriding lesson is that the school district was not alone in its efforts to reform schools and improve achievement for all students. The local business and philanthropic community, parents and community groups, teachers unions and even national experts on school change (including Minnesota’s own Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College) all played key roles.

The Cincinnati lesson is relevant for the Twin Cities and Minnesota because it clearly shows that major district-wide gains are possible for all students - including students of color. The dramatic increases in graduation rates and the elimination of the graduation gap came during a period when graduation requirements actually increased in difficulty.

Cincinnati is of interest, too, because some are looking at cooperative efforts there as a possible model for Minnesota schools. In 2006, an organization called Strive Together was founded to bring together key players and organizations to help continue success in Cincinnati and expand that success metro-wide into suburban communities in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky. Strive has pursued a cradle-to-career approach - emphasizing education from early childhood through to college and on to a career - and has spawned a national network. (More information is available at strivetogether.org.)

Two of the top leaders of Strive, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and Strive President Jeff Edmondson, met with education and community leaders from the Twin Cities in February to promote the launch of a similar effort in our own river cities. The event was arranged and sponsored by the African American Leadership Forum and the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium.

Edmondson summed up the effort this way: “We have talked with over 50 cities across the country about this work. In every case, we have seen that it takes a core group of committed leaders from across sectors to step up and commit to working together over the long term, so we stop looking for the silver bullet and begin building on what works in their community to support every child from cradle to career.”

And Zimpher argued that “the Twin Cities is in need of the kind of collaborative, systematic reform the Strive model offers, to ensure that today’s youth get the foundation they need to be successful.”

Cincinnati might not be the only model for our region and our state to develop a strategy for increasing higher education attainment and closing the racial and income gaps in achievement. But this all-encompassing formula, and the emphasis on efforts that enlist everyone in the community, show great promise for achieving the big gains that we’ll need for a broader prosperity.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, April 7, 2011.

Dane Smith is a regular Capitol Report columnist and president of Growth & Justice, a policy research group that seeks broader prosperity for Minnesota through smart investments in human capital and physical infrastructure. Assistance with the research and writing for this commentary was provided by Growth & Justice research intern Amelia Cruver.

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