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School Reform in Cincinnati Yields Progress
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Ten years ago, facing underachieving students and financial and community-confidence deficits, the Cincinnati public schools turned to the local business community for recommendations. After issuing a report on the district's financial and operational practices, the executives remained on the scene to help implement the suggested reforms. Included: Descriptions of contributions business leaders make to Cincinnati schools.


In the late 1980s, the Cincinnati public schools faced a $100 million deficit, a failing financial management system, decrepit buildings, and struggling students. The superintendent turned to the business community for advice on how to regain a sound financial footing and public confidence.

The result was a stinging 1991 report from a commission of the Cincinnati Business Committee. It took the district to task for its poorly managed finances and facilities, lack of educational accountability, and overabundance of administrators.

The business community's involvement did not end when the Buenger Commission (named for commission chairman, Clement Buenger) released its report. In the ensuing ten years, more than 200 volunteers from the business committee have worked with school officials to implement recommendations and improve financial management. That assistance, combined with district personnel efforts, have led to more-efficient management practices and more-rigorous education standards -- not to mention an increased willingness by voters to fund those improvements.

Superintendent of schools Dr. Steven Adamowski credits the business community with launching and continuing the reform effort. "I've lived in five states and been a superintendent in four," Adamowski tells Education World, "and there is no parallel to the level of business involvement here. In other places, business leaders just criticize school districts. Here, they are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved."

The combined school-business effort is critical for sustained school reform, according to Jan Leslie, a spokesperson for the Cincinnati public schools. "You need keepers-of-the-vision outside and inside the system," Leslie explains to Education World. "It's hard to reform just from the inside. Having outside pressure and support to keep [school reform] on track makes the difference."

The business community is rich in resources the school system can utilize, according to Craig Maier, co-chairman of the Cincinnati Business Committee School Task Force, which meets periodically with the superintendent and board of education.

"If you take Fortune 500 folks and send them into schools, they will give you their best ideas," Maier tells Education World. "It's hard to get changes done outside the [school district's] command and control system. Businesses are very action-oriented. We have expertise you can't buy or get any other way."

JUMP-STARTING REFORM

Reform in all areas has continued since the release of the Buenger Commission report. "The changes the commission recommended were structural in nature and dealt with making the organization more efficient," Adamowski says. "If you look at the progress in terms of educational reforms, we could not have accomplished them dragging the old structure."

Ten years ago, Maier says, "There were two outstanding high schools; the rest were disasters. The district was not run in a business-like manner. Everyone aspired to work in the central office. The system had gone into deficit, which makes it hard to borrow money."

Within six months of the report's release -- in response to its recommendation to reduce central office staff -- the number of central office workers was cut in half. Today, 220 workers -- down from 600 ten years ago -- work in the central office, Leslie says. To accomplish that reduction, certain duties were shifted to other employees and passed on to individual schools.

Overall decentralization, in fact, became a crucial part of the reform effort. As a result, schools gained more direct funding and more responsibility. Money now is allocated on a per-pupil rather than a per-school basis, which is an incentive for schools to attract and retain students, Adamowski comments.

The human resource division was computerized, and the information management system streamlined, adds Leslie. A task force of volunteers from the business community also helped the district develop a new employee benefits plan.

The school system is about to embark on a ten-year plan to renovate school facilities. The system's debt will be paid off this year -- ten years after officials had to borrow $100 million from the state to avoid bankruptcy. Funds that had been allocated for debt repayment now are earmarked for a ten-year plan to renovate school facilities. Support in the business community for tax increases to fund school improvements helped the district's financial situation, and better financial management yielded more money to spend in classrooms.

"This set the stage for the education reforms the district has initiated," Leslie says.

INTO THE SCHOOLS

Four years ago, school officials led by the then-deputy superintendent of schools began a series of reforms. The current superintendent has accelerated their implementation, Leslie notes. Improvements include setting standards for students, teachers, and administrators; developing accountability plans for schools; restructuring five low-performing high schools into smaller school communities; and mandating summer school for second and third graders who do not read at grade level. Teacher-assessment programs were restructured to evaluate teachers on skills and knowledge.

In the past three years, the system has seen improvement in student performance on state tests. When Ohio initiated proficiency tests five years ago, Cincinnati schools were "solidly" in the lowest category, Adamowski says. Last year, the district had the highest ninth- and 12th-grade proficiency test scores among the 21 urban districts in the state.

The business community is eager to see that progress continue. "We try to keep everyone focused on how the schools can concentrate on educating a future workforce, [maintaining] accountability, and setting goals," Maier explains. "We are very much focused on meeting standards set by the state of Ohio."

Joseph Pichler, who served as co-chairman of the education task force for eight years, says businesses should play a role in school systems. "There is a long-standing tradition of the [Cincinnati] business community's supporting schools as requested," Pichler, the chief executive officer of Kroger Co. in Cincinnati, tells Education World. "Business sectors need to be vitally concerned about the quality of education. It affects the recruitment and skill level of potential employees."

Members of the business community also set up Mayerson Academy, a facility for professional development for teachers, Maier says. Businesses paid the capital costs for the center; school systems pay for teachers to attend workshops there.

Visible improvement also makes it easier for reform to continue, both Pichler and Maier say. "We've gotten the momentum and the funding -- now the task is to deliver," Pichler says. Adds Maier, "We're not walking uphill anymore; we're running."