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Cincinnati Turns Failing Elementary Schools Around

In two short years, the Cincinnati district has managed to transform failing schools into models for improvement.

After implementing what officials call the Elementary Initiative, a group of floundering urban schools has exceeded expectations: previously, only 24 percent of students were passing state tests, compared with the more than 65 percent of students now passing.

“When I was asked to take the lead on the Elementary Initiative, at first I was really scared, very nervous about the expectation of being able to prove some results or have some outcomes that could be measured by the end of the school year,” said Laura Mitchell, assistant superintendent and head of the initiative. “Then it really drove me to work extremely hard with our principals to help them achieve.”

“When I became superintendent, I looked around and saw that we had children going from kindergarten through eighth grade in schools that had never met the federal guidelines for what makes a good school,” said Mary Ronan, Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent.

Ronan said she identified 16 of the lowest-performing elementary schools and launched the Elementary Initiative in the fall of 2008.

“I asked Laura Mitchell, our deputy superintendent, to lead the schools, the principals and teachers in an initiative that was designed to be transformative,” Ronan said.

The group started off with audits of all of the schools in the district and moved resources around to make sure that student needs were really being met. Then they prepared individual plans for every single child. Reading and math received extra attention because those were weak areas for the district. They changed the way reading and math were taught, adding a 90-minute block of time. They also identified four-year-olds who were at risk and created a plan that would better prepare them for kindergarten.

“The schools stayed in session an extra month in our program, which we call Fifth Quarter,” Mitchell said.

There was also a professional development component aimed at improving leadership at the principal level.

“We had many dedicated, great teachers and principals,” Ronan said. “But we knew that we would have to step up training, especially in terms of principal leadership.”

Sean McCauley, principal at Ethel M. Taylor Elementary School, said that leadership opened the door to some unique educational tactics.

“Midway through the first year of the Elementary Initiative here at Ethel M. Taylor, teachers who didn’t want to be a part of the intense change and focus on the data and the accountability and the scrutiny, they retired or transferred out,” McCauley said. “We brought in some great teachers who are open to doing things differently. Math was our biggest weakness. So everyone got behind our Super Saturdays student program. All we did was post a sign-up sheet, and they came in droves. Teachers, Gear Up people, Miami University (OH) students; we often had enough tutors to go one-on-one for 25 to 30 kids. These students were dragging themselves out of bed on Saturday mornings when they used to sleep in.”

Apart from the teacher-student dynamic, the Elementary Initiative incorporates a tracking system for each individual student.

“I have a master resource sheet, which is a grid that shows exactly which resources each child is receiving and how he or she is doing,”  Resources Coordinator Annie Bogenschutz said. “The data shows which programs are best helping that student, and whether he needs more or different resources. We know exactly what we need to do for every child.”

Mitchell credits the culture change that was embraced by the school communities for making the progress achievable.

“I think I realized that our efforts were really starting to work when I saw a culture change with our principals. Traditionally we’ve been in a setting in which there has been a lot of competition among principals, but our principals in the EI schools have really bonded together.

Not only are we seeing our student achievement improve, but we’re seeing attendance improve. We’re also seeing discipline with them improve as well. So when you see the culture change, not just test scores, then you know that your efforts are making a significant difference.”

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