The Ohio school district is closing the achievement gap, boosting the performance and graduation rates of black students.
CINCINNATI – When educators nationwide want to look at proven ways to turn around a struggling urban school system, this is the city they visit.
Over a decade, Cincinnati Public Schools’ graduation rate has jumped from 50 to 80 percent. And in the past five years, the reading and math proficiency of its elementary students has climbed in many schools.
Those gains have been fueled by big improvements in the performance of black students, who make up more than half of the district’s 30,000 students. In 2006, 2007 and 2010, black students’ graduation rates surpassed those of whites.
“We have seen many examples of a school having tremendous growth in a relatively short … time, but Cincinnati … is one of the strongest examples I know of where a system … has made dramatic gains in a short period of time,” said William Robinson of the Darden-Curry Partnership, a University of Virginia venture that runs a school-turnaround program.
Cincinnati’s success has drawn the attention of educators struggling to bridge the achievement gap between white and minority students. In few places is that gap more persistent than Minnesota, which has seen marginal gains for students of color despite spending millions of dollars in the past decade. In Minneapolis, about 40 percent of black students graduate on time, compared to about 70 percent of white students.
Cincinnati attributes its success to measures, big and small, that ensure its poorest students receive the basics in the classroom and out, including tutoring, mentoring, food and health care. Businesses routinely answer the call for funding and volunteers, often working through the Strive Partnership, a local nonprofit that operates under a framework being duplicated across the country. In the Twin Cities, Generation Next, a group led by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, is modeled after Strive and backed by corporate giants such as Target and 3M.
Yet Cincinnati school leaders seldom talk about closing the achievement gap. Instead, they say they’re helping all of their students.
“We realized a long time ago that when you help one group of students, you usually help all students,” said Cincinnati Superintendent Mary Ronan.
Feeding body and mind
On a recent school day at Rothenberg Academy, an elementary school that is one of Cincinnati’s success stories, the work of improving learning outcomes was underway.
Clad in a referee’s shirt and wearing a whistle, Principal Alesia Smith patrolled the halls, reminding her students that state tests were looming and that it was time to focus.
Her no-nonsense message was delivered with a sweet offer — juice and doughnuts.
“Are you hungry, baby?” she asked a girl in a worn jacket. “You go tell them Mrs. Smith said to feed you.”
At Rothenberg, 99 percent of students live in poverty. In the school’s laundry room, volunteers wash students’ clothes, often after the city has cut off water to their homes.
Poverty is a strong barrier to academic achievement. But in four years, Rothenberg has shed its “failing” state label, and many of its students have almost doubled their proficiency in reading and math.
Today, the school, once slated for demolition, has been renovated outside and inside.
Smith, hired to oversee turnaround efforts, also has turned to instinct to help the students, giving them rules, routines and safety. “We really had to love them past all their pain and disappointment and get them to trust us,” she said. “And I’ll tell you, that’s a lot of work.”
Still, says Smith, work remains. “You’re forever turning it around, because you have new kids that are coming in,” she said. “But now you’ve created a culture where turnaround is what we do.”