Meeting the Urban School Challenge

By Kathleen Vail

Take the lowest-performing elementary schools in the most poverty-blighted neighborhoods of an urban district. Raise the achievement of the poorest, most disadvantaged children, pulling those schools out of a decades-long funk of low test scores and failure.          

And do it in two years.                

That’s impossible, if you believe urban schools are too large and entrenched to change so quickly. And even if these schools could change, the handicaps of poverty are too intractable to overcome in only two years.

It’s not impossible. Superintendent Mary Ronan and the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) staff saw results in less than two years after starting the Elementary Initiative with 16 chronically underachieving schools. Since the fall of 2008, 13 of the schools have shown measurable improvement in student achievement. Two of the schools showed significant improvement but did not change their state category. Six have moved by at least one state category to “continuous improvement,” while five jumped two categories, from “academic emergency” to “continuous improvement.”

These successes helped CPS achieve a state ranking of “effective” in 2010 -- the first urban district in Ohio to do so. And Ronan and other school leaders say the district’s innovative labor contract with the Cincinnati Teachers Federation, approved last December, was in part due to the success of the reforms.

How did Cincinnati -- a majority-minority district in which 68.7 percent of students are African-American, and 68.8 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch -- do so much in so little time?

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