Friday, May 23, 1997
City schools can take bow,
but warily

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Veteran show business types know that, in the public eye, you're only as good as your last review.

Closing in on the end of the 1996-97 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools got both a rave and a raspberry this week. Such disparate notices are symptomatic of the praise-complain see-saw urban school districts endure every year. Day to day it's hard to glimpse the big picture.

Looking back over this school year, I think good news prevails. This week's issue of Time magazine devoted three glowing pages to Cincinnati Public's cutting-edge approach to training teachers. On the other hand, two days ago this newspaper reported that the district, a school system with a staggering drop-out rate, was dismantling its special school designed to save dropouts. Time's piece praised the Cincinnati Initiative for Teacher Education (CITE). This teacher training program involves a partnership among the schools, the University of Cincinnati, the teachers' union and the business community.

The program came about because of the high burn-out and drop-out rates for teachers. The Time story mentioned a poll where 40 percent of public school teachers said, "if I only knew then what I know now," they would never have gone into teaching. Another study placed the drop-out rate for teachers at 30 percent.

That's a low percentage compared to Cincinnati Public students. Almost half of all 9th graders in the district drop out before they can graduate. That's part of the reason the story about cutting funds for Clark Academy, the so-called dropout school, amounted to another head whack to the district's image.

Good vs. bad

Consider this year's Cincinnati Public news flashes:

  • Sharon Draper, Walnut Hills High School English teacher, selected 1997 National Teacher of the Year.

  • Christine Robertson, principal at Bramble Developmental Academy, named 1997 Distinguished Principal by the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators.

  • Retirements, resignations and reassignments could lead to a 25 percent dropout rate for principals.

  • Suspensions and expulsions decline by nearly 27%, due in part to the success of Project Succeed Academy.

  • Woodward High School's baseball team attacks Mount Healthy's players after a game.

  • Cincinnati Fire Division finds more than 2,500 safety violations in the school system's classrooms, auditoriums, hallways, stairwells. Cincinnati Public claims it doesn't have the money - $4 million - to fix everything.

  • Superintendent J. Michael Brandt receives a 5 percent pay hike, raising his salary to $129,591 a year.

  • Strategic reorganization plan implemented, reinvents the concept of neighborhood schools, emphasizes local control, greatly enlarges the scope of team teaching and puts students' needs first.

  • A study finds Cincinnati spends higher than the national average on its public schools and gets below-average results.

  • Teachers union signs contract.

    Report card

    Such ups and downs, according to Mr. Brandt, are "typical for an urban school system that's in transition."

    He says his district's transition is tracking upward. "The pieces are coming together. We have a plan. We're not seeing giant leaps, just steady growth."

    Tom Mooney, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers president, characterizes the steady growth as "crawling out of the basement and heading for the second floor." He gives the district a C+.

    Bob Drake, an associate professor of education at the University of Cincinnati, doesn't work for the board of education or consult in the city's schools. He gives the district a B.

    "Cincinnati is doing very well. Of all the Midwestern cities with which I'm familiar, it has done the most comprehensive job of identifying its problems and developing specific plans to deal with them.

    "Eventually," he says, "you'll see the gains in terms of reduced dropout rates and increased test scores."

    Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.