City's high schools targeted

Friday, September 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Public Schools' leaders must restructure the district's secondary programs if they want to close the widening performance gap between magnet and neighborhood high schools, Cincinnati Board of Education members and Superintendent Steven Adamowski agreed Thursday.

District leaders, who gathered Thursday for a daylong management retreat at the Queen City Club downtown, listed failing high schools as one of their most pressing concerns.

The district should either convert all high schools into magnet programs or raise the quality of education at neighborhood schools, Mr. Adamowski said.

Some board members suggested reviving a vocational-education program and adopting new magnet programs, such as a military school, to raise achievement.

"We cannot continue to run a system in which the best kids attend magnets and the most challenging students -- and the least amount of resources -- go to neighborhood schools," Mr. Adamowski said. "It is clear that conditions in our high schools are not conditions we would tolerate in most suburban high schools."

District leaders scheduled the retreat to plot long-term district strategies and build better communication between board members and the new superintendent, who started last month. More retreats may be held in October and November.

Board members were uncharacteristically critical of themselves and the school system, as they discussed the district's problems and targeted areas for improvement. But as facilitator Gloria G. Frazier of the Florida-based International Center on Collaboration directed their talks, they had plenty of ideas about how to fix the system.

Board President Arthur Hull suggested modifying class and school size. The student-teacher ratio at CPS is 22-to-1, and most high schools enroll more than 1,000 students.

Evaluating elementaries is crucial, because some grade schools promote poorly prepared students who need too much remediation, board members agreed.

Board member Lynwood Battle also proposed instituting a community service requirement and adopting other strategies to better motivate indifferent students.

All agreed raising high school achievement will require drastic and systemic change, which may prove unpopular with the public. "I don't think we can sustain our current system, and I would ask anyone to go into any of our neighborhood high schools if they want to be convinced of that," Mr. Adamowski said.

Added board member Lynn Marmer: "I feel an enormous responsibility and sense of sadness about this. For years, it's been very clear to all of us that this has been our challenge and we don't even know what to do about it."

Besides high schools, Mr. Adamowski and board members listed several other issues that may prompt policy changes in coming months, including:

  • Facilities and redistricting. Board members considered postponing next week's release of a facilities master plan, because it doesn't evaluate high school facilities as district leaders charged the plan's authors 18 months ago.

  • Charter, or community, school policies and practices.

  • Community relations.

  • Levies and bond issues that must be passed next year

  • Before- and after-school care and activities, preschool and child care. The district needs to partner with community agencies to provide such services, board members agreed.

  • Discipline and attendance.

"In the minds of most principals and many teachers, there is a disconnect in the strategic plan between the goal of reducing suspensions and expulsions and the goal of creating a safe and orderly environment," Mr. Adamowski said.

To improve performance, administrators also must challenge lax enforcement of the district's policy ending social promotion after eighth grade, Mr. Adamowski said.

And district leaders should devise a stronger kindergarten-through-third-grade reading strategy, he said. The third-grade reading level is the best indicator of later academic success, he added.

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