Monday, December 11, 2000

City schools drawing unusual support

Superintendent, successes win over former adversaries

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Tristate's largest school district has a whole bunch of new friends. Critics who once spent thousands telling voters to reject school levies are asking what they can do to help Cincinnati Public Schools educate 42,000 of the city's children.

        Why the change of heart?

        “Two words,” said John Williams, Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce president. “Steven Adamowski.”

        Others echo that response. The Republican Party. The region's apartment owners association. Alliances of churches and neighborhood groups.

        They all make the same point:

  The Cincinnati Public Schools district is posting steady signs of progress. The district:
  • Created the nation's first performance-based teacher evaluation and pay system.
  • Is the first district in Ohio to create its own charter schools.
  • Reduced administrative costs to 5 percent of its $374 million budget.
  • Tops Ohio's eight urban districts on the 12th-grade Ohio Proficiency Test and the state report card.
  • Required summer school for those who failed state reading tests. At the end of the five weeks, more than 60 percent of the 2,466 students passed.
  • Continued a five-year climb in passing rates on the Ohio Ninth-grade Proficiency Test.
  • Tops the state in the number of teachers certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. With 65 certified teachers, the district is in the top 10 districts nationwide for the number of certified teachers.
        Superintendent Adamowski runs the district like a big-company CEO.

        “He's bringing market forces to work and into play in the schools,” said Charles Tassell, government affairs director for the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association. ""We pay attention to the market.

        “He's changing how the schools manage themselves. Each school is like its own independent company. They can be something that quickly responds to the market and customer complaints.”

        Support from businesses and others is critical to any large, urban district struggling with outdated facilities and increasing pressure to improve student performance.

        From Cleveland to Columbus, and Akron to Toledo, the state's public schools must rely on the public — financially and through volunteer efforts — to ensure success.

        Cincinnati is finding that that success breeds success. Test scores are going up and, last month, voters gave the schools its largest levy win in 30 years.

        But the newfound support is not a lock.

        New supporters, and those stepping up their efforts on behalf of the school district, say the system must continue to prove itself.

        Chip Gerhardt, executive director of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said his group will “certainly be watching closely to see how things play out.”

        When Republicans endorsed a November 6-mill Cincinnati school levy, it was the first time in recent memory the party support ed such an issue.

        “We want to give this administration and this (school) board a chance to carry out the reforms they have begun to put into place,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “We felt it was important that we were a partner in this effort. There is compelling evidence that now is a critical time for the district.”

        So what's Mr. Adamowski's secret?

        When hired in 1998, he insisted that his evaluation be based on results. Mr. Adamowski talked to leaders at Procter & Gamble and other local companies, asking how their CEOs were evaluated.

        In most cases, managers are evaluated based on outcomes (60 percent of the evaluation) and what's done to improve those outcomes (40 percent).

        “We adopted that model,” Mr. Adamowski said. “In our case it provides me with a road map and a clear direction.”

        That's why Mr. Williams, the chamber president, recorded a radio ad urging residents to vote yes on the levy. It was a first for the chamber, which usually just issues an endorsement.

        “Our feeling was when you've got someone who is a change agent, and you see his people rallying behind him to start making that change, it's critical to provide support for that,” Mr. Williams said.

        “If I thought he was comfortable, or felt we were where we should be, I'd have very little interest in supporting him. But if we want to make a change, we have to make an investment when the change is being made. You can't wait until it's all done.”

        To convince groups to support the schools, Mr. Adamowski makes the good pitch.

        He talks about the district's success with a mandatory summer school to improve student reading skills. He cites the new teacher pay-for-performance evaluation system. He talks about the district's need to compete with charter and private schools. He cites the system's shrinking administra tive costs — only 5 percent of its $374 million budget.

        His talks win people over.

        The apartment owners withdrew opposition to the levy just days before the vote after a sit-down with Mr. Adamowski. And now, Mr. Tassell said, the group will become active supporters, with plans to post candidates for school board.

        What impresses business and civic leaders most is the potential that exists for Cincinnati Public Schools.

        Improving city schools can help the city's image, increase property values, improve businesses' ability to recruit employees and simply strengthen the community, they say.

        That's just what Mr. Adamowski said he wants to do. But he knows he's got a tough job.

        The goals he sets for himself — and those set for him by the school board — are ambitious and lofty, yet not unattainable.

        He wants to restructure the high schools. Start a new program for gifted students. Address teacher and principal quality.

        Mr. Adamowski's new supporters said they think he has the flexibility and focus to get things done. As Mr. Tassell put it, “We are to that point where we can say there is vision and ideas we really want to get behind.”

        But with that support comes a responsibility by the school district to deliver on promises made, Mr. Gerhardt said.

        “We are going to watch carefully how the things they talked about in the levy campaign do, as well as the overall performance of the district and how the teacher performance system works out.”


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