Sunday, July 01, 2001

School reforms bear fruit

Adamowski's staying to watch his blueprint become reality

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Even the prospect of a $44,000 raise to run Nashville schools could not deflect reformer Steven Adamowski from his course as superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools.

        He pulled his name from the Nashville competition two weeks ago and returned to Cincinnati, where proficiency test scores are improving and the 42,600-student district ranks as the most successful of Ohio's biggest urban schools on state tests.

        Friday, he reflected on the past school year and challenges ahead.

        Q: What is on the horizon for CPS?

        A: We're at a stage in our reforms where things are coming together ... There are several big things that I'm very interested in.

        One is the redesign of our (five neighborhood) high schools. Our shopping mall, industrial, large, so-called comprehensive high school is just not appropriate any more given the changes in the world and changing customer base we have. It just doesn't work ...

        We're going to open Taft and Aiken (high schools) as new senior institutes this year. What we're going to work on this year is the new international school at Withrow (High School) and another senior institute at Withrow which will be a college prep school - and in addition to that the Western Hills redesign.

        We're also going to take our preliminary steps planning programs for a new vocational campus at Woodward ...

        This is also going to be a big year for the teacher evaluation and compensation system. It will be our second year of implementation. My sense is that from all we learned the first year we're going to be much better, much stronger in terms of implementing it this year.

        One thing I'm going to be personally involved in is the revision of our special education programs. I requested two professors from the University of Indiana do an audit of our special ed programs earlier this year. I am now creating a response ... in the form of a set of actions ... I'm anticipating complete revamping of our special ed programs (and) I'm looking forward to tremendous improvement in instruction in special ed.

        Q: What do you see as your greatest challenge in the coming year?

        A: We have about a dozen very significant systemic elements (high school redesign, teacher evaluations, etc.) in place in the system now. I think the greatest challenge at this time is keeping them all on track and aligning the other elements of the system around them.

        Q: CPS made significant gains in proficiency tests during the past year. It is the highest performing of the big urban districts but remains among the lowest performing of the 612 public districts statewide. What can be done?

        A: Early literacy is our greatest point of leverage ... We are getting better in first grade and second grade in teaching children. High schools are probably the second greatest point of leverage in students' achievement ... If you look at what this system was like a few years ago, we would lose thousands and thousands of students dropping out between ninth and tenth grades. We would blame the student and blame the family when, in fact, there's a lot you can do about this by the structure of high schools..

        Another challenge for this coming year, in particular, is our building program. We have about 20 schools under some type of construction ... We are moving into what I would describe as a decade of renaissance. This is a city that didn't renovate or build a school for a quarter of a century. Obviously we're interested in doing work quickly, but you want to make sure you're supervising work well and that the work is excellent work because you know in the back of your mind you're doing work for the next 50 years.

        Q. CPS high school dropout rate is 49 percent. The board of education recently approved a virtual high school — allowing students to take courses online — to recover some of the 2,000 or more students who drop out a year. What else is being done to reduce the dropout rate?

        A. There's no silver bullet here but there are five or six things that if you do them together seem to make a huge difference. The virtual high school falls into one element of that, which is providing alternatives for students who cannot adapt to schedule of the regular high school ... The big idea is if you vary time, if you vary methodology, you can get more students to the standards.

        The other thing very powerful in high school redesign is the focus of the school. If you can get kids together for the same purpose and create a culture around that, you can get a much higher rate of completion. This level of specialization for senior institutes - whether it was IT (Information Technology) or college prep or vocational - this really came out of the fact that we wanted these senior institutes to be focused, everybody there for the same reason, students re-enforcing themselves and staff re-enforcing this singular goal. The whole redesign and restructuring of high school was really oriented around the dropout rate.

        Q: We have seen many split votes on the board of education. Has that been a hindrance to reforms? If so, how?

        A: It's been a frustration to me personally. I think on the big issues we have always had the four votes (of seven) ... Most recently we had the vote on the virtual high school and that should've been a no-brainer, and yet we had lots of discussion and a split vote. I think it takes us longer to get things done ... It creates a fragility and a fragile environment around some of these reforms

        The thing that we need desperately is stability and the notion that while different people may come and go and make their contribution ... The idea should be that we will sustain the reform.

        Q: When will Dr. Adamowski be courted again for other job offers and can you say how long you'd like to remain superintendent here?

        A: That's hard to say - there are so many variables. You don't know what the next board election will bring. I hope to be able to keep making contributions as long as I'm effective. Any (superintendent) who has been successful in raising results is likely to be contacted from time to time. There are a lot of reasons, natural reasons, that have not motivated me to be looking elsewhere. One is the progress we've been making. We've actually been able to do a lot of the things people have been talking about in other parts of the country. I also have a management team here which is the best I've ever worked with.

        Q: If you move on, what would you like to see accomplished before you go?

        A: I'd like to see a system structurally that has been changed so it's no longer dependent upon the personal leadership of the superintendent. (To that end) everything that we have done is oriented around a vision of a system of high-performing, independent public schools.


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