Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Schools reformer Adamowski resigns

Many credit him with improving district's performance

By Jennifer Mrozowski, jmrozowski@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Schools Superintendent Steven Adamowski is leaving Ohio's third-largest school district in the next few months to teach at the University of Missouri.

Superintendent Steven Adamowski (center) speaks at Monday's school board meeting. He's flanked by board member Harriet Russell and board president Rick Williams.
(Steven M. Herpich photo)
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        Mr. Adamowski, 51, has been superintendent since August 1998 and has been lauded for his reforms of the persistently low-achieving district.

        He said Monday he will teach leadership and education policy studies this September in Missouri's doctoral program. Mr. Adamowski said he will help the school board find — and perhaps train — a successor before he leaves sometime in August.

        Mr. Adamowski told the board in a letter Monday he has accomplished most of his reform agenda and it was a “natural” time to leave.

        “The next strategic plan, while building on the last, will require new ideas and different leadership capabilities,” he wrote. “It would be most advantageous for the next superintendent to develop this plan with the board and implement it at the outset.”

        Many board members had no inkling the superintendent planned to leave the 42,000-student district.

        “I am not unhappy with anybody or anything,” Mr. Adamowski said.

        His departure comes at a critical juncture for the district, which is on the brink of asking taxpayers for a $500 million bond issue for the biggest school construction project in city history — a $1 billion plan to build 35 new schools and renovate 31 others.

        Board President Rick Williams said the search for a new superintendent will start immediately. He hopes to have a replacement within three months.

        Mr. Williams said the district will continue to work toward its No. 1 goal of improving student achievement.

        “The superintendent led the work that was given him by the board of education,” Mr. Williams said. “Those reforms have to continue.”

        Mr. Adamowski, who earned $181,282 annually, was known nationally as an education reformer.

        Some of those reforms he presided over include:

        • A new design for high schools, dividing the lowest-performing schools into several smaller schools within schools. The West End's Taft High School was transformed into an information technology school last fall.

        • A new school accountability system, which rewards schools for meeting academic performance goals and requires overhauls for those that don't.

        • A compensation system to pay teachers based on their teaching quality rather than seniority.

        The pay-for-performance system was voted down by teachers in May and was one of Mr. Adamowski's first big defeats.

        Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, doesn't see Mr. Adamowski's departure as having any effect on the teacher pay-for-performance plan.

        “Reforms began before Adamowski came, and certainly during his tenure there were various reforms that were strengthened,” she said. “The federation will work collaboratively with whomever the superintendent is because our only goal is to figure out what improvements we can make in terms of teaching and teaching conditions that will bring about increased student achievement.”

Initial outcry gave way to praise for Adamowski
    Steven J. Adamowski's hiring in May 1998 was not unanimous and certainly not without controversy. However, during his four-year tenure, he earned praise for his efforts to implement dramatic changes in Ohio's third-largest school district.

    Here's a look at key moments in his stint as Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent:

    • He was hired in May 1998 on a 5-2 school board vote to succeed J. Michael Brandt. He beat out nine other candidates, including CPS Assistant Superintendent Rosa Blackwell and Anthony Alvarado, superintendent of Community School District 2, New York City Public Schools.

    • The new superintendent promised to continue reforms started under the district's strategic plan called Students First.

    • Board members approved a three-year contract with Mr. Adamowski, formerly associate secretary of education for the Delaware Department of Education. He initially made $136,200, with performance-based pay raises of up to 10 percent each year of his three-year contract. He now makes $181,282 annually.

    • Mr. Adamowski's hiring sparked intense criticism from community groups — including Parents for Public Schools, the Baptist Ministers Conference of Greater Cincinnati and the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati — whose leaders worried he lacked adequate urban experience.

    • On the first day of school September 1998, the reform-minded Mr. Adamowski promises to aggressively pursue new methods of educating Cincinnati children. “We keep looking for a silver bullet, but there is no silver bullet. We must knit together a number of designs for systemic change.”

    • After his first year on the job, board members approved a contract extension. He earned high marks — scoring 75 of a possible 100 points — in his first evaluation. Board members said they were pleased with Mr. Adamowski's leadership in high school redesign, a mandatory summer school to strengthen reading, redesigning low-performing schools and working with the teachers union to create a performance-based pay system.

    • During his tenure, CPS began posting steady signs of change. Among them: creating the nation's first performance-based teacher evaluation and pay system; being the first Ohio district to create its own charter schools; reducing administrative costs; improving Ohio Proficiency Test scores; requiring summer school for those who failed state reading tests.

    • Persistent improvements at CPS landed Mr. Adamowski in the national spotlight. In June 2001, he was one of four finalists for superintendent of Nashville, Tenn., city schools. Recruiters described him as one of the country's “premier educational administrators.” Mr. Adamowski withdrew his name after interviewing.

    • In an October 2001 speech about CPS, Mr. Adamowski insisted the district was improving. Pointing to improved test scores, graduation rates and attendance, he said, “We're not perfect. We have lots of problems to confront, but I don't think anyone can look at our data and deny that we have made significant progress."

    • In his third annual performance review, board members offered unanimous approval. The 2000-2001 school year applauded the “positive ... direction of the district and Dr. Adamowski's leadership.”

        Many business leaders rallied behind the superintendent, crediting him in large part for the improvements in student achievement.

        Jack Cassidy, president and chief operating officer of Cincinnati Bell, which sponsored the Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School, lamented Mr. Adamowski's announcement.

        “He was huge. I wouldn't have done the Taft High School project without Steve and (Taft Principal) Anthony Smith. Those two guys convinced me they could get it done.”

        “He has certainly made it a life mission to reform the culture there (within CPS). By dealing with him, I didn't have to deal with the culture.”

        A year ago, Mr. Adamowski interviewed for the top schools job in Nashville, Tenn. He withdrewfrom consideration citing hometown support and a desire to continue to oversee reforms here.

        At the time, business leaders made a big push to keep him.

        John Pepper, retiring chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. and longtime supporter of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, said business leaders respected Mr. Adamowski's reform efforts.

        Those efforts made it more palatable for corporate leaders to invest in the school system, he said.

        “He's no-nonsense. He's been very decisive,” Mr. Pepper said. “He's been strategic in his approach to change.”

        Board member Catherine Ingram said it was inevitable that Mr. Adamowski would move on.

        “When you are in the business, you recognize that people have a lot to offer, and they are always being sought after. I thought someone would have lured him away from us before now,” she said.

        Board member John Gilligan said the resignation came without warning.

        “He has evidently good reasons for making this move, and I certainly can't object to that or complain about that. He's done a great job for the Cincinnati Public Schools system and for the city in general.”

        Said Mayor Charlie Luken: “It's a huge loss, and one we will have to work very hard to overcome. Steve Adamowski is one of the better superintendents in the country, and he will not be easily replaced. But I believe the foundation he laid is firm, and we can continue to build on it.”

        Mr. Adamowski succeeded Superintendent J. Michael Brandt, who retired after seven years in that job.

        When the school board hired Mr. Adamowski in a 5-2 vote, some of the district's biggest supporters pleaded with the board to reconsider.

        Many, particularly in the African-American community, complained that Mr. Adamowski lacked experience in an urban district whose students are more than 70 percent black.

        Brewster Rhoads, a political strategist and education activist, was one of the naysayers.

        “We were wrong. We were dead-flat wrong,” Mr. Rhoads said Monday night. “He obviously was right on the merits of his ideas. He has creative, effective ideas. Whether they were tested some other place doesn't matter. They worked here.”

        Along with business leaders, parents say they hope the reforms continue.

        “The district has made great strides,” said parent Dee Fricker. “It's a shame. We need continuity in leadership to keep that going.”

        Chot Van Ausdall, president of the Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools, said he believes the district will continue to make strides.

        “He's only the leader, he's not the heart and soul,” Mr. Van Ausdall said. “He's given reason to support the schools. Basically the plan is there. We just have to keep refining it.”

        Mr. Adamowski said that having recently completed his 30th year in K-12 education, he'd like to do research and teach in higher education.

        “I've reached the conclusion that I could do the greatest good in the final phase of my career by helping to prepare the next generation of principals and superintendents,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

        Mr. Adamowski said the university has offered to help him establish a new Research Center for Education Reform.

        Mr. Adamowski came to Cincinnati billed as an education reform specialist at the Delaware State Department of Education.

        He also has served as a senior fellow and deputy director at the Hudson Institute's Modern Red Schoolhouse project in Indianapolis, where he helped schools restructure to improve student achievement.
       The Modern Red Schoolhouse national reform model holds students to high standards in such subjects as math, science, English and social studies — core subjects in the little red schoolhouses of history.

        He has worked as superintendent of Clayton Schools, which enrolled 2,500 students in St. Louis; School District of the Chathams, which enrolled 2,200 students in Chatham, N.J.; and Norwich Public Schools, which enrolled 4,000 students in Norwich, Conn.

        In St. Louis in the early 1990s, Mr. Adamowski unsuccessfully encouraged school officials to lengthen the school year. He was credited with establishing long-range facilities and financial plans and improving reading, math and social studies programs.

        In Chatham, he led the first voluntary merger of two school districts in New Jersey.

        He was assistant superintendent of Portland Public Schools, an 8,000-student district in Portland, Maine, from 1979 to 1983. He also was principal at a Farmington, Conn., elementary school and taught in New Haven, Conn., in the early 1970s.
       Reporters Erica Solvig, Cliff Peale and Gregory Korte contributed.


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