See more of the story

– When educators nationwide want to look at proven ways to turn around a struggling urban school system, this is the city they visit.

Over a decade, Cincinnati Public Schools’ graduation rate has jumped from 50 to 80 percent. And in the past five years, the reading and math proficiency of its elementary students has climbed in many schools.

Those gains have been fueled by big improvements in the performance of black students, who make up more than half of the district’s 30,000 students. In 2006, 2007 and 2010, black students’ graduation rates surpassed those of whites.

“We have seen many examples of a school having tremendous growth in a relatively short … time, but Cincinnati … is one of the strongest examples I know of where a system … has made dramatic gains in a short period of time,” said William Robinson of the Darden-Curry Partnership, a University of Virginia venture that runs a school-turnaround program.

Cincinnati’s success has drawn the attention of educators struggling to bridge the achievement gap between white and minority students. In few places is that gap more persistent than Minnesota, which has seen marginal gains for students of color despite spending millions of dollars in the past decade. In Minneapolis, about 40 percent of black students graduate on time, compared to about 70 percent of white students.

Cincinnati attributes its success to measures, big and small, that ensure its poorest students receive the basics in the classroom and out, including tutoring, mentoring, food and health care. Businesses routinely answer the call for funding and volunteers, often working through the Strive Partnership, a local nonprofit that operates under a framework being duplicated across the country. In the Twin Cities, Generation Next, a group led by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, is modeled after Strive and backed by corporate giants such as Target and 3M.

Yet Cincinnati school leaders seldom talk about closing the achievement gap. Instead, they say they’re helping all of their students.

“We realized a long time ago that when you help one group of students, you usually help all students,” said Cincinnati Superintendent Mary Ronan.

Feeding body and mind

On a recent school day at Rothenberg Academy, an elementary school that is one of Cincinnati’s success stories, the work of improving learning outcomes was underway.

Clad in a referee’s shirt and wearing a whistle, Principal Alesia Smith patrolled the halls, reminding her students that state tests were looming and that it was time to focus.

Her no-nonsense message was delivered with a sweet offer — juice and doughnuts.

“Are you hungry, baby?” she asked a girl in a worn jacket. “You go tell them Mrs. Smith said to feed you.”

At Rothenberg, 99 percent of students live in poverty. In the school’s laundry room, volunteers wash students’ clothes, often after the city has cut off water to their homes.

Poverty is a strong barrier to academic achievement. But in four years, Rothenberg has shed its “failing” state label, and many of its students have almost doubled their proficiency in reading and math.

Today, the school, once slated for demolition, has been renovated outside and inside.

Smith, hired to oversee turnaround efforts, also has turned to instinct to help the students, giving them rules, routines and safety. “We really had to love them past all their pain and disappointment and get them to trust us,” she said. “And I’ll tell you, that’s a lot of work.”

Still, says Smith, work remains. “You’re forever turning it around, because you have new kids that are coming in,” she said. “But now you’ve created a culture where turnaround is what we do.”

The Cincinnati district has been reinventing itself for more than a decade. In 2000, it began an ambitious effort to revitalize its high schools, some of which weren’t graduating almost half of their senior classes.

With $3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it shrunk most of its high schools and gave each a focus. Some catered to students interested in health careers, while others restructured classes around performing arts. Students were also allowed to select their high school as long as they stayed in the district.

Once the graduation rate veered upward, the district turned its attention to 16 low-performing elementary schools. Thirteen were rated “Academic Emer­gency,” the lowest ranking from Ohio’s Department of Education. At some of the schools, less than 10 percent of students were proficient in reading or math.

Kicked off in 2008, the Elementary Initiative called for school audits, success plans for each child, and an intense focus on math and reading. It also established a summer program called the “Fifth Quarter” that extended learning time at struggling schools.

Learning how life works

Outside the Oyler School, a stately brick building in the heart of Lower Price Hill, young men crowd narrow streets, fiddling with an old car up on cinder blocks.

Most Lower Price Hill residents are descendants of white Appalachian coal miners who moved to Cincinnati in the 1940s for factory jobs. When those jobs dried up, poverty moved in. Today, about one-third of Oyler’s prekindergarten through grade 12 students are so poor that they qualify for food sent home by the school. Dental disease is rampant.

Last fall, a dental clinic opened at Oyler. It’s a crown jewel in the school’s Community Learning Center, which provides on-site health services, counseling, after school programs and child care.

The center embodies the district’s recognition that if its poorest students are to succeed, they cannot be hungry, sick or lack basic services.

“We don’t have families disappearing like we did,” Ronan said. “A student can see the nurse, get the medicine, or if they need to see a counseling session, they can get those, too. There’s more time for classroom instruction.”

No U.S. district has employed the on-site social services model on such a large scale. Cincinnati has opened centers in 36 schools and is routinely visited by school leaders from across the country.

Each center reflects community needs. At Oyler, the emphasis is on health care. In addition to the dental clinic, there’s an on-site pediatrician and a vision clinic, the nation’s first such facility in a school. The district provides the location, while the service providers foot operating costs for the centers. Most services are paid through Medicaid.

Volunteers, including dentists, play a significant role. Since opening last fall, Oyler’s dental clinic has treated about 1,000 patients. Many had never been to a dentist, said Paul Randolph, executive director of Growing Well, which coordinates health services at Oyler.

District officials concede that the centers haven’t always paved the way for an increase in test scores. Still, they say, they help Oyler’s students have an equal chance at success with their more affluent peers.

“Our kids are slowly seeing … the normal way that life is supposed to be,” said school resource coordinator Jami Harris. “You’re not supposed to be in pain. If you’re hungry, you’re supposed to … have food. We’re changing the culture.”

Investing in things that work

When Shawn Pearson sought GE Aviation co-workers to volunteer at Aiken High School, it didn’t take long to round up almost 70 people.

The Cincinnati-based company is heavily invested in the district. Its foundation has provided $25 million over the past eight years. It routinely sends an armada of mentors into the schools, including Aiken, where they have helped shape the school’s transition to project-based learning with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s very satisfying to … teach some things,” said Pearson, an engineering manager. “And it’s significant for them to have someone ask about their grades or give them a hard time if they’re not trying.”

Cincinnati’s business community has played an integral role in turning around tough schools. In many cases, their help has been funneled through Strive, which has convened businesses, social service agencies and higher-ed institutions to help improve education in the Cincinnati area.

Strive’s guiding principle is straightforward: Bring people together. Have them agree on a few common goals. Develop a way to measure success toward goals. Keep programs that work; drop those that don’t. Hold everyone accountable.

When research showed that one-to-one tutoring was boosting achievement, Strive and its partners rounded up 1,000 tutors. “You’ll see that there are things that are being leveraged in a school district that have very little or no impact,” said Greg Landsman, the partnership’s executive director. “And it’s up to us as a community and a partnership to have those tough conversations about what’s working. We know [tutoring] works.”

Unequal at an early age

This year, the Strive Partnership and United Way began a campaign to provide subsidies to get every 3- and 4-year-old into a quality preschool program. That effort is expected to cost up to $17 million annually.

While the school district has succeeded at narrowing achievement gaps at many grade levels, black kindergarten students enter school far behind their white peers.

It’s one of the racial inequities officials acknowledge still plagues the district. In addition, black boys often academically lag behind black girls.

These are just some of the reasons why the district continues to pursue new reform initiatives. There is already talk of refocusing on high schools as class sizes grow and test scores slip at some.

Ronan said even she’s not sure which initiative is having the most impact. “That’s something … researchers can sort out if they want,” she said. “It’s my job to throw everything I have at the problem.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469