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Leadership Profile: Mary Ronan

In Cincinnati, a school turnaround turned out to be an inside job.

If there's one thing Mary Ronan has proved, it's that you don't need to bring in an outsider to get fast results. A Cincinnati native, she had been a teacher and administrator in the district for more than 30 years when she was named interim superintendent in 2008. Ronan immediately embarked on the Elementary Initiative an ambitious effort to revamp 16 long-struggling elementary schools. Success came quickly. After just two years, all 16 had emerged from the lowest state ratings of "academic emergency" and "academic watch," and they've continued to improve since. We talked with Ronan about the turnaround and what comes next.

Q | Looking at the components of the plan—extending reading and math instruction to 90 minutes a day, gathering data on student progress, creating individual success plans, differentiating instruction, adding a monthlong "fifth quarter" in June-it sounds like a sophisticated implementation of good, old-fashioned sound pedagogy.
A |
It wasn't rocket science, but it's amazing how you don't do the obvious. You don't make sure that you get 90 minutes of reading and 90 minutes of math. You discover your teachers are teaching to the middle. Well, gosh, you can't just teach to the middle. You have to have stations in your room to remediate the youngsters who are struggling, and to move the youngsters who have mastered the material on. It's all the things you should be doing, but it's time consuming, because you're looking at doing three lesson plans for math and three lesson plans for reading every day, and tracking youngsters individually.

We tried to give teachers support because we knew we were asking them to do more work. We made an online dashboard, where they could log on and see how their students were performing. They could look at the individual benchmark questions, who got them right and wrong. And we had online model lessons if there was something they needed to reteach.

Q | You collaborated with a "turnaround specialist program" at the University of Virginia. What was its role?
A |
When we contacted UVa—and this is what hooked me—they said, "Within two years you will make AYP, adequate yearly progress, or increase your test scores by 10 percent. We guarantee it."

The Curry School of Education and Darden School of Business co-teach the program. They talked about how to be a change agent. They talked about how successful business turnarounds worked. They had our principals do a 90-day plan around the mission and vision, so when they came back in August, they had a plan ready to go. Then we added the instructional pieces-the 90 minutes of reading, the 90 minutes of math, the individual success plans. The principals put those into the 90-day plans, how they'd roll it out to the teachers, how they could redo the master schedule so there'd be team-planning time for the teachers. 

Q | At four of the schools, you removed the principal and staff and started from scratch. What distinguished them from the others?
A |
The union president [at the time] and I went to the 16 schools and talked about the initiative. Sitting there and having frank discussions with the staff, you can pick up on what the culture is. When one of the schools suggested that we send them different youngsters, you get a feeling that school might need to be redesigned. Other schools came up with great questions and ideas, as opposed to saying, "Send us better students, and we'll get better." I thought it would be hard to decide, but the union president and I would walk out of that school and say, "I don't think it's going to work here, because of the self-defeating attitude." 

Q | What was the biggest challenge in getting the initiative off the ground?
A |
That first year was the hardest because we were asking a lot of our teachers, and there was pushback. Finally, I had to say to the board, "Can we stick with this for nine months, and if things aren't looking better when test scores come in at the end of the year, I'll call it off?" And it was amazing. Six schools at the end of the year made AYP—that was their target. The second year was a dream. I think the teachers in the school down the street said, "Gosh, if that school can do it, I've got the same children, and I can do it, too."

Q | How has the effort affected the rest of the system?
A |
When the low-performing schools' test scores started to touch where the middle rung of schools were, that's when they got interested in voluntarily adopting many of the practices. They were uncomfortable that the low-performing schools had caught up.

Q | And what's the next big project?
A |
The Common Core, because it's much more rigorous. Teaching needs to be on an entirely different level, more project-based and a lot less memorization.

When we started the initiative, Common Core wasn't on the horizon. But in the last two years we've instituted yearlong cross-curricular capstone projects in grades 4-8. The students have to put a research project together using technology, working as a team. Then they present their projects to engineers at GE Aviation, which is just north of Cincinnati, and the engineers ask them questions about what they've done. With the Common Core coming, paper-and-pencil assignments aren't enough anymore.

We're also moving our high schools to grades 7-12, so youngsters can start getting algebra credit in seventh and eighth grades, taught by a person with a degree in that area.

Q | After a lifetime in Cincinnati, have you ever had wanderlust?
A |
No. My heart's here in Cincinnati. I think it helps to be invested in the community. It helps to know who everyone is. I can't imagine going into a strange city and developing all those relationships. I don't know how those superintendents do it, who go from city to city. It has to be incredibly difficult.

—Back to School 2013— 

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