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Game Plan

Rethinking Cincinnati

September 2006

It's Rosa Blackwell's time to lead. After three decades working in the Cincinnati public school system as a teacher, principal, and deputy superintendent, and after one year serving as chief of schools, Blackwell published her strategy in April to move Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) forward.

She's not a minute too soon. Cincinnati is undergoing the largest population drop of any urban area in the country. School enrollment is down 28% in 10 years, from 49,769 students in 1995-96 to about 36,700 in the past school year. In her plan, "Building Futures," to be carried out over five years, she boldly states her approach to strengthen and build her district.

1. Autonomy With Accountability
Blackwell's plan grants autonomy to each school in the district but requires every one to develop its own OnePlan, a blueprint for academic progress, that includes school improvement initiatives, goals for student performance, and an annual budget, all based on the school's data.

For each school, an instructional leadership team made up of teachers, the school's principal, and two parent representatives develop the plan. The local school decision-making committee (LSDMC), with an equal number of teachers, school staff, parents, and community members on board, approves the plan's budget and manages implementation of the OnePlan.

2. On-Site Coaching
Blackwell is most excited about expanding the district's instructional support teams (ISTs), made up of outstanding principals and teachers throughout the district.

"The concept is to get right into the schoolhouse and, more important, in the classroom," says Blackwell, "and work with teachers to provide professional development based on data." The IST determines the specific and relevant needs of each school's staff, then implements professional development strategies.

3. Off-Site Training
CPS also provides teachers with free ongoing training at Mayerson Academy, a Cincinnati-based not-for-profit specializing in professional development for K-12 education.

Blackwell also encourages principals to enroll at Mayerson to learn how to interpret student data and what they should look for when visiting classrooms. "We want them to understand the needs of teachers," Blackwell says. "When they understand their data, they can sit down with their teachers and discuss best practices." The ISTs are then responsible for ensuring that principals are putting into practice the strategies they learned during training.

4. Let the Community Decide
Under Blackwell's plan, each school will function as a community learning center. "We want our buildings to help us reconnect with families or community members," Blackwell says. The community learning centers are intended to operate beyond the school day to provide services for the community such as computer or drama classes.

The recent report, Growing Community Schools: The Role of Cross-boundary Leadership, cites CPS as one of 11 communities that have graduated from pilot projects to "large-scale, community-wide education reform strategies." The report continues, "Cincinnati has built public engagement ... instead of making closed-door decisions."

For now, however, Blackwell emphasizes that the district is in the early stages of change. One of the biggest challenges is to galvanize members of the community to fully utilize the space that has been set aside in each school for their use. "There is only so much that can be done by district leadership. After that, it is the individuals-their courage, persistence, ability to influence others, and work through obstacles-who are making community learning centers a reality in Cincinnati," she says.

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