Lauren Morando Rhim, PhD, LMR Consulting
For the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education


Copyright© 2011 by the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in
Education, Charlottesville, VA. All rights reserved.

Please cite this report as:
Rhim, L.M. (LMR Consulting). 2011.Learning How to Dance in the Queen City: Cincinnati
Public Schools’ Turnaround Initiative. Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education,
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.


        This case is based on interviews with key personnel directly engaged in the incredibly
challenging work of turning around schools with a long history of low performance. I would like
to thank the following individuals for finding time in their busy schedules to participate in
interviews. I appreciated their time and candor. In particular, I would like to thank
Superintendent Mary Ronan and Deputy Superintendent Laura Mitchell for supporting the
research and opening their district to me.

Central office personnel

   •   Melody Dacey, Professional Development Specialist, Mayerson Academy
   •   Andrea Faulkner, English Language Arts Manager
   •   Demetra Jones, Turnaround Teacher Coach (former – 09/10)
   •   Laura Mitchell, Deputy Superintendent and Accountability Officer
   •   Carolyn Pedapati, Curriculum Manager, Social Studies
   •   Mary Ronan, Superintendent
   •   Kathy Witherup, Staff Development Specialist, Mayerson Academy
   •   Melissa Young, Curriculum Manager, Mathematics

School personnel

   •   Evonne Cummings, Lead Teacher, South Avondale School
   •   Hope Denham, Lead Teacher, William H. Taft School
   •   Ted Jebens, Principal, Quebec Heights School
   •   Craig Hockenberry, Principal, Oyler School
   •   Renee Rashad, Principal, Frederick Douglass Elementary
   •   Vicki Graves-Hill, Principal, Roll Hill Academy
   •   Yzvetta Macon, Principal, South Avondale School
   •   Lynsa Davie, Principal, Chase Elementary
   •   Danielle Pankey, 3rd Grade Teacher, William H. Taft School
   •   Rachel Tapp, 3rd Grade Teacher, Oyler School
   •   Judith Brown, 3rd Grade Teacher, Frederick Douglass Elementary
   •   Clarissa Goosby, 3rd Grade Teacher, Quebec Heights School
   •   Kathleen Dennison, 3rd Grade Teacher, Roll Hill Academy

Turnaround team members

   •   Sally Bidlingmeyer, Turnaround Teacher Coach
   •   Nancy Johnson, Turnaround Teacher Coach
   •   Shauna Murphy, Turnaround Principal Coach
   •   Tina Russo, Turnaround Principal Coach

       I would also like to acknowledge graduate student Oijie Cai from the University of
Virginia’s Curry School of Education for her assistance in gathering background data on
Cincinnati Public Schools.

Acknowledgements ....................................................................................................................... 3

Executive Summary ...................................................................................................................... 6
   Key lessons emerging from the Queen City............................................................................ 6
   Next steps ................................................................................................................................... 8
The School Turnaround Dance.................................................................................................... 9

Cincinnati Public Schools ........................................................................................................... 10

Developing A School Turnaround Plan in Cincinnati Public Schools ................................... 11
   Conduct a district-wide school performance audit.............................................................. 11
   Design the turnaround elements: the Elementary Initiative .............................................. 12
   Determine the model: redesign or school turnaround ........................................................ 14
   Engage external partners ....................................................................................................... 15
Implementing the Turnaround Strategy with Fidelity ............................................................ 16
   Identify strong leaders to initiate school turnaround .......................................................... 16
   Attend Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education training ............................. 17
   Analyze data to inform practice ............................................................................................ 21
   Improve instructional practices based on data analysis...................................................... 22
   Provide intensive and aligned supports ................................................................................ 22
   Communicate the turnaround strategy ................................................................................ 25
   Align and leverage resources strategically ........................................................................... 25
   Navigate resistance and confront organizational norms ..................................................... 28
   Implement accountability on a short timeline ...................................................................... 29
   Monitor performance ............................................................................................................. 30
   Measure, report, and celebrate: Grammy awards for turnaround ................................... 32
Threats to Sustaining Positive Change ..................................................................................... 32
   Leadership turnover ............................................................................................................... 33
   Maintaining a sense of urgency ............................................................................................. 33
   Financial limitations ............................................................................................................... 33
   District personnel policies ...................................................................................................... 34
Conclusion ................................................................................................................................... 34

References .................................................................................................................................... 36

Executive Summary

        Dramatically improving low-performing schools is a national imperative; the federal
government has allocated billions of dollars to school improvement efforts, and both state and
local education leaders are devoting significant resources to the effort as well. Although
turnaround efforts focus on individual schools, district central offices are emerging as key
players in successful efforts. Hero principals may be able to boost academic achievement in
individual schools, but long-term success at scale requires that district central offices play a
leading role in creating the conditions for school turnaround and thereafter supporting and
sustaining school-level change efforts.

         This report presents a descriptive case study of the Cincinnati Public School district’s
(CPS’s) strategic school turnaround effort. Initiated in the fall of 2008, CPS’s Elementary
Initiative involves a multifaceted approach to turnaround that is driven largely by the
examination of data to inform decisions regarding school leadership, operational and
instructional practices, targeted interventions, resource allocation, and professional development.
CPS collaborated with the University of Virginia’ Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in
Education School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVA-STSP) to prepare and support central-
office and school-level leaders in their turnaround efforts. The combination of a focused and
disciplined change effort and the training and support provided by the UVA-STSP has proven to
be powerful in Cincinnati; 24 months into the effort, the 16 priority schools had changed key
operational and instructional practices that are leading to improved outcomes for students. The
lessons emerging from Cincinnati have promise for other districts committed to implementing a
strategic change effort that can have a rapid and substantial impact on student learning today and
in the future.

       Key lessons emerging from the Queen City

       Under the leadership of Mary Ronan, a respected veteran CPS administrator newly
appointed to the superintendency, the district embarked on a bold turnaround initiative in the
middle of the 2008–09 academic year. As of spring 2010, most of the schools involved had made
impressive academic gains: 6 of the 16 schools made adequate yearly progress (AYP), including
five that jumped two categories in state accountability rankings, and 12 of the 16 schools
improved according to the Ohio Performance Index—a composite score that represents a
weighted average of all students tested that ranges from zero to 120 points—including seven
schools that improved by five or more points.

       Not all the schools identified for targeted interventions have made notable gains, however,
and much work is still needed to continue the turnaround efforts and sustain the gains achieved
thus far. Nevertheless, lessons are emerging from Cincinnati’s turnaround initiative and
collaboration with the University of Virginia (U.Va.) that have implications for the broader field.

         Develop a cohesive turnaround plan based on analysis of data. CPS analyzed the
operational and academic performance of its schools and developed a comprehensive plan to
dramatically improve performance in 16 priority schools: the Elementary Initiative (EI). The
initiative serves as a blueprint for how the district approaches change, with a focus on using data

to inform decisions. Somewhat prescriptive, the EI prioritizes high-quality instruction and
accountability for students, faculty, school leaders, turnaround support team members, and
central office personnel.

        Identify schools for turnaround and develop approach based on capacity. CPS’s early
analysis of its schools confirmed that the district has a high-quality curriculum but uneven and
ineffective structures and instructional practices among elementary schools. Based on evidence
collected from the 16 targeted schools, the district decided to replace all school staff in four of
the schools (i.e., school redesign) and undertake limited staff replacements in the remaining 12
schools (i.e., school turnaround). 1 The district provides intense supports to all 16 schools.

         Establish ambitious goals. An ambitious goal guides CPS’s turnaround work: ensuring
that all CPS elementary school students enter high school properly prepared to succeed.
Underlying this goal are school-specific objectives related to demonstrating AYP and raising
Ohio Performance Index scores for all 16 priority schools. The objectives and goal were
regularly referenced in conversations with district personnel and posted prominently on the
district’s website. Interviews with central office and school-level personnel revealed a common
language around the implementation of the EI and the beliefs adopted by district and school
leaders as a result of the PLE training.

         Develop supportive and aligned systems. Developing a comprehensive turnaround plan
was CPS’s first step. The next step was to communicate explicit support for the initiative and
ensure that district resources aligned with the high-priority goals driving the model. Unwavering
board- and superintendent-level support for the EI was identified as essential for symbolic and
substantive reasons. High-level support provides cover for mid-level managers tasked with
implementing challenging reforms. High-level commitment to the initiative guarantees that
schools targeted for turnaround receive the support they need, even when the district is required
to alter standard operating practices or navigate formal grievances filed by personnel.

         CPS’s leadership embraced the mind-set that every person and every dollar assigned to
the district’s central office and to each individual school represents an opportunity to help the
district achieve its goal of providing all students with a high-quality education. Moreover, every
minute staff members work and students attend school is an opportunity for growth. Reflecting
the literature on strategic schools (Miles & Frank, 2008) introduced at U.Va., effective alignment,
allocation, and management of all personnel, time, and money were critical to CPS’s ability to
change behavior to prioritize high-quality instruction and student learning.

       Implement turnaround plan with fidelity. The history of robust change efforts in the
United States is largely a chronicle of unfulfilled goals and objectives (see, for example, Fullan,
1991; Hess, 1999; and Murphy & Meyers, 2008). Successfully implementing a dramatic change

      In Cincinnati, the term “redesign” refers to a dramatic change effort initiated in a low-performing school that
entails releasing all personnel and requiring everyone to reapply for their jobs, loosely analogous to the federal
definition of “turnaround” as outlined in the Federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) Guidance. The term
“turnaround” refers to a dramatic change effort that may or may not entail the replacement of select school
personnel, which is loosely analogous to the federal definition of “transformation” as outlined in the Federal SIG
guidance. For the purpose of this case, we use CPS’s definition of the terms redesign and turnaround.

effort with fidelity is itself innovative. CPS developed a plan that reflected best instructional
practices and committed to setting and communicating clear expectations, providing support to
meet expectations, monitoring consistently, and adjusting the approach when intended outcomes
were not met. Although the EI was characterized as “prescriptive,” the degree of prescription
was identified as essential to ensuring the ambitious change effort was implemented with fidelity.

         Monitor and hold personnel accountable for performance. Central-office and school-
level personnel have demonstrated a clear sense of urgency and commitment to achieving the
district’s ambitious performance goals. Staff members who do not buy into the EI or do not meet
performance expectations are provided support; if they do not improve, they are removed from
their positions. Consistent and purposeful school visits and classroom walk-throughs are the
primary means of gathering multiple types of data about school leaders and teacher practices.
The teams of turnaround principal and teacher coaches assigned to the EI schools are equally
accountable for performance; if the schools in the coaches’ portfolio do not improve, the coaches
also face consequences—including possible dismissal.

        Anticipate resistance, but do not let it derail turnaround efforts. CPS’s EI reflects
established best instructional practices, but successful implementation of the dramatic change
effort required a change not only in behaviors but also in the mind-set of central-office,
turnaround-team, and school-level personnel. CPS anticipated resistance to change and leveraged
key leaders to communicate the problem and benefits of altering existing practices in the interest
of improving outcomes for students.

        Celebrate success. CPS developed a plan to acknowledge growth and to celebrate success,
believing that celebrations reinforce the notion that change is possible and serve as a catalyst for
additional modifications. Positive reinforcement also helps re-energize actors engaged in
difficult and exhausting work. After the first year of the turnaround initiative, the district
awarded “Grammy” honors to individual schools in recognition of certain areas of
accomplishment. These Grammys were prominently displayed at the schools and readily
noticeable during tours. Principals noted that financial incentives and tangible awards, such as
Apple iPads, validated their hard work.

       Next steps

        The early lessons distilled from CPS’s turnaround efforts reflect prior research on turning
around failing schools (Herman et al, 2008; Honig et al., 2010; Public Impact, 2008; Public
Impact, 2009) and introduce a degree of specificity to the general discussion of turnaround leader
actions and environmental context. As districts work to position themselves to support dramatic
improvement efforts, these lessons have the promise of accelerating knowledge. Of particular
note is that with the exception of the four redesign schools, CPS engaged in the turnaround effort
with existing staff, with only limited staff replacements. In contrast to approaches the U.S.
Department of Education promotes, evidence from CPS appears to indicate that given the right
environmental conditions (e.g., skilled district leadership, adoption of data-based decisions, an
unwavering commitment to quality instruction, and high-stakes accountability), dramatic change
can be successfully initiated by many existing personnel. The critical challenge for districts is to
fully own their contribution to the success—or failure—of their schools.

The School Turnaround Dance

       We would like to invite you to the dance…As 16 school principals, members of their
leadership teams, school turnaround coaches, and key central office personnel entered the large
meeting room, they were welcomed by a flashing disco ball, high-energy music, and decorations
hung to create a dance party atmosphere. Introduced by a professor from the Darden School of
Business as part of the University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in
Education School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVA-STSP) to communicate the importance
of bridging the “knowing-doing gap,” the “dance” metaphor had resonated with the deputy
superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools district (CPS), Laura Mitchell. Hoping to
leverage the metaphor to build buy-in and energize the turnaround teams, she incorporated “the
dance” into her approach to leading the district’s ambitious school turnaround initiative.

        Typically at a dance, some people will be actively participating in the middle of the dance
floor, some will be minimally engaged but watching, and others will linger against the wall,
disengaged. Although everyone knows how to dance to some extent, the role of a successful
leader is to “invite” everyone to dance. Only by effectively engaging everyone at the “dance” can
a leader cultivate teamwork and dispel the distrust that frequently undermines difficult change
efforts. The “dance party” meeting in January of the CPS’s first year of turnaround efforts was
meant to celebrate the district’s collective early wins and to reinvigorate efforts to achieve the
group’s ambitious goal: turning around a total
of 16 schools with a long history of low             CPS Turnaround Timeline
performance and a resistance to substantive
                                                     Summer 2008: Four schools redesigned with new
change.                                                             leadership and faculty
                                                         Fall 2008:     Elementary Initiative introduced
        An invitation to dance may seem an
odd metaphor for the complex work of turning             Spring 2009:   Partner with University of
around failing schools, but it reflects a deeper                        Virginia’s Darden/Curry
                                                                        Partnership for Leaders in
discussion about commitment to a goal and a                             Education (PLE)
conscious decision to not just passively watch
the dance but to actively take responsibility to         Summer 2009:   Cohort attends training at PLE
lead and participate. At the January meeting,                           Principals develop 90-day plans
Mitchell explicitly invited the principals, and          Fall 2009:     U.Va. team visits turnaround
the teams she had assembled to support the                              principals
principals, to “leave the wall” and join “the            Winter 2010:   CPS Cohort attends U.Va. Winter
dance.” The event’s decorations and glamour                             Training
could be misinterpreted as superficial, but with         Spring 2010:   Ohio Achievement Assessment
the undeniable commitment of the district’s                             results show gains in 12 of 16
leadership team and the substantial obligation                          schools
of resources to support the district’s                   Summer 2010:   Cohort attends training at PLE;
turnaround efforts, the educators in the room                           principals update 90-day plans
knew that their work was anything but
                                                         Fall 2010:     School Turnaround Year 2
superficial. Principal Vicki Graves-Hill
explained, “The dance lecture was really                 Winter 2011:   CPS cohort attends U.Va. Winter
powerful. Getting everyone cutting the rug and
dancing, that is our goal. You have the

teachers who are doing everything possible—data analysis, short-cycle assessments, and
differentiated learning—but others are just standing on the wall, and we wanted to get everyone
to dance. We invited everyone to dance.”

        Based on gains documented in the spring 2010 Ohio Achievement Assessment, CPS is
making strides toward meeting its goal (see textbox). The gains achieved at the school level are
encouraging, but the story in Cincinnati is about more than individual schools or heroic school
leaders, though the district has ample evidence of both. Rather, the powerful headline in
Cincinnati deals with the leadership role the district took to create the conditions for a cohort of
schools to make substantive changes that lead to positive, and ideally sustainable, improvements
for students across the city. The district has explicitly assumed the role of inviting the turnaround
schools to the dance.

              School Turnaround Year 1: Key Indicators of Positive Growth
         From 2009 to 2010:

          •    Six of the 16 schools made Adequate Yearly Progress; five of these
               schools jumped two categories in Ohio rankings, from “academic
               emergency” (the lowest state ranking) to “continuous improvement.”
          •    Math performance of 3rd graders in Elementary Initiative (EI) schools
               improved by 4.4% compared to state averages showing a drop of 5.0%.
          •    Math performance of 6th graders in EI schools improved by 14.8%
               compared to state average improvement of 3.0%.
          •    Reading performance of 4th graders in EI schools improved by 9.6%
               compared to the state average change showing a drop of 1.0%.
          •    Reading performance of 6th graders in EI schools improved by 15.1%
               compared to the state average improvement of 3.0%.
          •    Reading performance of 5th graders in EI schools improved by 5.2%
               compared to the state average showing no change (0%).

  Source: Cincinnati Public Schools. (2010). Turnaround schools make big gains. http://www.cps-

Cincinnati Public Schools

        Cincinnati is a midsize city in the southwestern corner of Ohio. CPS is Ohio’s third
largest school district and serves nearly 35,000 students from preschool through 12th grade in 58
schools. The student population is approximately two-thirds African-American. The remaining
students are primarily white, plus a small population of Hispanic, multiracial, Asian, and

American-Indian students. Nearly 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals
(CPS, 2010).

        Before the district embarked on its focused turnaround initiative in 2008, the Ohio state
accountability system identified the district as in need of “continuous improvement.” Students
enrolled in CPS schools did not meet academic standards and trailed their peers in other districts
across the state. 2 In the spring of 2008, CPS met only six of 30 state performance indicators,
scored 80.6 of 120 points on the performance index, and failed to make Adequate Yearly
Progress (AYP). 3 Most students in the grades tested did not achieve the expected growth goals
on the reading or mathematics assessments. The graduation rate hovered at just under 83%. As a
result of these performance measures, 41 of the district’s 58 schools were identified in the state
accountability system as in “need of improvement,” and 11 of these schools had held this status
for five or more years, including one school that had held this status for 10 years. 4

Developing A School Turnaround Plan in Cincinnati Public Schools

         In 2008, under mounting pressure stemming from the federal No Child Left Behind
(NCLB) Act and the Ohio state accountability system, CPS leadership needed to develop a plan
to dramatically improve students’ academic opportunities and outcomes. After the retirement of
the previous superintendent and in the midst of conducting a national search for a new
superintendent, the Cincinnati Board of Education appointed then-Director of Schools Mary
Ronan interim superintendent. A career CPS veteran, Ronan committed to a bold change
initiative. Reflecting her pragmatic leadership style, Ronan explained, “I was going to make the
most of it as interim. Years and years of [watching] failure drives you to want to make a
difference and make your life’s work meaningful before you retire. I had been here for 30 years,
and I heard the same exact complaints, the same issues. I thought, ‘Surely we can make some
change?’” Having watched multiple superintendents undertake a variety of change initiatives
with mixed results, Interim Superintendent Ronan set out to develop an effective turnaround
strategy that could be implemented with fidelity.

         Conduct a district-wide school performance audit

      In response to the dire need to improve academic outcomes, Ronan and her newly
assembled leadership team of veteran CPS administrators conducted a district-wide analysis to

      Ohio Department of Education, CPS 2008–2009 School Year Report Card, http://www.ode.state.oh.us
      The Ohio state accountability system has integrated state indicators and federal indicators required by the No
Child Left Behind Act (e.g., AYP). All schools and districts are evaluated based on four components: State
Indicators, Performance Index Score, Value-Added, and AYP. “State Indicators” reflects whether a district or school
achieves set goals on student test score, graduation rate, and attendance rate. Based on multiple performance
measures, the Ohio accountability system assigns the following designations to school districts: excellent, effective,
continuous improvement, academic watch, or academic emergency.
      For a more in-depth quantitative analysis of CPS’s performance data, see Public Impact, (2011), 2010 Annual
Report, University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program (Charlottesville: University of Virginia).

determine what was working and, conversely, not working in the district. The audit revealed that
prior reform efforts, such as comprehensive school reform, the Gates Foundation’s small schools
initiative, and district-wide school choice at the secondary level, had led to the establishment of
relatively high-performing high schools. However, according to both the Ohio and the federal
accountability systems, the district’s decentralized K–8 schools in particular were not meeting
expectations. The preliminary analysis led to a more in-depth audit, which revealed a lack of
consistency across elementary schools—largely as a result of adopting comprehensive school
reform models in the 1990s that allowed schools to individually pick a reform model (e.g., Direct
Instruction, Montessori, Success for All); this was problematic because many of the models were
not implemented with fidelity. Furthermore, student mobility was identified as a challenge in the
highly decentralized system. Ronan explained, “In a large urban district where 10,000 children
move a year, decentralization does not work. Kids were moving too much. With that kind of
mobility, we needed to centralize the curriculum.”

        The audit revealed that some schools taught English for only 45 minutes a day and that in
fact, schools were permitted to decide whether or not to even teach English. The district had a
data system in place, but Ronan and her team found that schools were not using the available
data to inform instruction. She recalled, “Teachers were still not taking the information and
adjusting their teaching based on the data…everyone was teaching to the middle.” Furthermore,
although the Cincinnati Board of Education approved an ambitious six-year strategic plan titled
Building Futures in 2006, the plan was not having a discernible impact on the lowest performing
schools. 5 Amid the preliminary planning work and at the conclusion of the superintendent search
process, the board appointed Ronan to be the new superintendent.

        Design the turnaround elements: the Elementary Initiative

        Building on the findings of the successive audits, Ronan challenged her staff to develop a
comprehensive approach to dramatically improve the elementary schools in the district. The goal
of the effort was to ensure that all students complete 8th grade ready for high school. Ronan’s
leadership team, led by Deputy Superintendent Mitchell, developed the comprehensive and
relatively prescriptive “Elementary Initiative: Ready for High School” using research on best
practices, input from teachers, and their own experience and expertise (see textbox on the next
page for a detailed description of the CPS’s Elementary Initiative [EI]). Reflecting on the process
of designing the EI, Mitchell explained:

        Based on my curriculum development background, I assembled a team of people,
        and we got into classrooms and tried to identify gaps. We asked, “What does the
        research say?” We saw a lot of whole group instruction and variations in the
        amount of reading students were exposed to. Classrooms were not literature rich.
        Research says you need a 90-minute block and students should be broken down
        into small groups. Also, groups should rotate so teachers work with small groups
        and touch each kid every day. I worked with a team of lead teachers to come up
        with the framework about how to teach [English Language Arts]. I pulled a group

       For more information about the CPS’s strategic plan, see http://www.cps-k12.org/general/strategicplan

    of teachers together about how to teach mathematics. We looked at small groups
    and participatory modeling by the teachers. I knew data [were] important. I knew
    that students needed to own their data and so we came up with data folders.

                           Cincinnati Public Schools
                   Elementary Initiative: Ready for High School
   1. Conduct data analyses to support evidence-based decisions.
   2. Realign Instructional Support Teams to concentrate on high-priority schools.
   3. Build capacity for teacher learning teams to work collaboratively to improve
   4. Train content specialists to provide on-site core academic support.
   5. Improve reading structure in grades four to eight by aligning instruction to
      model lessons by indicators, developing intervention and enrichment blocks,
      and using multiple modes of instruction (e.g., whole group and small group).
   6. Improve reading instruction by providing professional development in
      language essentials for teaching reading, spelling, and multisensory reading.
   7. Provide expert coaches to train teachers how to differentiate instruction.
   8. Build principal leadership capacity through participation in turnaround
      leadership training program (i.e., UVA-STSP).
   9. Expand learning time to provide more time to meet academic content
      standards (i.e., Fifth Quarter).
   10. Develop Student Success Plans in collaboration with students and parents to
       monitor, assess, and record progress toward achievement goals.
   11. Accelerate the number of preschool students ready to enter school by
       expanding CPS’s existing preschool program to full-day in all priority schools
       and aligning curriculum with CPS’s K–8 curriculum.
   12. Transform CPS’s central office to provide targeted and effective support to
       priority schools.
   13. Engage families and the broader community to support school transformation
   14. Continue to cultivate targeted, effective external support from local
       foundations, community organizations, and the University of Cincinnati.

For a more detailed explanation of CPS’s Elementary Initiative, visit http://www.cps-

       Although the resultant EI framework reflected expertise culled from external
organizations such as the Council of Great City School and McKinsey and Company, Mitchell’s
team developed the framework internally with input from district- and school-level personnel.

        The district designed EI to be implemented at two levels: universal support for all 42
elementary schools in the district and intensive support for 16 targeted schools. The intensive-
support schools were selected because they were (1) in the fourth year of school improvement
under the NCLB Act, (2) in “academic emergency” under the Ohio accountability system, or (3)
had a low performance index score. Specific examples of services provided to the targeted
schools include auditing the schools’ capacity and practice, realigning resources, providing staff
with expert coaching and special training, improving reading structure, developing individual
learning plans, strengthening early childhood programs, training principals, and monitoring
student progress. The plan for extending learning time, named Fifth Quarter, added an additional
four weeks to the end of each school year for the 16 priority schools. The full-day program is
divided between academics in the morning and enrichment provided by community partners in
the afternoon. Embedded in nearly every aspect of the EI program for the 16 priority schools is
extensive use of data to inform decisions and track progress.

        In addition to initiating these programmatic changes at the school and classroom level,
CPS reconfigured existing school improvement teams and renamed them “turnaround teams.”
Each of the three teams, which comprised a turnaround principal coach, two lead teachers, and a
curriculum specialist, worked with either four or five of the 16 lowest-performing elementary

       Determine the model: redesign or school turnaround

        The first component of the EI entails using “data and analysis to support evidence-based
decisions.” Reflecting this element, Ronan and other members of the district leadership team
visited all 16 EI-intensive elementary schools to conduct a review that would inform the
turnaround efforts. During these visits, Ronan and her staff presented the EI framework and
collected information to inform the Technical Assistance Plans that would guide individual
schools’ turnaround efforts. The visits also provided information for the district leadership’s
decision as to whether the individual schools would be redesigned—a CPS restructuring option
in which the principal and all school personnel are “surplussed” and the district re-staffs the
entire school—or turned around with the existing personnel.

       Deputy Superintendent Mitchell explained, “If the [school] culture was too negative, we
made the decision to redesign the school” rather than attempt to turn it around with the existing
personnel in place. Reflecting on the school visits, Ronan noted that “what you can learn in an
hour and a half” at a school is “amazing.” She explained that she and her staff encountered
outright resistance to change but also evidence that school personnel were committed to change
to improve outcomes for students. Based on what was learned via the school visits, CPS opted to
redesign four schools and support the remaining 12 schools’ turnaround efforts with limited staff

        The decision to retain most of the staff in the 12 turnaround schools was based on the
belief that with appropriate support, all of the leaders could be successful. Reflecting on this
decision, Deputy Superintendent Mitchell explained:

        It is not difficult to non-renew a principal, although sometimes it is hard to
        remove [someone] if the local community loves the person. We decided to let the
        [12] principals stay in place, recognizing that they may not all be successful in
        turnaround. All [12] principals started out on the same foot. But some shot off and
        ran with it and others did not. Some stumbled through implementation, data
        collection, and data analysis. There were people, by December, who we knew
        would not be a good fit. Two principals left the turnaround group and are not with
        the district anymore. We are now looking at our list for this year and looking at
        their skills. We are developing individual plans to advance them professionally.
        We are taking the concepts that we applied to improve schools and applying them
        to the teachers and principals. We know students need individual plans, so we
        have individual coaching plans for the principals.

        The combination of high expectations and support reflected in Mitchell’s comments is a
recurring theme in CPS’s turnaround efforts.

        Engage external partners

        CPS developed EI based on an internal examination of the district and input from
external partners hired to assist CPS in understanding the challenges undermining student
performance and in developing strategies to improve outcomes. For instance, the Council of
Great City Schools conducted a curriculum audit, which informed refinement of the CPS’s core
academic content. In addition, the district hired the education testing service WestEd and the
American Institutes for Research to develop benchmark assessments, standards, and related
indicators to support data-based decision making at the school level.

        Ronan and her team realized that for the EI to be effective during the 2008–09 academic
year, they needed to boost their principals’ leadership skills. Deputy Superintendent Mitchell
recalled, “We recognized that we had a pretty solid foundation in terms of curriculum
development, but we did not believe we had the leadership development that was necessary to
move the 16 schools.” With financial support provided by a grant from General Electric, Ronan
asked staff at Mayerson Academy—CPS’s professional development partner—to identify a
leadership development program that offered concrete results. 6 Melody Dacey of Mayerson
Academy examined multiple programs but was drawn to the University of Virginia’s (U.Va.’s)
Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) based on the program’s promise to
help schools demonstrate AYP in two years. U.Va.’s commitment to actively engaging district
personnel in the turnaround effort also aligned with CPS’s commitment to take the steps

      In 2006, CPS and the GE Foundation became partners in an aggressive push to improve students’
understanding of science and math. In this partnership, GE committed to support the district’s efforts with a $20
million grant to improve student math and science performance, close achievement gaps between groups of students,
and increase the number of students entering college.

necessary to support turnarounds. Dacey attended a training session at U.Va. and observed a
cohort of Cleveland principals with U.Va. faculty. She returned to Cincinnati and recommended
that CPS partner with the PLE.

        Also informing the turnaround efforts, in 2009 CPS commissioned a study by The New
Teacher Project (TNTP) to help strengthen teacher effectiveness and support. 7 Based on a review
of the district’s collective bargaining agreement, data regarding the district’s human resources
policies, two phases of surveys of teachers and administrators, and focus groups with multiple
stakeholders, TNTP recommended that CPS (1) strengthen teacher instructional skills, (2) retain
and leverage the most effective teachers, (3) turn around chronically low-performing schools in a
time-compressed manner, (4) improve or exit less-effective teachers, and (5) optimize the
existing supply of teachers. CPS is actively working to implement TNTP’s recommendations,
which were at the center of nearly 12 months of protracted negotiations with the Cincinnati
Federation of Teachers (CFT). 8

Implementing the Turnaround Strategy with Fidelity

       School districts are proficient at drafting ambitious initiatives. Frequently captured in
school improvement plans or strategic plans, these initiatives gather dust on central office book
shelves and in principal’s offices, seldom leading to discernible changes at the school level,
much less the classroom level. CPS took specific actions to break this trend.

        Identify strong leaders to initiate school turnaround

        The research on successful turnaround initiatives across multiple sectors affirms the
critical importance of leadership (Public Impact, 2008). The complexity of organizational
turnaround precludes a simplistic or generic approach. Effective turnaround requires competent
leaders skilled at solving problems and influencing others to support and participate in the
change initiative. CPS opted to replace four principals and sought high-potential leaders to fill
the vacancies in these schools. For the purpose of this case, examining the role of the central
office in a promising school turnaround effort, the key leader is Deputy Superintendent Mitchell,
who is a veteran CPS teacher, principal, and lead principal. Before assuming responsibility for
the EI, Mitchell was responsible for curriculum and assessment. Reflecting on her experience as
the district shepherd for the turnaround initiative, she noted that her knowledge of curriculum
and assessment is central to her turnaround work, because a solid curriculum and aligned
assessments are the backbone in making meaningful changes in instruction.

        Mitchell has a deep commitment to CPS; she grew up in Cincinnati, graduated from the
city’s public schools, and has devoted most of her career to the system. Interviews with central-

      The New Teacher Project, Human Capital Reform in Cincinnati Public Schools: Strengthening Teacher
Effectiveness and Support, New York, 2009. Available online at tntp.org/files/TNTP_Cincinnati_Report_Dec09.pdf.
      After nearly 12 months of negotiations, in December 2010, the district and the CFT ratified a new collective
bargaining agreement. At the center of the protracted negotiations were disagreements related to teacher work
conditions, teacher evaluations, compensation, and the cost of health care benefits.

office and turnaround-team staff members as well as principals and teachers confirmed that
Mitchell’s leadership is the driving force behind the day-to-day implementation of the EI
turnaround initiative in CPS. In discussing Mitchell’s leadership, personnel described her as “a
catalyst” who “makes things happen” but who also “lives her principles” and is a “servant leader”
with ample “humility.” Deeply respected, Mitchell was described by those working for her as
“all about the work,” “demanding,” and “very good at what she does” but also very

        Equally important, in our interviews with school- and district-level personnel,
Superintendent Ronan was repeatedly credited with having designated the right person to lead
the initiative and then providing that person with the support and tools to make the decisions
necessary to ensure the effort is successful. For instance, whereas principals previously reported
to two assistant superintendents, the 16 EI-intensive school principals, turnaround lead principals,
and curriculum managers all report directly to the deputy superintendent. The reporting structure
is a public statement of the district’s commitment to the 16 schools and the work of the
turnaround teams, and ensures clarity of communication and expectations. Mitchell noted that
this arrangement “let them understand that the initiative was being taken very seriously.”

       Attend Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education training

        In July 2009, CPS sent a cohort of central office personnel and the principals of the
targeted EI schools to the UVA-STSP (see textbox on next page). The UVA-STSP, offered under
the umbrella of the Darden School of Business’s partnership with the Curry School of Education,
uses a systemic approach to change by working with school and district leadership teams to help
them build the internal capacity required to support and sustain effective school turnarounds. The
two-year program focuses on high-impact school leaders and cultivating district capacity and
conditions necessary to initiate, support, and enhance transformational change. A core
component of the program is the designation of a district shepherd within the central office who
is responsible for supporting school leaders. Mitchell is CPS’s district shepherd.

        The UVA-STSP draws on innovative thinking in business and education to address the
challenges and needs of education leaders charged with turning around low-performing schools.
Darden’s faculty uses the case method, a practice that requires a high level of student
engagement and participation, as a means of developing thoughtful leaders. Participants gain
valuable decision-making skills biased toward action, a collaborative approach to leadership, and
the ability to recognize key needs and develop focused action plans to address those needs.
Recognizing that no one formula exists for turning around a school, the UVA-STSP works with
education leaders to identify key issues and develop strategies based on their own
school’s/district’s context. Through coursework, case studies, interactive discussions, workshops,
and multiday cohort meetings at Darden and in participating school districts over the course of
two years, district- and school-level teams learn how to lead a dramatic change effort. In addition
to offering formal training, U.Va.-designated personnel visit the schools several times each year
to provide additional individualized feedback to the district, the principals, and their turnaround
teams and to provide customized support based on the district’s needs.

              University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program

       The University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVA-STSP) is
operated by the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), a partnership of
the Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education. The UVA-STSP was
created in spring 2004 through Governor Mark Warner’s Education for a Lifetime Initiative,
when the Virginia Department of Education contracted with the PLE to create a school
turnaround specialist training program. Modeling best practices from business and education,
the UVA-STSP is an executive education program that achieves the following:

   •   Provides districts with guidance in selecting and developing school leaders who
       are competent and demonstrate high potential for success
   •   Builds the capacity of school leaders in the fundamentals of successful
   •   Engages school and district personnel to create an environment that supports
       successful turnarounds
   •   Introduces model systems and processes to the school turnaround effort
   •   Provides real-time support to principals during the turnaround process

        The theory underlying the UVA-STSP is that program staff, university faculty, and
other experts will provide key district officials and principals with executive education
training and support to build the knowledge and skills required to successfully turn around
failing public schools.

        The UVA-STSP is implemented in close partnership with school districts, which hold
sole responsibility for recruiting and selecting the principals who participate in the school
turnaround training. UVA-STSP recommends that districts recruit established leaders who
are dynamic, committed, strategic, data driven, and results oriented.

        Districts that partner with the UVA-STSP are expected to support their principals’
efforts to apply the training in a local school by creating the conditions for meaningful school
change. Each district must assign a “shepherd”—a central office staff member from the
principals’ home district—to act as a key support person and attend trainings at U.Va. with
the principals. Together, the U.Va. training and the support provided by the district are meant
to prepare the principals to dramatically change their schools in a way that leads to radically
improved student outcomes. Once the participating principals have completed the program
and successfully demonstrated substantial school improvement—including demonstrating
Adequate Yearly Progress—the UVA-STSP awards the principals a professional credential in
educational turnaround management.

Source: Public Impact, (2011), 2010 Annual Report, University of Virginia School Turnaround
Specialist Program (Charlottesville: University of Virginia).

        U.Va. leadership training. The UVA-STSP trains district shepherds and school leaders to
think differently and provides them with the tools necessary to support dramatic change efforts.
In the words of Darden Professor Alec Horniman, leaders need to determine “what is possible”
rather than identify limitations imposed by the broader system or by challenges they face on a
daily basis. The UVA-STSP begins the training for each cohort by introducing district leaders
and their school teams to a set of actions that successful turnaround leaders from across multiple
sectors use to effect dramatic change. Data analysis and data-driven instruction—manifested in
Cincinnati as data folders and data rooms—are core tenets of the program. The UVA-STSP does
not dictate a prescribed turnaround model but instead develops leaders’ ability to analyze their
unique situation, identify their highest priority needs, and develop an appropriate solution based
on root-cause analysis.

       CPS personnel characterized the leadership training they received at U.Va. as distinct
from other leadership training they had experienced. Teacher Coach Shauna Murphy described
her experience at U.Va.in the following manner:

        I thought we were going to get a formula, a process, a strategy, some specific
        ingredients about how you turn around the school. But, when I got into the
        conversations, I wondered, so what is the bottom line, what do I need to do? By
        the end of the training, I realized they are giving you a process to use but not
        specific ingredients. You have to put in your own ingredients based on your own
        ideas. But by the end of the training, we came out feeling great, because the
        conversations were so rich. We were talking about smarter ways to work. You
        just do what you need to do, the creative process and the creative mind. It sparked
        conversation and motivation to do things differently.

        Reflecting on her experience at U.Va., Principal Vicki Graves-Hill explained:

        U.Va. taught me to look at my school like a business. For example, the article and
        lecture about Whole Foods, that really stuck with my staff. 9 I did the comparison,
        how nice it is [in Whole Foods], the service that you get, and the information that
        the employees give me when I go in and the quality of the food. Everything is
        different compared to other food chains. I mentioned this in a talk with my staff. I
        asked them, “Is our school like the average neighborhood grocery store, where
        you get what you need but you don’t get anything like [you do at] Whole Foods?”
        In the past, our school has been like the average food chain. We were running a
        school, and the children were getting their basic education, but parents did not see
        happy teachers dressed professionally, parents were not getting information; it
        was not pleasant when we walked into the building. We want our school to be like
        a Whole Foods store.

      Graves-Hill’s reference to Whole Foods stems from the following Harvard Business Review case study, which
is part of the PLE curriculum: John R. Wells and Travis Haglock, “Whole Foods Market, Inc.,” HBS-9-705-476/
(Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2005, 2008).

        The primary tool that guides the U.Va. turnaround program is the 90-day plan that each
individual school leadership team develops each semester. These plans identify high-priority
goals, steps to accomplish the goals, and expected outcomes to be monitored. Reflecting on the
value of the plans and how the new approach differs from earlier methods, Principal Craig
Hockenberry noted:

       We had tons of problems and all we said was, “We are going to fix this problem,”
       and it was too much. When we developed the 90-day plan and identified quick
       wins, it really focused everyone. We have five goals. We are on track for four but
       not one. It made sense to take our problems and break them up. Let’s fix the
       problems and look at things in chunks instead of all year long. That was a big
       piece of how we do things. The teachers liked the concept and the idea of taking
       this big monster and breaking him up one piece at a time.

        Becoming a turnaround cohort. The 16 CPS elementary schools identified for more
intensive support function as a cohort in how they are governed within the district. The principals
all report to Deputy Superintendent—and designated District Shepherd—Mitchell, attend the
same weekly meetings, and participate in the U.Va. leadership trainings. Participation in the
U.Va. program in Charlottesville reportedly helped solidify the cohort.

       Describing the value of the U.Va. program—and specifically the value of coming
together as a cohort—Teacher Coach Nancy Johnson explained:

       U.Va. was intense, and the [principals] had to lean on each other, but it brought
       them together. It gave them the time to focus and grow as leaders. U.Va. actually
       had them open the door to things they were not able to see before. They started to
       have book studies. Without the training, I don’t believe our district would be
       feeling as tight. The district does not feel as big. Principals talk and text. Absent
       the U.Va. relationship, previously it was all about me. Now they talk about,
       “What can we do to make the district move?” It all started when they went to
       U.Va. and got the ideas. We are constantly brainstorming. There is constant
       change, but this year, we are very strong. We have tweaked things. We are
       listening to teachers. In the past, we did not value what teachers said.

       Johnson noted that principals work together and visit one another; collaboration is more
prevalent now, as is alignment between buildings.

        Whereas previous reform efforts ostensibly demonized principals and teachers working in
low-performing schools, the district’s explicit commitment to the 16 priority schools and its
participation in the UVA-STSP has reportedly raised the profile of the principals in the 16 EI
schools in a positive way. One principal expressed appreciation for the opportunity to improve
his leadership skills at an “elite training program at U.Va.” and others mentioned that their peers
were envious of the opportunities the 16 CPS principals had received. Melody Dacey of
Mayerson Academy described the value of developing the cohort at U.Va. by saying, “I see this
cohort of principals has been lifted up. Suddenly the mission is possible. They are proud of being

in the EI schools. There is no stigma attached anymore. You have to have this whole culture of
transformation to do this on any scale.”

        A recurring theme expressed by the turnaround support teams, principals, and teachers
was the notion that they are all embarking on the school turnaround effort as a team. Rather than
seeing themselves as the principals being sanctioned for low-performing schools, empowered by
the support from the central office and their enhanced leadership skills, they see themselves as
analogous to carefully trained Green Berets charged with leading a tough assignment.

        Multiple principals and turnaround team members noted that the principals now take
pride in being part of something. Other schools are asking to learn more about and participate in
various EI-intensive activities such as the U.Va. program and district-provided professional
development training.

       Analyze data to inform practice

        CPS’s first step in creating a plan to turn around its persistently low-performing schools
was to examine the data to identify cause and to develop strategies for change. And, in line with
the training provided by U.Va., the practice of relying on data to inform all decisions remains a
core component of the district’s turnaround initiative. Each school maintains a data room where
teams of teachers and administrators gather to examine progress on short-cycle assessments that
inform classroom practice. Individual teachers maintain data folders that they share with students
to engage them and give them ownership of their growth. In addition to student performance data,
the principals and district turnaround teams collect a variety of data to assess progress toward
goals. Regular observations and planning meetings are the primary vehicle principals and the
turnaround teams use to assess progress. One principal stated:

       I hold teachers accountable with classroom walk-throughs and data meetings. I
       have the tough conversations when instruction is not what it needs to be and
       scores are not improving. I always pull up the data, which leads to a conversation.
       My expectations are high for them, but I am also going to give them the support
       they need to make it happen.

       Reflecting on how the shift to data-based decisions has fundamentally altered how he
spends his day, another principal explained:

       Before the EI, I spent about 20% of my time on instruction and 80% solving
       problems—getting bus tokens, getting groceries, rushing to a room to solve a
       behavioral issue. All of a sudden the breaks stopped, and now my school has to
       adjust to me devoting 80% of my time to instruction. It was a very abrupt change.
       It used to be that parents would call and I would call them back. Now I am calling
       and saying, “Your kid should be scoring 420s and he is scoring 370.” Making the
       shift has not made me all that popular. This is the biggest demon that I am
       fighting. It leaves me very little time to be that person to jump rope with the 3rd
       graders, but leadership requires constant modeling and data discussion.
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