Turnaround

Turnaround

How a talented high school principal and a passionate CEO performed a near-miracle.

Given that it’s February, it’s apropos perhaps to think back to a perfect summer evening this past June, when an educational rock star and his lead accompanist drew 150 or so people to the Capri Theater on Minneapolis’s north side to hear a real-world story of how a wasteland of a high school in Cincinnati was turned into highly praised learning center.

Anthony Smith, the former principal of Cincinnati’s Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School (he was just persuaded to become assistant superintendent of Cincinnati’s public schools), and Michael Turner, the school’s program facilitator, held forth for the better part of two hours on the near-miracle that took place at Taft.

The talk was an object lesson in the possible. Ten years ago, the graduation rate at Taft was 18 percent. Today, it’s 95 percent. Taft’s student body is 92.5 percent black and more than 72 percent economically disadvantaged, but its students now outscore white students on Ohio’s graduation tests in math, reading, and science. And while the school’s football team used to be an easy defeat for every other school in its conference, Taft’s Senators last year won their conference title and their boys’ basketball team took state.

But it took a village to make this happen: It took Smith, Turner, a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and an absolutely critical guardian angel in Cincinnati Bell, which has for the past decade provided the school with vital equipment and robust ongoing support.
 
Listening closely, one realizes that what happened here wasn’t wizardry; it’s something that can be replicated. As Smith put it to the audience, the key behind Taft’s success was “hard work, hard work, and hard work.” That’s what seems to separate this school from the many other noble experiments out there in our public schools: Execution and follow-through.

Smith took over at Taft as a known quantity, having, with Turner, rescued a troubled middle school nearby. Soon after arriving, Smith persuaded Turner—who jokes that the more appropriate verb is “tricked”—to join him, and the two set about replicating their success.

First, students are required to wear uniforms. Athletes (the few there were at the time) were required to model them, and voila, they were instantly cool. Another change: an individual education plan was mandatory for every student. Sound familiar? Schools do those all the time. The difference here was that Smith, Turner, and his teachers actually reviewed them at least once a year to monitor the student’s progress and make appropriate adjustments. If a student gets off track, the school intervenes. Students were required to catch up through additional tutoring before or after school, on Saturdays, or during the summer, in a program called 5th Quarter. Hence Taft’s motto: “Failure is not an option.”

Another factor: Smith was never in his office. He was observing in the classrooms, walking the halls, shooing kids into class (unlike when he arrived, the halls are now empty during class periods), buttonholing them about their progress, acting as a cheerleader and, when necessary, a scold.

He didn’t fire any teachers when he arrived; instead he built a team-teaching system from the existing staff. And he—the principal—took on teaching duties, acting as an after-school tutor for struggling students in virtually every subject, from trigonometry to English. So when he gave his teachers instruction-related suggestions, they carried the weight of experience and practice.

Smith met Jack Cassidy, president and CEO of Cincinnati Bell, at a community function. Cassidy asked Smith what he did. Smith told him he was principal of Taft. Cassidy made a crack about Taft’s poor performance, and Smith shot back that Cassidy should talk given the recent performance of the company’s stock. The two became fast friends—and partners in the school’s transformation.

Cincinnati Bell not only equipped several computer labs in the school, but has spent roughly $750,000 on scholarships, and also provides free cell phones and laptops to all students who maintain a 3.3 GPA or better. In all the time Bell has been doing that, not a single phone or laptop has been returned for lack of performance.
Perhaps more important, Cassidy has committed his employees as daytime tutors, and every week Cincinnati Bell employees are whisked away from their jobs in company SUVs—so transportation to and from work is not an issue—and brought to the school, where each tutor is assigned to his or her own student. In the time Bell employees have participated in the tutoring program, no tutor has missed a day.

Richard Mammen, a lifelong community activist and youth worker, is one of our newly elected Minneapolis School Board members and was in the audience at the Anthony Smith presentation. We met afterwards, and Mammen held forth on what he heard.

“We know what works,” he said. “‘It’s all in the leadership, the execution, and in recognizing what the kids need.”

And yes, the business community. Time was, Mammen recalled, we had people like Jim Renier, former CEO of Honeywell, who was “all over the early childhood idea” with “Success by Six.” Other businesspeople advocating education included Harvey Golub, former head of Investors Diversified Services, the long-ago predecessor company of Ameriprise Financial, and Gordon Sprenger, former CEO of Allina Health System. Then, of course, there was Bill Norris of Control Data, who essentially bet the company on Plato Learning.

Contrast that to what happened this past spring, when an admirable effort in the Minnesota Legislature, backed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, was killed by the religious and socially conservative right wing of the Republican Party. The bill would have created a statewide rating system to identify high-quality, early education programs, and to steer families that rely on public childcare subsidies toward them. Authored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican, the bill was revenue neutral.

Incredible.

We have plenty of Taft High Schools in our public school systems—top of the list is North High School. The question is: Where are the Anthony Smiths? This past October, the district had to resort to hiring an outfit called the Institute for Student Achievement, a professional school turnaround firm, at a cost of $155,000, to begin the North High turnaround. Forty-two percent of staff members have been changed out, and an advisory board has recommended a magnet school concept of communications and arts.

Mammen is quick to acknowledge the importance of the situation: “North High has to be successful. It’s our chance to rebuild something extraordinary and hopeful.”

But what does this say about the state’s largest school district, and its ability to groom turnaround talent from within? And then there’s the business community. Where’s the Jack Cassidy of Minnesota? The CEO willing to put his company, some money, and his people—as role models and tutors—behind such an effort? Richard Davis (U.S. Bancorp)? Greg Page (Cargill)? Ben Fowke (Xcel)? Ken Powell (General Mills)?

“If you want community, business, and government to work,” Mammen says, “you have to better educate people and create opportunities. This is the best investment we can make with our taxes.”

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