Throng of educators from 36 states gather in Cincinnati to plot more successful schools

CINCINNATI – Advocates for Cincinnati Public Schools have been telling all who will listen that their development of Community Learning Centers are an innovation that's outpacing school districts throughout the country.

This week, they have the ear of an admiring audience of more than 1,400 educators who gathered in the Queen City for the Community Schools 2014 National Forum.

"Cincinnati is one of the leading beacons of community schools across the country," Martin Blank, director of the Washington-based National Coalition for Community Schools and the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, told WCPO after addressing a packed ballroom at the Duke Energy Convention Center.

Leaders in educational reform are participating in the four-day event, including Dr. Christopher Edley Jr., a U.C. Berkeley School of Law professor who, while at Harvard, taught Barack Obama as well as Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.

"John's grade in my class was better," he said.

Edley, the keynote speaker to open the conference, said the country has to slough off old educational practices for whatever works and to work harder to give every child access to high-quality education and support to succeed.

"There is no more important civil rights issue for the years ahead," he said. "Stop spending money on things that don't work. That's an equity issue and an excellence issue."

For years, lawmakers and educators have been trying to boost standardized testing and other performance measures as a way to better gauge how well students, schools, districts and states are faring. Many educators and parents have fought back, arguing that teachers are forced to teach to the tests to the detriment of a well-rounded education.

Edley didn't pass judgment on particular tests like those associated with No Child Left Behind and the new Common Core standards, but he left no doubt where he stands on the issue.

"People who want to suppress data or don't want to invest in data, whether or not they want to admit it, the effect of that is to hide problems," he said. "If you're against collecting data, you're part of the problem."

Edley said educational policy is made through politics, intuition, or evidence that it works, or a combination of the three.

"The less clear you are about the evidentiary basis of the policy, the more humble you should be in prescribing it for the children who are in so much need of your help," he said.

And the evidence, Edley said, points toward policies like CPS's and the Coalition for Community Schools that expand the role of neighborhood schools into centers for children and their families before, during and after school hours.

Cincinnati's community learning centers have become national models, earning visits from all of the major candidates for New York mayor last year, for example.

"Other communities have come here to learn," Blank said. "It's a collaborative enterprise with wonderful support from (CPS Superintendent) Mary Ronan and the Julie Sellers (the president of the Cincinnati teacher's federation). That's how this stuff grows when you bring people with great passion together."

Blank said part of the prescription for lifting people out of poverty with excellent educations has to involve universal preschool for all three- and four-year-olds and a bridge from preschool to kindergarten. Absent that bridge, students who enter kindergarten with the fundamental skills they need – socialization, gross and fine motor skills, etc. – may fall off in an unfamiliar environment.

He used as an example a kindergarten teacher who observed work stations in a preschool where children could engage in activities like painting or puzzles, and the teacher set up similar stations in her classroom to make children more at ease.

"Head Start gets children to the starting line, but if you can build a network of those quality preschools and connect them to the public schools, you begin to strengthen the quality of what's there," Blank said.

Cranley, in a brief welcoming address, affirmed the importance of community learning centers to Cincinnati's quality of life. " The social impact it has had on our city is tremendous. We wouldn't have as safe neighborhoods if we hadn't made these investments," he said.

Lisa Villarreal
chair of the coalition's steering committee, laid out the problem of equal access to good education in stark terms. "More than 50 years past Brown versus Board of Education, more than 50 years since the Civil Rights movement and war on poverty, the nation is facing some of the greatest income, health and wealth disparities," she said. "Clearly, the country does not get it about equity."

Edley urged the large crowd of well-meaning educators and advocates to keep experimenting. "My takeaway is we have to be smarter about our strategy for making progress. We're not doing it the right way. Otherwise, there would be a wildfire spreading across the country (demanding) excellence for all."

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