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Myths vs. reality: How bad are CPS schools?

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Posted at 4:27 AM, Aug 19, 2015
and last updated 2016-01-02 09:17:45-05

CINCINNATI – For decades, Cincinnati Public Schools has battled a host of negative perceptions such as high dropout rates and high turnover among teachers.

But the district's story is more complicated than the letter grades doled out by the state, and WCPO took some time to pit some of the common myths about the district with the facts.

Myth: CPS is a low-achieving school district.
Fact: Yes, but… 

A glance at the report card Ohio issued for the school district last fall paints a grim picture, including eight Fs and two Cs. Its 73.6-percent four-year high school graduation rate, for example, was considered failing. So was the progress students made in grades 4-8 for math and English.

But CPS consistently ranks No. 1 among Ohio's eight large urban school districts. That means when compared to Ohio's other seven large urban districts — Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown — CPS is actually the best of the bunch.

 

The district also boasts some strong individual schools.

Walnut Hills is the No. 1 ranked high school in the state. The School for Creative and Performing Arts is the only public K-12 school of its kind in the nation, and magnet schools draw students from all over the city and outside of the district.

District-wide, many indicators have been moving in the right direction. Yes, only 74 percent of high school seniors graduated in four years in 2013-14, and the district still received an F in graduation rates because it didn't meet the minimum threshold of 80 percent. But only 66 percent graduated in four years the previous year. And barely half — 51 percent — of students graduated in four years in 2000. 

About 97 percent of third-grade students read at grade level and advanced to the fourth grade.

CPS is challenged with high poverty rates — about 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches — high percentages of children with special needs and breathtaking student turnover. About one-third of students leave the district every year, according to Superintendent Mary Ronan. That makes the job of consistent progress daunting. 

Most suburban districts do not face those challenges to that same degree.

"CPS has been at the top or near the top of the urban schools in Ohio for a lot of reasons," said Andrew Benson, executive director of Smarter Schools, a Cincinnati-based education consultancy. "It has to do with the administration, the board, the structure of the district and how it has evolved. All of them have come together to make some strides helping kids who really need help from education to do better."

Myth: You have to stand in line to get into a good school. The rest are low-quality.
Fact: Partially true.

In October, parents with perfectly good roofs to sleep under will instead find themselves camped out on the front lawn of Fairview-Clifton German Language School to enroll their future kindergartners for the 2016-17 year.

That's because the Clifton school, with classes from preschool through grade 6, is one of CPS' vaunted magnet schools, coveted by families for immersing children in German language learning, its strong academics and the strong bonds forged by parents who spend two weeks freezing together to enroll their children.

"It's a parent bonding experience that they will have for the rest of their careers," said Julie Sellers, president of the teachers union that represents the district.

Sands Montessori and Dater Montessori have much shorter campouts some years. And other top-ranked schools have different enrollment requirements, such as auditions at the School for Creative and Performing Arts and admissions tests for Walnut Hills High School and Hyde Park Elementary's gifted program.

Still other schools with high third-grade literacy have no campouts or entrance exams, including four neighborhood schools:

  • Hyde Park Elementary, 100 percent third-grade reading proficiency
  • Kilgour Elementary School, Mount Lookout, 98.7 percent
  • South Avondale Elementary, 97.7 percent
  • Sayler Park Elementary, 94.3 percent

But dozens of other neighborhood-based schools — whose students are drawn from the surrounding neighborhood, rather than magnets that draw from the whole district — suffer from low scores and, in some cases, 100 percent poverty.

The three lowest-performing schools on the third-grade reading test fell far short of their peers:

  • 49 percent of third-graders at William H. Taft Elementary in Mount Auburn passed the reading test
  • 50.7 percent of third-graders passed at Roberts Academy in Price Hill
  • 56.3 percent of third-graders passed at Silverton Paideia Elementary

 

Scores are so bad, Sellers said, for multiple reasons, starting with the rules of who gets tested. The state allows a maximum of 2 percent of test takers to be exempted from results because of special needs or disabilities. But many impoverished neighborhoods have a far higher percentage of students with special needs.

Students also are hobbled by "mobility" — switching schools once, twice or even three times in a school year, leaving teachers with a nearly impossible task of providing consistent learning.

But for students whose parents or guardians can consistently get them to school on time with few absences, even the lowest-ranked schools can provide a strong education, Sellers said.

"I worked at Quebec Elementary (a Price Hill school beset by poverty that has since closed). We still had as high a percentage of kids that passed the Walnut Hills (entrance) tests as other schools," she said.

"If students come to CPS preschool and they stay with CPS, I will guarantee you that those kids will be reading by third grade," Sellers said.

Myth: CPS spends a fortune on students with a poor return on the investment.
Fact: Higher than suburbs, lower than urban peers.

CPS spent $10,777 per full-time student in 2014, according to state numbers.

Among the state's 25 largest school districts by enrollment, CPS is the eighth-highest spender. Among big urban districts, Cleveland (No. 1), Dayton (No. 4), Columbus (No. 5) and Akron (No. 7) all spend more.

 

All of Greater Cincinnati's large suburban districts, including Lakota, Mason, Northwest, Fairfield and West Clermont, spend less per pupil.

Andrew Benson, executive director of Smarter Schools education consultancy, cautioned against comparing CPS with suburban districts when talking about spending wisely.

"To do a return-on-investment comparison with any suburban district is not a fair comparison," he said. "The preparedness of students coming into suburban districts and the support they get at home and in their communities are completely different. To counteract that requires that urban districts to spend more to make up those deficits."

Myth: Enrollment is plummeting as families flee to other districts.
Fact: False.

Enrollment at CPS schools peaked half a century ago, before Greater Cincinnatians migrated into suburbs outside the city limits. That slip continued into last decade, but after enrollment bottomed out at 30,900 in 2010-11, it has grown every year. That's despite increased competition through vouchers and charter schools. Enrollment was at 32,169 in 2013-14, according to the district's records.

Myth: Teachers burn out and quit.
Reality: The opposite is true.

WCPO Data Specialist Mark Nichols analyzed teaching experience among southwest Ohio school districts and found that CPS teachers were among the most experienced and longest-tenured in the area.

On average, CPS teachers have 18 years experience, and seven of 10 have taught for 10 or more years.

"I will be the first one to say that CPS is probably one of the hardest districts to work in because it is so large and there are so many levels of accountability," Sellers said.

Still, the veteran teacher and union activist said, "the teachers that I came in to work with in this district, almost all of them are still in."
 

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