Portfolio management in the suburbs

Few school systems have embraced the opportunity presented by crisis quite like the one in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Just five years ago, when the economy collapsed, the Reynoldsburg district was cutting deep into its staff budget and establishing buffers such as a $500 pay-to-play activity fee for families. Exasperated parents fled to neighboring districts, and voters repeatedly rejected the district’s levy requests. Pupil enrollment fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and once-crowded schools found themselves with extra space.

Reynoldsburg’s leaders responded to hardship with innovation
Reynoldsburg's leaders responded to hardship with innovation

But while many other districts succumbed to hand wringing at similar moments of despair, Reynoldsburg’s leaders responded with innovation. They slashed central-office staff and sent more resources to individual schools, empowering principals with key decision-making authority. They developed “themes” at schools, with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and they established more charter schools and enhanced school choice throughout the district. Most unusually, they bartered with a community college, a hospital, a preschool, and a dance company to utilize its extra space in ways that benefitted its own students.

But perhaps most importantly, write Ellen Belcher and Terry Ryan in their informative profile of the district for the Fordham Institute, Limitless, Education, the Reynoldsburg Way, the 6,300-student district embraced a much-discussed but seldom-practiced approach to administration: portfolio management.

Under this arrangement, principals have the authority to design unique academic programs, and they get to make the calls and employ people who are the right fit for their schools. The superintendent acts as portfolio manager, adding and enhancing programs that work and dropping those that don’t.

While large urban districts such as Denver, New York, and New Orleans get attention for the portfolio strategies they have developed, Reynoldsburg has emerged as a sleeper in the movement and a leader among suburban districts that have tried it. Portfolio guru Paul Hill told Belcher and Ryan that Reynoldsburg “is the leader in a new trend—innovative suburban districts taking advantage of all the talent available in a metro area, but avoiding big-city gridlock.”

There’s a reason such an approach has caught on with a few reform-minded districts: It’s attractive to families as well as educators. Parents are not a monolithic bunch, and smart educators have recognized that no one school can be all things to all children. But in a time of tight budgets, that means school leaders must make trade-offs. What’s attractive to families and teachers at one school may be unattractive to those at another. And while Reynoldsburg only has one high school, it created options by organizing that school into four very different academies—one focused on STEM subjects; another on art and design; another immersed in business, leadership, and law; and still another dedicated to health science and human services.

Reynoldsburg’s forward-looking superintendent and board deserve much credit for innovating—and then sticking with it. They had gotten nowhere by asking voters to pay more for a school system that was driving away families. Now, after the district has transformed its approach to education delivery, it has reversed its enrollment slide and this year attracted 180 students from neighboring districts via open enrollment. And the state has rated Reynoldsburg “Excellent with Distinction.” How all that happened is the subject of Belcher and Ryan’s excellent case study, a candid tour of the district’s fourteen schools and a helpful map for the portfolio approach, writ small.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Ohio Gadfly Daily.

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