Bold reforms in Cleveland and Columbus need new talent to fly high

Some of Ohio’s largest school districts are embracing charter schools as part of their overall district reform strategies. Mayor Jackson’s education reform plan in Cleveland calls for tripling “the number of Cleveland students enrolled in high-performing district and charter schools from the approximately 11,000 students currently enrolled in these schools to approximately 33,000 by 2018-19.” In Columbus, Mayor Coleman’s “education commission” is exploring ways to encourage “the growth of high performing charter schools.” In Cincinnati the district recently announced a new partnership with the charter operator Carpe Diem (a high-performing blended-learning charter school model based in Arizona).

Fordham has long-advocated, along with groups like the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for better cooperation and creative partnerships between school districts and quality charter schools. As far back as 2007, we argued for a “Portfolio Governance Approach to Meeting the Needs of All Dayton Children.”

Unfortunately Dayton couldn’t run with the concept in 2007, but fast forward to 2013, and according to a new book by Paul Hill, Christine Campbell, and Betheny Gross entitled Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools, there are now close to 30 urban school districts across the country pursuing “the portfolio strategy.” According to Hill, Campbell and Gross leading portfolio districts “support existing schools that are succeeding with the children they serve, close unproductive schools, create new ones similar to schools that have already proven effective, and seek even more effective models…Districts pursuing the portfolio strategy are indifferent about who runs a school (whether the district, a charter operator, or some other entity); but they seek continuous improvement, both in individual schools and in the city’s overall supply of public schools.”

Successful portfolio districts focus relentlessly on recruiting and developing new talent, especially school leaders. School leaders are key to the success of portfolio schools because they are empowered – either as charters or freed-up district schools – to manage their own budgets, hire and fire the teachers, and make trade-offs between things like staff salaries and instructional technology or purchased services. School leaders operate as building CEOs in portfolio districts.

Great school leaders are high in demand and portfolio districts compete aggressively for them. In Washington, for example, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee hired “talent managers” that worked to actively poach talent from schools in the wealthier suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. Other cities, often with support from state lawmakers and education officials, have not only put the welcome mat out for talent providers like KIPP, New Leaders for New Schools, and the Broad Residency, but help raise and allocate significant resources to entice these groups to work in their communities. The MindTrust in Indianapolis is arguably the Gold Standard for groups in the country that are investing substantial resources to recruit top talent to launch new schools. Others working in this space include New Schools for New Orleans, Charter School Partners in Minneapolis, 4.0 Schools in Louisiana and LEAD Public Schools in Tennessee. These efforts build on earlier efforts to recruit Teach for America, The New Teacher Project and other alternative teacher programs to work in their communities.

Talent begets more talent. An example of this is Memphis where the Alain Locke Initiative announced in December that it would help provide up to 70 school leaders over the next five years to help turn around that city’s bottom five percent of schools. The Alain Locke Initiative was inspired by the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, and the program identifies, selects and develops top talent to become transformational leaders for urban charter schools.

The Locke Initiative is just the latest national talent provider to commit to assisting Memphis in its school improvement efforts. KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for America, and The New Teacher Project are all working as part of a larger portfolio schools strategy to change the human capital available to its schools in dramatic ways.

Cleveland, Columbus, and other districts are embracing bold reform strategies akin to the portfolio strategy described by Paul Hill and his colleagues in Strife and Progress. These efforts are both brave and bold, but for them to ultimately succeed the state needs to develop alternative talent strategies to generate more high-quality leaders to work in high-need schools. Such strategies need money to fly and the Ohio General Assembly could move things forward in 2013 by making resources available for alternative school leadership programs akin to those now working in states like Indiana, Tennessee, Louisiana and New York.

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