Head of the class: Mary Ronan, CPS superintendent
School starts Tuesday, Aug. 16, and this month, the district's top administrator announced that CPS
students made gains on every state academic test, including a 12 percent jump in third-grade math scores.
Then the leader of the top-performing urban district in the state recommended a new levy for this fall that the school board approved – a 7.95-mill permanent improvement levy. It wasn't the biggest levy option of 8.11 mills, but it will add $243 to the $1,324 of school property taxes already on a $100,000 Cincinnati home. (Note of context: Mariemont, Madeira and Winton Woods, among other districts, currently have higher school tax levy burdens than Cincinnati.)
The new funds would not and could not include any personnel costs. Instead, they would replace nearly decade-old computers in classrooms around the city and help complete renovations left in limbo as the district cut administrators and closed schools.
The ongoing needs highlight the wide gap in state funding levels for public schools: Cincinnati receives about 40 percent of its funding from the state, while Cleveland receives closer to 80 percent
. But that's a whole different, and unconstitutional, story.
On the eve of the first day back in classes, Soapbox
quizzed Ronan about the year ahead, the district she loves and her favorite school supply. What are you most excited about for this school year?
The opportunity to take our academic progress to the next level. We were extremely excited to see our preliminary results on the Ohio Report Card, which showed gains on all 24 state tests at 8 tested grade levels, more schools in the higher report card categories and fewer in the lowest two. In fact, we now only have three schools in academic emergency, and two years ago, we had 14.What are the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenge is financial. Under Ohio's system of school financing – which has been ruled unconstitutional four times – school systems are forced to go back to local property taxpayers about every three years. Cincinnati Public Schools is on the November 8 ballot with a 7.95-mill permanent improvement request. We did so reluctantly, given these difficult economic times, and deferred it as long as possible. CPS is opening two new schools this week. Why?
We want to build on our tradition as a district that offers parents quality educational choices. That's a clear philosophical direction of our Board – and I am really enthusiastic about it. So, on August 16th, we are opening the Cincinnati Gifted Academy for grades 3 through 6 and the Cincinnati Digital Academy for kindergarten through 12th grade. Not only will these schools offer additional options for CPS parents, we believe they will help us to be more entrepreneurial in an increasingly competitive educational environment by providing options for parents in charter schools that may not be performing well. Why are community partnerships so important to CPS?
Community partnerships are a huge part of our district's progress. The challenges of urban education are just too large and complex to tackle without partner support. Fortunately, we are blessed in Cincinnati with incredible business and other community volunteers. What's great is that we've been able to collaborate in a highly strategic way to target their support where it's most needed. We are using data systems to pinpoint students' needs and link them with partners who can help address them.
One example is the Be the Change Campaign
coordinated by Strive
, which focused on getting tutors to our lowest-performing elementary schools, where they worked on specific skill areas for specific students who had been struggling in those areas.What do you wish more people knew about your district?
Cincinnati Public Schools has some of the brightest, most talented and personable students anywhere, and I just wish more people could meet them. We invited some of our students to our State of the Schools Event a couple of weeks ago so we could share their stories. One young lady received a perfect ACT score of 36, a feat that less than one tenth of 1 percent of students nationwide achieve. Another young man who's entering 9th grade at the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies not only has made the transition from speaking virtually no English to being fluent in English and Spanish, he's also in line for a full scholarship to Ohio State University that would enable him to be the first person in his family to go to college. Another young lady entering her senior year at the School for Creative and Performing Arts is a brilliant poet.
And there are countless stories of students overcoming personal adversity to succeed academically. These stories are powerful, inspiring and real-world, and they are being lived out every day in our schools.What is the most frustrating part of your job?
My approach is to be focused and positive, because I think it's the best way to advance our schools and our district. But I am aware of the negative stereotypes about our district that persist despite our academic progress and progressive reforms, and sometimes that frustrates me. I'm also disappointed with the lack of civility in some of the public discourse today. Not only does it set a poor example for our students, it may deter some of our best and brightest young people from entering public life.
Describe your leadership style.
Open, accessible and collaborative. I believe in assembling a good team – often with both internal and external members – and empowering everybody to be creative problem-solvers. So, in that sense I'm hands-off, but if I believe things are not moving in the right direction, I am also quick to roll up my sleeves and get involved personally.
As a woman in a position of power in the city, what message do you hope to be sending to young women?
I hope I am leading by example by showing that power is nothing unless it's focused on something that is larger than oneself – in our case, the compelling and urgent need to equip our students with the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing and demanding world. I would also urge young women to set their sights high, take advantage of opportunities, and, always be themselves.
What was your first job? How old were you and what did you learn?
My first job while I was in college was working for a management firm that managed one of the new downtown office buildings. I gained an appreciation for all behind-the-scenes workers who kept everything running smoothly. I learned I need to recognize those employees who are unseen but whose work keeps everything moving forward.Where is your favorite spot to relax in Cincinnati?
Eden Park is one of my favorite places – not only because it's so beautiful but because of the amenities. I like to visit the Art Museum and Krohn Conservatory, and I am a passionate season ticket subscriber to Playhouse in the Park. It's a place that not only soothes the spirit, but stimulates the mind – a real jewel, in my opinion.What is your favorite school supply?
I guess I'd have to say a school planner. I love the concept of organization, even though, to look at my desk on some days, you wouldn't know it!