Greater Cincinnati leads the state in education excellence. In fact, according to the State of Ohio Department of Education’s annual school rankings (as reported by The Columbus Dispatch), five of the top 20 state school districts—Indian Hill, Wyoming, Mariemont, Madeira, and Sycamore—are right here in Hamilton County. Each of these districts received state ratings of “Excellent” or “Excellent with Distinction,” placing them alongside the very best public schools in the country.
These districts and many others around the Cincinnati region have enjoyed longstanding traditions of academic success. But they, along with the rest of the state, are still susceptible to potentially crippling budget and resource constraints. Yet even in the face of a grim financial forecast and other challenges, they still manage to maintain an exceptional showing. So how are they weathering the storm? We looked at a few of the city and region’s finest institutions to find out.While Greater Cincinnati enjoys a first-rate culture of private and parochial institutions at every grade level, one of the city’s most impressive amenities is its crop of outstanding public schools, which depend entirely on the support of local, state, and federal funds for their operation.
Take Wyoming City School District, now enjoying its 12th year on the state’s elite list of schools designated as “Excellent,” according to performance on standardized tests, along with graduation rates, attendance rates, overall progress, and other factors. It is for this reason and others that Wyoming City School District and its 1,987 students are ranked fifth on the Ohio Department of Education’s list of more than 900 schools. Wyoming is also recognized nationally: Washington Post and Newsweek both rank Wyoming in the top 100 high schools in the nation (92 and 86, respectively), based upon graduation rates, AP testing, and college matriculation rates.
But these rankings and honors don’t insulate Wyoming—a public district—from the same budgetary constraints and concerns that plague all schools in these challenging economic times. According to Wyoming district treasurer Ronda Johnson’s 2011-2012 District Strategic Choices/Goals report, Wyoming—along with all public schools in the state of Ohio—stands to lose a large portion of its federal contributions for the coming academic year. In FY2011, federal stimulus programming contributed in excess of $437,000 to the district’s annual budget. That source of funding has not been renewed for FY2012, and large amounts of additional funding sources for coming years are still in limbo as the State government debates its options and struggles to achieve financial stability.Despite these setbacks, part of what keeps Wyoming a step ahead is its unwavering community support. All operating levies put up for a vote to Wyoming citizens have passed, ensuring at least that consistent modicum of financial support at the local level. This revenue improves the district’s fiscal health while simultaneously demonstrating the community’s commitment to its schools—a valuable commodity all its own.
Similarly, Forest Hills Local Schools, a local district of about 7,800 students from throughout Anderson Township, is the happy recipient of dependable local funds. The recent passage of the district’s tax levy ensures nearly $4 million in necessary funding for the coming academic years. According to Sheila Vilvens, the district’s communication coordinator, “Passage of the levy means Forest Hills will not have to suffer the painful process of dismantling enriching academic and extracurricular/cocurricular programs.”
The funds will help maintain current operations while also facilitating the academic program expansions necessary to compete on the national level. One addition will be a Teaching Professions Academy (working in tandem with Great Oaks Career-Technical Campuses), which is a two-year program covering the foundations of professional teaching to better prepare students to enter college programs. The second addition will be a dual-credit engineering class, offered in partnership with the University of Cincinnati. It is exactly this type of investment in curriculum development and expanded programming that makes a district like Forest Hills extraordinary, and it is the community’s financial involvement that helps make such achievements possible.It is important for the city to celebrate these financial successes. And it is equally important to understand the additional burdens for those districts that fall short on community support. One district in particular—the largest in the city—hasn’t faired so well. Cincinnati Public Schools is a sprawling district of 56 schools covering 91 square miles. The massive district enrolls Pre-K through grade 12, and is responsible for a whopping 33,748 students (for the 2010-11 academic year).It’s easy to imagine the natural strains on such an unwieldy district, even in a favorable economic climate. But CPS is in especially dire straits for the 2012 academic year: In the wake of a disastrous levy failure in 2011, the district now faces a deficit of $43 million as it initiates planning its budget. CPS Superindendent Mary Ronan openly expresses her concern about these difficulties: “We truly have a very tough job ahead of us,” she admits. If passed, the tax levy would have generated more than $52 million in revenue, and CPS stands to see even further losses from the state.To cope with the projected loss of revenue over the last decade, CPS has proactively trimmed its own budget by closing schools, cutting staff, and negotiating employee benefits. In the last ten years, the district has seen the closure of 17 schools and the elimination of some 1,300 staff members. These budget cuts have succeeded in saving money—more than $15 million, in fact—but not without their own painful cost. The end result is a culture of larger, more crowded classrooms led by overworked, under compensated faculty.Even with these issues, CPS has fought to achieve academic distinction. Since the 2009-2010 school year, the district has been rated as “Effective” by the Ohio Department of Education, making it the state’s highest rated school district in an urban area.
One thing that the State of Ohio has recognized as an essential element of excellent schools is high quality staff. According to the ODE’s Teacher Equity Plan, “If there is one clear message that has emerged from educational research, it is this: teachers make a difference in student learning. Teachers matter most, and high quality teachers matter even more.” The Plan goes on to quote compelling conclusions from The George Lucas Foundation and other research organizations: “Over the last 10 years, major studies show that the single most important factor in determining how much students learn is how much their teachers know – their preparation and qualifications, content knowledge and teaching skills […]In fact, students’ backgrounds—poverty level, language background and minority status— are less influential in predicting achievement levels than the quality of the teaching force (Darling-Hammond, 1999).”
To encourage more schools to value and attract more high-quality staff members—and to satisfy requirements set by the No Child Left Behind Act—the Ohio Department of Education has initiated the “Highly Qualified Teacher” (HQT) program. This program states that all schools must employ only “Highly Qualified Teachers.” To be considered “Highly Qualified,” a teacher must, among other things, fulfill three major things: They must have at least a bachelor’s degree; they must hold the appropriate certificate or license; and they must be able to demonstrate expertise in their core academic subjects.
It’s easy to confirm these theories by looking at our own local schools: Wyoming is way ahead of the trend of prioritizing high-quality teachers and has reaped the benefits of that policy. In addition to community support, one method of that district’s success is a superior staff of instructors. A full 70 percent of staff members in the district hold a Master’s degree or higher—a dramatic improvement on the state average of 53%. Additionally, Wyoming’s student-teacher ratio is remarkably low at 18 students for every one teacher.
The takeaway, it seems, is this: That even in the event of lean budget years—the likes of which Ohio schools have been enduring for many years—a strong staff of highly trained educators helps districts and their schools maintain consistent excellence.
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