A Homegrown Superintendent



 

When the new school year begins in August, Cincinnati Public Schools will be led by one of its own.

Catherine Laura Mitchell was appointed superintendent in May, replacing Mary Ronan, who is retiring after nine years at the helm of the largest school district in Southwest Ohio.

Mitchell is a proud product of Cincinnati Public Schools, born and raised in Bond Hill, a graduate of Bond Hill Elementary and the School for Creative and Performing Arts. She has been a teacher and principal at CPS.

“I know what it’s like to be a student in the Cincinnati Public Schools. This is personal,” says Mitchell about her new job. “I understand our kids need the opportunity and access to educational tools that will help them have a decent life and a decent wage.”

Mitchell will take charge of a school district that serves 35,000 students in 56 schools with 4,500 employees on August 1. With 81 percent of its students economically disadvantaged and 19 percent with special needs, CPS faces the challenges common to diverse urban districts.

Mitchell says her passion for young people goes way beyond “patting them on the back.” At the core of her educational philosophy is her conviction that, “We must teach kids how rigorous their academics have to be in order for them to succeed once they leave CPS.”

Mitchell has been the number two at CPS for several years as the deputy superintendent in charge of academics. As the architect of many of the district’s successful initiatives in recent years, Mitchell might have had the inside track to replace Ronan. But board members say her appointment was not a given. The board mounted an extensive national search when Ronan announced last fall she would retire.

The board received 58 applications from 40 states. Mitchell was the only current CPS employee who applied.

“I never doubted that Laura would shine against any competition,” says board member Eve Bolton. “I think it’s important that people know we put her up against outside competition and she did great. Laura has led virtually all the academic initiatives during Mary’s tenure.”

Bolton said school districts often look outside their own ranks especially if things aren’t going well. But there was a feeling among board members that CPS is on the right track and that Ronan has built a solid platform establishing CPS as an up-and-coming, progressive urban district. Bolton also said the advice and input from such corporate partners as Procter & Gamble and General Electric was that the district’s recent improvements indicated it was best to hire a superintendent from within the current ranks to maintain the momentum.

“Laura is incredibly creative and passionate about doing what’s right for students,” Ronan says about her replacement. “She will continue the good work.”

That “good work” includes the Vision 2020 plan initiated by Ronan and Mitchell, designed to upgrade neighborhood schools. For many years, CPS parents have grumbled that the neighborhood schools were neglected as the district favored with funding its highly-touted magnet school system. In response to parent concerns, the multi-year plan calls for upgrading all the neighborhood schools by 2020 by combining strong curriculums with specialized programming.

By the end of the 2018 school year, Mitchell says 17 schools will have been upgraded in the program that began last year. She says they are already seeing results.

“We have seen an increase in enrollment in those schools. In fact, a number of kids have come back to those neighborhood schools from charter schools,” Mitchell says. “By 2020 all of our neighborhood schools will have a new focus that is as strong as the magnet programs.”

Another initiative Mitchell started that will be a continuing focus is My Tomorrow, a comprehensive college career and workforce readiness program, aimed especially at the Title 1 high schools.

“My Tomorrow is tailored to finding what students’ interests and strengths are and how they can channel that passion to plan a career pathway,” Mitchell says.

Beginning in ninth and 10th grades, students receive a wide array of career programming that includes workshops that focus on financial literacy and writing resumes and job application letters. There is help for the ACT. For those in need there are take-home computer programs with access to internet hotspots. Mitchell has developed a Business Education Council, an extensive network and partnership with the business community where students shadow professionals at their jobs and hear from a wide array of speakers from the business, trades and higher education communities.

“We are really trying to knock down the walls and barriers that kids might face, especially those from low-income families, so they have a level playing field,” says Mitchell. “We want them thinking about their possibilities after leaving Cincinnati Public Schools.”

While CPS still ranks poorly on some state measurements, there has been improvement in the numbers indicating the district is trending upward in a number of areas. It is the highest performing urban district in Ohio. Its graduation rate has been steadily increasing, now at 73 percent, up 10 points from five years ago (the state average is 83 percent). Composite 12th grade ACT scores have been increasing, the highest among Ohio’s urban districts. It has a 98 percent promotion rate in reading in Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee. Recent initiatives have improved academic performance in the district’s 16 lowest-performing elementary schools.

Ronan’s lasting legacy might be that of a bricks-and-mortar superintendent presiding over a massive $1 billion decade-long facilities master plan that resulted in new or fully renovated buildings for 54 schools.

“It came in on time and on budget,” says Ronan. “We now have modern learning environments for our children to make them feel valued.”

Ronan also points out the building boom often engaged the neighborhoods, turning 42 schools into Community Learning Centers and also included 25 school-based health centers, mental health services, three dental centers and a vision center serving the entire district.

Ronan was able to go out on top when she announced her retirement a week after voters overwhelmingly passed a $48 million, five-year levy last fall. “It was always my goal to make sure the district was financially stable,” she says.

A third of that levy money is earmarked for the Preschool Promise, which will expand preschool access throughout Cincinnati in a program administered by CPS in partnership with the United Way.

Ronan started her 40-year career as a CPS junior high school math and science teacher in 1977, later becoming principal at Kilgour Elementary in Mount Lookout. She often comments on the irony of finishing her career where she started it. The CPS main administrative office in Corryville, at Burnet and Highland avenues, sits on the site of the former Merry Junior High School where Ronan first taught.

The biggest change Ronan has seen in her nine years as superintendent? The intrusion of the testing culture imposed by states and the federal government.

“The micromanagement from the state and federal level has really taken away local control from our elected school board,” Ronan says. “It’s culminated in way too much testing that has come at the expense of programs that parents value.”

Ronan notes many intrinsically valuable school activities such as art shows, music recitals, field trips and other events have been squeezed out to leave time for test teaching and planning. “You can’t afford to spend time in preparation for those events any more. It’s not because of finances, you need to spend time on testing requirements. That is truly unfortunate.”

Ronan says when you add them up, the district is required to administer 41 mandated tests per year: 17 from the federal government, 24 from Ohio. Ronan is heartened by the fact that many families and some politicians seem to be pushing back on the testing mania. But, for now, it is a new normal that Mitchell must face, even as she agrees with many parents and teachers that too much testing is hurting the education of students.

“The state test is a snapshot in time on what a student can demonstrate on a particular day, but by no means counts for their knowledge or how they are able to succeed,” Mitchell says. “We also have a lot of concern over the state test, especially since we haven’t had the same state test for four years running.”

Mitchell said CPS will continue to develop programming that goes beyond what testing can measure as part of her vision to provide opportunities for student career pathways. “We want our kids to have a rich experience that includes project-based learning, field experiences and career planning. Those are all things that you just don’t demonstrate on a paper and pencil test.”

While Mitchell has spent her life as a student, teacher, principal and administrator in Cincinnati Public Schools, she has had experience working on a national level with issues faced by urban districts. She has worked for a San Francisco-based education foundation and as a consultant to a University of Virginia School of Business program that has required her to analyze issues and personnel in several urban districts.

“I’ve had a lot of experience outside this district because of those jobs,” Mitchell says. “I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on in education reform in the country.”

And Mitchell has the unconditional support from Ronan as the leadership baton is passed at the school district this summer.

“Laura is the right person for the job at the right time,” Ronan says. The board was interested in continuity. They know Laura is going to stay for the long term. Her heart is here.”

Cincinnati Public Schools is located at 2651 Burnet Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45219. For more information, call 513.363.0000 or visit www.cps-k12.org.