Community Building in Cincinnati

One of the largest U.S. urban school districts to experience substantial and sustained improvements in student outcomes is Cincinnati, Ohio, now recognized as a national model of collaboration between administrators and teachers, along with parents and community groups. Although there were plenty of bumps along the way, including three superintendent changes and the contested election of a new teachers' union head between 2002 and 2009, the district has experienced a much greater degree of teamwork than the norm over an extended period.

In 1985, Cincinnati was the second district in the country to adopt Peer Assistance and Review,* a program that enlists master teachers to serve as mentors for novice teachers as well as struggling veteran teachers. The district also has experimented with a variety of team-based instructional approaches and innovative teacher compensation systems embedded in collective bargaining agreements dating back to the 1980s, driven initially, to a large extent, by longtime Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Tom Mooney, who died in 2006. The city's pioneering Community Learning Centers, which provide students with access to a wide array of health services, after-school programs, tutoring, and other social supports on school grounds, are so highly regarded that they attracted some of New York City's recent mayoral candidates to visit and study how they might be emulated.1

Although there is no way to tease out the degree to which any particular program is most responsible for Cincinnati's impressive results, the common thread among all the city's distinctive initiatives has been a culture that strives to overcome the barriers between teachers, administrators, parents, and service providers that prevail in many urban districts.

Critically, collaborative practices are embedded in the district's collective bargaining agreement. Cincinnati's most recent three-year collective bargaining agreement, which took effect on January 1, 2011, builds on previous contracts with a multitude of provisions ensuring that teachers have a strong voice in decision-making processes. Those structures range from districtwide committees that focus on budgets, employee benefits, school performance oversight, peer review, and disciplinary issues, to school-based teams. Each school is governed by a local decision-making committee comprising three teachers, three parents, and three community members along with the principal. The contract also requires the creation of instructional leadership teams, which include elected leaders of teacher groups who work together on a daily basis, as well as parents, leaders of community service providers, and the principal.

Even the contract negotiation process in Cincinnati is built on collaborative strategies to solve common problems. This process follows Harvard's Principled Negotiation guidelines, which were established in part based on approaches originally undertaken in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Julie Sellers cautions that "it's hard work to be collaborative, and it's not always an easy process. It takes both sides making a commitment and concessions for it to work, and it must be built on formal structures that are recognized in contracts to be sustainable."

Another important element of Cincinnati's success has been close collaboration with community service providers, to reach those areas of a student's life that often affect academic performance but that schools generally cannot control. About a decade ago, Darlene Kamine (formerly a district consultant, now the director) led the development of Cincinnati's Community Learning Centers to bring together local social service providers on school sites to help support children and their families. During the school day, after school, on weekends, and over the summer, Community Learning Centers offer students services such as medical, dental, and vision care; tutoring and mentoring support; and sports and arts programs. Sellers says, "The teachers are thankful that the services are in the building because they know that the students' needs will be met, making them feel more secure and leading to better behavior."

In addition, beginning in 2007, more than 300 leaders of local organizations in the greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area agreed to participate in a coordinated effort called Strive. Participating organizations are grouped into 15 different Student Success Networks by type of activity, such as early childhood education or tutoring. Representatives of each of the 15 networks meet with coaches and facilitators for two hours every two weeks, developing shared performance indicators, discussing their progress, and learning from and supporting each other. An article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review highlighted Strive as a model worth emulating, with its centralized infrastructure, dedicated staff, structured processes, and close relationships with school personnel and parents.2

Affirmed by student test results, improved parent involvement, stronger teacher-administrator relationships, and wraparound services provided by the community schools—which are now planned for every school in the district—Cincinnati's example clearly deserves much greater attention from struggling districts. Central to Cincinnati's success has been what stakeholders there recognize as a strong degree of trust between school administrators and the teachers' union. It is no accident that Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan and the city's teachers respect each other. Ronan spent her entire career in Cincinnati, beginning as a middle school math and science teacher in 1976. Later she became an elementary school principal and climbed the administrative ladder while forming strong relationships along the way. Julie Sellers, the Cincinnati federation president, says, "[Ronan] probably knows more teachers than any superintendent. I think it has been beneficial for her to get buy-in. Teachers feel comfortable talking to her."3

Greg Anrig is the vice president of policy and programs at the Century Foundation, where he directs projects on public policy as well as the foundation's fellows. He is the author of  Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools (2013) and The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing (2007). Previously, he was a staff writer and Washington correspondent for Money magazine.

*For more on peer review, see "Taking the Lead," in the Fall 2008 issue of American Educator.

For more on the Cincinnati Public Schools, see "From the Ground Up," in the Summer 2009 issue of American Educator.


1. Javier C. Hernandez, "Mayoral Candidates See Cincinnati as a Model for New York Schools," New York Times, August 11, 2013.

2. John Kania and Mark Kramer, "Collective Impact," Stanford Social Innovation Review 9, no. 1 (Winter 2011).

3. Alyson Klein, "Veteran Educator Turns Around Cincinnati Schools," Education Week, February 6, 2013.

Reprinted from American Educator, Winter 2013–2014

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American Educator, Winter 2013-2014