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Opinion

To improve schools, stop treating them like businesses

There’s no question that the push for standards and accountability is critical to progress in our worst-performing schools. But in the barrage of bottom-line-focused reform, we are losing sight of the actual students who make up a failing or flourishing school.

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Last school year, I spent time reporting for a book, “Inside School Turnarounds,” on the long-term approaches as well as in-the-moment challenges of fixing some of the worst schools in the country. One school – the Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati – was named a 2010 Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education this September. It has gone from “academic emergency” to “excellent,” Ohio’s highest rating. Graduation rates have risen from 25 percent to 95 percent, and test scores have soared so that nearly 95 percent of students are passing the state’s high school graduation tests in nearly every subject.

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What makes the turnaround noteworthy is that it took nearly a decade. This work is not magic. Principal Anthony Smith did it by building relationships, going door to door in the community asking for residents’ support. He also didn’t fire any teachers, but sat down with each one to hear how he or she could do better. He has rebuilt the school culture, surrounding students with adults, role models, and support. He has woven study time into after-school sports programs. He serves breakfast and lunch and wants to add dinner.

Mr. Smith has partnered with regional communications company Cincinnati Bell. Students with strong GPAs get cellphones and laptops plus their homes wired for Internet access. He’s also built a tutoring program with the company in which Bell employees tutor students on company time. Sure, this has helped with test scores, but it has also fostered relationships between students and adults. One pregnant teen who went into labor called her tutor first. Cincinnati Bell chief executive officer Jack Cassidy is so involved that every Taft student has his cellphone number. And, yes, kids call.

It's not about formulas – it's about the kids

Smith wasn’t looking to please policymakers or simply meet high-stakes testing goals. “My covenant was with the community, not necessarily the board of education,” he told me. He is not “bringing to scale” a turnaround model or clever education idea. He is simply taking care of his kids. The test scores followed.

When you talk with students about school turnaround, you realize how much this is about them – not just the school’s data points. What changes their paths isn’t a formula or a grueling push for a better profile. It’s a connection, a context, a caring.

Last December, I gathered with students at Hartford (Conn.) Public High School. It’s beena failing school (less than two-thirds who started made it to graduation) that in 2008 was split into four smaller academies as part of a new turnaround effort.

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