Lynda Jackson is a southern lady with a sweet disarming drawl, but she's a steel magnolia when it comes to school improvement and demanding real results. Jackson is the superintendent of the school district in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and she's steering this very poor school district toward individualized learning plans for every student. She also is transforming Holmes High School into an "early college high school," with a goal of every student earning at least 15 college credits before graduation.
Meanwhile, over in Cincinnati and on both sides of the river, the Ascend Performance Institute is developing high-performing teams of principals and teacher leaders through intensive, accelerated sessions featuring best practices and case studies and taught by topnotch leaders in education, business and medicine. The template for this instruction was drawn from the Mayo Clinic model of integrated expertise and "putting the patient (students) first."
A pivotal catalyst for these efforts and countless others in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky is the Strive Partnership, described as a "backbone organization" of truly comprehensive community sweep, dedicated to improving student success. Strive has more than 300 partners, including the region's leading corporations, regional business associations, the Catholic schools, lots of foundations and nonprofits, early childhood advocates, and of course, the school districts and higher education systems.
I'm privileged this week to be part of a "Student Success Core Team" from Grand Rapids with the support of the Blandin Foundation, taking an immersion course on the Strive model and other education reform efforts in the region. The Strive example also is being studied by a working group of Twin Cities’ advocates for improving school outcomes.
As we sat down to hear their story, we were warned at once by Strive leader Jeff Edmondson (see his TED lecture here) not to get too worshipful of the Strive model. Although groups of school and nonprofit leaders are descending on Cincinnati regularly to learn about the six-year-old partnership, Edmondson said progress has been painful, slow, uneven and even "ugly." Lots of mistakes have been made, he said, and he encourages each region that tries to replicate Strive to build its own set of standards and goals and prescriptions, from the ground up.
But there is some truly impressive progress to consider. On 40 out of 53 benchmarks for educational success set by the partnership, mainly basic test scores in 4th and 8th grade and measures of college retention and graduation, schools in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky have improved since the baseline year of 2005-2006. And that's despite a severe recession and worsening poverty rates in a region that's been struggling for decades with a decline in its industrial economic base. In Covington, the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard benchmark of income status, is a staggering 90 percent.
Of all the many ways this Strive animal was described, I thought "Building a Cradle-to-Career Civic Infrastructure'' might have been the best. As developed here, the model consists of five goals: every child prepared for school, every child supported in and out of school, every child succeeding academically, every student enrolled in post-secondary study (college or instruction for a workforce credential) and every student graduating and entering a career.
"Strive gives air to good ideas and then helps implement them faster than they would be otherwise," said Leslie Maloney, a senior vice-president of a major foundation tied to a banking family, and a member of the Strive executive committee.
Almost everybody involved agrees that Strive's strength and its effectiveness so far has been drawn from good-faith buy-in and persistence by just about everybody with any kind of stake at all in the community, in every sector. The partners include corporate giants, the chambers of commerce and business moguls -- particularly Procter & Gamble, and nonprofits and funders such as the United Way and KnowledgeWorks, an operating foundation with a mission of school success and a sponsor of the Strive Partnership.
These partners are elites within the community. Grassroots support and commitment from more ordinary folks would be helpful to this "everybody in" philosophy, and we had the great fortune of listening to a guru on the theme of community vitality and how neighborhoods can be energized and empowered to improve themselves. Peter Block, a Cincinnatian and author of the book "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods,'' spoke to our group to start the day. Block said that big system reforms can be an elusive mirage and while they "can deliver some things, the schools can't raise a child. ... I spent decades on school reform (before realizing) that the question is, `How do we raise a child?'" I'd highly recommend checking out his book or the website linked above for elaboration.
More tomorrow, in the third and final installment from Cincinnati.