Government Strategies Group recently held a luncheon with the new Superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, Iranetta Wright and local government affairs, public policy and economic development leaders. CPS Board of Education President Ben Lindy introduced Wright, and said the board was looking for a superintendent who would put children first and who would focus not just on the academic achievement, but also on their social and emotional well-being. She was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the board. Before coming to Cincinnati, Wright was the Deputy Superintendent of Schools in Detroit Public Schools Community District and worked in Duval County Public Schools in Florida for over 25 years as a teacher, assistant principal, middle and high school principal, regional superintendent, and Chief of Schools. “I am not afraid” of the challenged CPS presents, she says.
Wright said that none of her accomplishments would have been possible in isolation and that it “took a village.” Students deserve everyone in the education system and community working together. She spoke repeatedly about meeting the needs of all students and discussed her experiences working in schools with plenty of resources compared to schools with little resources. Wright said that it is important to raise the bar for all students across the district. She pointed out the diversity in the district and the importance of looking at both ends of the spectrum to see where the needs are. She stated that CPS must ensure that every student has access to high quality education and materials. To improve student outcomes, CPS must start by looking at all students and then focus on individual sub-groups who are not seeing the same results and tailor the approach to them. She stated that “there is no such thing as a cookie cutter approach to anything, including public education.”
Wright stressed the need for ongoing community engagement t believes that the needs of all students in CPS will be met through listening to students and staff in the schools and people in the community. She asked those in attendance at the luncheon to continue engaging with the community and share their knowledge and experience with CPS, noting that schools are not isolated places. She stated that “CPS is destined to be a world class educational system not just in Ohio, but across the country” but that it will take community engagement.
Wright and the Board learned a lot through their listening sessions. One priority is ensuring that every student has a post-graduation plan, whether that means attending college, enlisting in the military, or entering the workforce. Wright has been focused on setting up programs in schools that help prepare students and that align with the needs of the larger community. Many of these programs entail partnerships with “informal education providers” that give students the skills and experiences they will need after they graduate.
Wright plans to use community partnerships beyond listening sessions. Wright described a Cultural Passport Program she piloted in Detroit: this partnership between the district and art organizations allowed students to have three arts and culture experiences each year to diversity students’ experiences. In Cincinnati, she wants to ensure that students leave elementary school with the opportunity see the city beyond their neighborhood. The goal is to empower students to be able to go anywhere they want after graduation and choose to give their time and talents back to Cincinnati.
Another takeaway of the listening sessions is that families are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on student’s mental health. Wright identified two challenges for CPS: social/emotional and academic. She said that change in the former will come by changing the culture in schools. Many students have experienced discontinuity because of the pandemic, so Wright has focused on re-engaging children in school and teaching them what it means to be back in a classroom and how to build relationships.
She also pointed out that students are not the only ones who have been impacted by the pandemic. Teacher retention is a growing issue in Ohio. In CPS, many teachers are leaving schools not because of the pay, but because they are burned out. Wright said that CPS needs to be responsive to the mental health needs of teachers, highlighting quiet room spaces for students and teachers in Rees E. Price Academy and Evanston Academy that could be replicated across the district. Wright’s goal for the next academic year is to begin with 100% of teachers in front of students without any vacancies. To achieve this, CPS must focus on both recruitment and retention. On the recruitment side, the district will look outside of Cincinnati and invest in programs with surrounding colleges and universities. On the retention side, she said that it is important to honor the work of teachers, especially during the pandemic. She is focusing on creating a culture where teachers feel valued and want to come to work.
Another challenge area is academics. When asked about state testing, Wright voiced that while she thinks that students are tested too often, the district has to adapt to meet with the state requirements and prepare students and teachers to perform well. On the other hand, there is much work to be done at the state level to create a “happy medium” between testing and fostering a love of learning. Wright says that CPS must learn the system and make sure that teachers understand it, while also pushing for change at the state level.
One of the many lessons from the pandemic was the importance of technology in and out of the classroom. Wright pointed to CPS’ efforts to secure devices and internet connectivity for all students. She said that it is important that students engage with technology and understand how to use it, but acknowledged that there is a long way to go for full, reliable connectivity in every neighborhood. When asked about her stance on remote learning, Wright believes that its success depends on many factors, including the student’s learning style and home support. Regardless, it is important to meet students where they are and offer different opportunities.
By: Morgan Gehrlich
Morgan Gehrlich is a rising junior at Xavier University in the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public Program interning with Government Strategies Group.