Portfolio management in the suburbs

Few school systems have embraced a crisis of opportunity quite like the school system in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Just five years ago, when the economy collapsed on everyone, the Reynoldsburg district was cutting deep into its staff and establishing buffers such as a $500 pay-to-play activity fee on families. Exasperated parents fled to neighboring districts and voters repeatedly rejected the district’s many levy requests. Pupil enrollment eventually fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and once crowded schools found themselves with extra space.

But while other suburban school districts succumbed to hand-wringing at such moments of despair, Reynoldsburg responded with innovation. It slashed central office staff and sent more resources to individual schools, empowering principals with key decision-making authority. It developed “themes” at schools with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and it established more charter schools and enhanced school choice throughout the district. Most unusually, it bartered with a community college, a hospital, a preschool, and a dance company to utilize its extra space in ways that benefitted its own students.

But perhaps most important, write Ellen Belcher and Terry Ryan in their informative profile of the district for the Fordham Institute, Limitless, Education, the Reynoldsburg Way, is the approach the 6,300-student district has taken to school leadership and administration—that of portfolio management. Principals have the authority to design unique academic programs, and they get to make the calls and employ the people that are the right fit for their schools. The superintendent acts as portfolio manager, adding and enhancing programs that work and dropping those that don’t.

While large urban districts such as Denver, New York, and New Orleans get attention for the portfolio strategies they have developed, Reynoldsburg has emerged as a sleeper in the movement and a leader among suburban districts that have tried the approach. Paul Hill, who has analyzed portfolio districts for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, told Belcher and Ryan that Reynoldsburg “is the leader in a new trend—innovative suburban districts taking advantage of all the talent available in a metro area, but avoiding big-city gridlock.”

There’s a reason such an approach has caught on with reform-minded districts: it’s attractive to families. Parents are not a monolithic bunch, and districts such as New York and Baltimore especially have created networks of autonomous and programmatically diverse schools because they have recognized that schools can’t be all things to all children. But in a time of tight budgets, that means that school leaders have to make trade-offs. What’s attractive to families and teachers at one school is unattractive at another. Reynoldsburg may have only one high school, but that school is organized around four very different academies—one a STEM school, another focused on art and design; another immersed in business, leadership, and law, and still another organized around health science and human services.

It’s a credit—and a leap of faith—to the school board in Reynoldsburg to empower its superintendent to pursue such a strategy. It got nowhere by asking voters to ante up for a school system that was driving away families. Now, after the district has transformed the way it delivers a public education, it has reversed its enrollment slide and this year attracted 180 students from neighboring districts via open enrollment. And the state has rated Reynoldsburg “Excellent with Distinction.”

How it got there is the subject of the feature written by Belcher, a former editorial page editor for the Dayton Daily News, and Ryan, Fordham’s vice president for Ohio programs and policy. They take the reader on a candid tour of many of the district’s fourteen schools and reveal some complications that ought to be expected. But most importantly, the pair has given us an excellent case study for the portfolio approach, writ small.

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