The Cincinnati district has been reinventing itself for more than a decade. In 2000, it began an ambitious effort to revitalize its high schools, some of which weren’t graduating almost half of their senior classes.
With $3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it shrunk most of its high schools and gave each a focus. Some catered to students interested in health careers, while others restructured classes around performing arts. Students were also allowed to select their high school as long as they stayed in the district.
Once the graduation rate veered upward, the district turned its attention to 16 low-performing elementary schools. Thirteen were rated “Academic Emergency,” the lowest ranking from Ohio’s Department of Education. At some of the schools, less than 10 percent of students were proficient in reading or math.
Kicked off in 2008, the Elementary Initiative called for school audits, success plans for each child, and an intense focus on math and reading. It also established a summer program called the “Fifth Quarter” that extended learning time at struggling schools.
Learning how life works
Outside the Oyler School, a stately brick building in the heart of Lower Price Hill, young men crowd narrow streets, fiddling with an old car up on cinder blocks.
Most Lower Price Hill residents are descendants of white Appalachian coal miners who moved to Cincinnati in the 1940s for factory jobs. When those jobs dried up, poverty moved in. Today, about one-third of Oyler’s prekindergarten through grade 12 students are so poor that they qualify for food sent home by the school. Dental disease is rampant.
Last fall, a dental clinic opened at Oyler. It’s a crown jewel in the school’s Community Learning Center, which provides on-site health services, counseling, after school programs and child care.
The center embodies the district’s recognition that if its poorest students are to succeed, they cannot be hungry, sick or lack basic services.
“We don’t have families disappearing like we did,” Ronan said. “A student can see the nurse, get the medicine, or if they need to see a counseling session, they can get those, too. There’s more time for classroom instruction.”
No U.S. district has employed the on-site social services model on such a large scale. Cincinnati has opened centers in 36 schools and is routinely visited by school leaders from across the country.
Each center reflects community needs. At Oyler, the emphasis is on health care. In addition to the dental clinic, there’s an on-site pediatrician and a vision clinic, the nation’s first such facility in a school. The district provides the location, while the service providers foot operating costs for the centers. Most services are paid through Medicaid.
Volunteers, including dentists, play a significant role. Since opening last fall, Oyler’s dental clinic has treated about 1,000 patients. Many had never been to a dentist, said Paul Randolph, executive director of Growing Well, which coordinates health services at Oyler.
District officials concede that the centers haven’t always paved the way for an increase in test scores. Still, they say, they help Oyler’s students have an equal chance at success with their more affluent peers.
“Our kids are slowly seeing … the normal way that life is supposed to be,” said school resource coordinator Jami Harris. “You’re not supposed to be in pain. If you’re hungry, you’re supposed to … have food. We’re changing the culture.”
Investing in things that work
When Shawn Pearson sought GE Aviation co-workers to volunteer at Aiken High School, it didn’t take long to round up almost 70 people.
The Cincinnati-based company is heavily invested in the district. Its foundation has provided $25 million over the past eight years. It routinely sends an armada of mentors into the schools, including Aiken, where they have helped shape the school’s transition to project-based learning with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.