It’s not little and it’s not red, but the schoolhouse remains the center of Cincinnati Public Schools’ neighborhoods. The schools are where students and residents alike have access to free health care, civic programs, and mentoring provided through partnerships with social service agencies.
These partnerships have transformed schools into Community Learning Centers and are central to the district’s nearly completed $1 billion construction project, Superintendent Mary Ronan says.
A CLC is a school that serves as a community hub, using school space—during and after school, and on weekends year-round—to provide academic support, health resources, social services, arts programming and civic and cultural opportunities to students, their families, and the community. And Cincinnati recently won a national award from the National Coalition for Community Schools for its CLCs.
The U.S. Department of Education promotes the CLC model—particularly for high-poverty and low-performing schools—by issuing grants through its 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.
Cincinnati Public Schools receives funding from the United Way, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and the Haile/US Bank Foundation to employ full-time resource coordinators in school buildings. These funds, combined with district Title I dollars, have expanded this model to 36 of 55 Cincinnati Public Schools.
Cincinnati Public Schools
- Superintendent: Mary Ronan
- Schools: 55
- Students: 33,700
- Staff and faculty: 4,500
- Per child expenditure: $14,067
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: ~70%
- Dropout Rate: 66%, Class of 2012
- Website: www.cps-k12.org
Ronan says CLCs provide services and programs that significantly improve the lives of students and families in a district where 70 percent of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. She notes other benefits, including a boost in attendance from 88 percent in 1999-2000 to 95 percent in 2011-2012. The district’s graduation rate rose from 51 percent in 2000 to 66 percent in 2012.
Access to routine medical, dental, vision, and mental-health care has been a key strategy in the CLC initiative, Ronan says. “Now children don’t miss school to go to the doctor or counseling,” she says.
Cincinnati has become a national model, hosting visitors from around the country interested in implementing community learning centers, Ronan says.
“I believe health-related, public-private and public-public partnerships could work anywhere because they are sustainable financially for both parties,” Ronan says. “The district provides the space and utilities for free, the hospital provides the staff, and they can bill insurance plus do outreach to families and the community.”
With input from school staff, parents, and residents, the district’s 2002 Facilities Master Plan led to 34 new and 16 renovated buildings, all of which feature technological, educational, and environmental advancements. Another three schools not included in the Facilities Master Plan are being renovated with outside grants. The district’s remaining two schools are virtual.
The CLC model was identified early in the construction planning by officials who had already seen the benefits of a handful of community service organizations working in some schools. A community engagement campaign—led by the Children’s Defense Fund and funded by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation—was established in district neighborhoods to gather the input that helped mold the final plan.
About half of Cincinnati Public Schools have health centers on site with extended hours for students, families and community residents. The clinics have private entrances. In areas with limited access to grocery stores, neighborhood food pantries provide evening and weekend meals for low-income students. A few schools have planted community gardens on site.
Other schools have partners that provide adult education such as GED and parenting classes and employment workshops. Many schools have extended-day programs, with after-school partners who offer youth development, academic enrichment, and technology training.
Other services range from universal breakfast offered to the district’s 33,000 students to businesses sending employees to tutor during the day and some businesses providing internships for select high-school students.
“When we began this process, we realized the school was the center of the neighborhood, which harkens back to the little red schoolhouse,” Ronan says. “So we involved the community and developed partnerships. That was the key. Ten years down the road we have buildings with services that we never imagined could be in our schools.”
Getting buy-in also ensured schools fit the look of the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, school staff, parents, and residents worked with architects so schools in residential areas are brick and have shingled, sloped roofs, while schools located in the city’s commercial areas have a corporate, industrial look.
The customized touches cost more than concrete buildings or flat roofs, but they were within budget, Ronan says. “In the long run, the changes kept up property values of surrounding homes, revitalized the communities, and increased support the district gets from taxpayers,” she adds.
While all CPS schools have services provided by outside organizations, 36 schools have their own resource coordinator whose full-time job is to find and keep partners that meet the specific needs and interests of students and families. They use data—objective and anecdotal—to determine which programs will support student achievement and engagement.
Some programs serve many schools in the district. Clever Crazes for Kids, a national wellness program that uses animated games and trivia to motivate students to be healthy, and the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, which helped implement the Learning is Cool campaign that rewards students for good grades.
In many cases, public and private organizations contributed materials or services or secured grants to finance improvements. Duke Energy, which operates in six states, donated solar cells that convert solar energy into electricity at Pleasant Ridge Montessori School. And the National Football League gave $500,000 in grants that paid for synthetic turf fields in the football stadiums at Withrow and Woodward high schools.
Some of the partnerships were mutually beneficial. For example, the Metropolitan Sewer District contributed $1.4 million to test “green” stormwater techniques, such as vegetative roofs on schools and pervious parking lots that absorb water and reduce runoff into sewers. The city parks department provided wood for school tables, cubbies, and bookcases from trees that were cut down because of disease or safety reasons.
Much of the construction was environmentally friendly, in part due to the school board’s 2007 resolution that embraced green design and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. Nearly half the district’s schools are LEED-certified and include features such as:
- Large windows to increase natural daylight and decrease electricity demands
- Fewer light fixtures to reduce heat
- Electronic controls and sensors
- Special ceiling fans to reduce energy consumption and increase comfort
Improved learning areas
The construction plan also allowed the district to equip every elementary school with extended learning areas. An ELA is an open space outfitted like a typical classroom and available for team teaching, group projects and pull-out activities without interrupting instruction going on in the four enclosed classrooms around it.
All Cincinnati Public Schools are air-conditioned, which increases instructional time, Ronan says.
“Now we don’t have to disrupt education because it’s 92 degrees the first week of school and too hot for children to concentrate,” Ronan says.
Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer in New Jersey.