News: East Beginning

East End will be among the first in revolutionary new school design at Cincinnati Public Schools

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Jymi Bolden

Active in planning Cincinnati's "alpha school" are (L-R) Dee Fricker, Jay Parks, Darlene Kamine, Melody Dacey, John Van Volkenburgh and Betty Zink.

Like students back from summer vacation, they pair off and lag behind, talking excitedly about the new school, about holiday parties, about the numbing January cold.

But these aren't students, they're parents and principals and community activists congregating for a photo in front of a pile of dirt and winter slush. Someone compares the effort to trying to herd cats.

"Believe me, that's what this project's been about all along," says community development consultant John Van Volkenburgh.

The dirt piles mark where a new East End community school will soon rise. These people and many more have worked for six years to bring to fruition not just a new school but a new kind of school — a community learning center.

Thanks to the passage of a tax levy last year, every school in the Cincinnati Public School (CPS) will be rebuilt or renovated into a community learning center over the next 10 years.

The East End Community School is what school board member John Gilligan calls an "alpha school," a prototype for community learning centers. CPS plans to design every school with community input and the creation of partnerships.

Keeping the kids near
"This is a new concept to people of this area," Gilligan says. "It's taken a while to get the word around about it.

(It) requires that people learn to do things differently than they've been doing for the last 30 or 40 years."

The new centers — based on a New York program that caught Gilligan's eye — combine schools with social service organizations to create facilities that will remain open six or seven days a week, up to 17 hours a day, depending on the needs and desires of the community.

Though there are about 8,000 community learning centers nationwide, Cincinnati is unique in implementing them district-wide and integrating the programming with the actual design of each new or rebuilt structure, according to Darlene Kamine, a consultant guiding the process.

In 1997 the CPS Facilities Master Plan called for the closure of all schools in the East End. Dee Fricker, parent chair of McKinley Elementary School's governing body, started a conversation with parents, residents, planners and economic developers. They decided that, first and foremost, they wanted a school that would graduate their children.

"In order to raise graduation rates, we know we need to retain them in the neighborhood and bring the mainstream back to them," Fricker says.

The new school will serve students from kindergarten through high school.

"We expect graduation rates to change drastically because our students are very adamant about not going to school outside of their neighborhood — the students and the parents, I should say," says Melody Dacey, principal of McKinley. "I think part of the Appalachian culture is to be close to family and friends and in what they perceive to be a safe environment."

Many hope the school will help break cycles of teen pregnancy and poverty. The new school will merge McKinley, where 90 percent of about 175 pupils are Appalachian, and Linwood Fundamental Academy, a magnet school whose 265 kindergarten through eighth-grade pupils are 76 percent African-American. Most students at both schools receive free or reduced lunches. Construction began Jan. 5 and is scheduled to be completed in 18 months.

Jay Parks, principal of Linwood, hopes that in addition to helping students finish high school, the new school will "attract a lot of people back to the new building that have gone to private or charter schools."

McKinley, the oldest operating school in CPS, was built 100 years after the American Revolution started; its new addition was built in 1917.

The new school will sit on Turkey Ridge Playfield, formerly known as Pendleton Park, on Kelloff Avenue.

'They created it'
One of the first things the community did was recruit partners for the school.

Using the new school 17 hours a day, 365 days a year makes greater use of the facility, "not duplicating services but enhancing various services, taking advantage of strengths in community and making them stronger," Van Volkenburgh says.

The new school will house a branch of the YMCA, which will run some athletic, day care and after-school programs.

A community-oriented policing office will enable students to interact with officers in a positive way. Two officers regularly visit McKinley, according to Carol Conlan, who has taught there 14 years.

"I can tell you, it makes a huge difference," she says.

There will also be a community health center, according to Tom Flaherty, a retired school board member who has volunteered in planning the new school

"Children don't have to leave school to go to the clinic," he says. "They can walk down the corridor."

He hopes to also draw dental, psychological and urgent care services.

Organizers also want to create artist-in-residence programs. Visiting artists would enhance arts programs, in exchange for studio space. The Museum Center has agreed to partner with the school, so display cases will be built in corridors.

Emilio Thomas Fernandez of SFA Architects elevated the building 17 feet above grade to avoid the 100-year flood plain. The underbelly of the school essentially becomes a fifth façade, with parking and a blacktop playground underneath.

Fernandez broke the design into three distinct areas. Two learning pods connect to a community building through closed walkways. The community area houses some of the partners involved in the project, including the YMCA and health clinic, as well as common spaces.

A double-sided stage opens on one side to a cafetorium, a combination cafeteria and auditorium, and on the other to a theater seating about 40. The front façade, with as many windows as the school could afford, faces the river that has influenced so much of the local culture.

"The community did a wonderful job of identifying partners," Fernandez says.

"The secret is community engagement, having a goal and never giving up," Conlan says. "You need to include everybody right from the beginning — then they have buy-in. When parents have buy-in, they feel totally different. They'll spend more time working for it, they'll understand it better, they'll accept changes. They've been a part of creating it." ©

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