The new Riverview East Academy on Kellogg Avenue is unusual — three large squares atop stilts that raise the building above the 100-year flood level.
But what's going on inside is even more astounding. Educators, parents and the community, including local social service agencies and businesses, are creating a new kind of school — a community learning center — for the East End.
"We're not just building a new school, we're building a better program of academics," says Principal Melody Dacey, a retired Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) administrator who had been brought back into service to help merge McKinley and Linwood elementary schools in the new community learning center.
Housed in a building from 1876, McKinley was recommended for closing. But CPS' implementation of the community learning center program led McKinley's students to Riverview East, which opened last week, instead of being transferred to a school in another neighborhood.
Community learning centers are buildings designed by the community as shared-use facilities to accommodate various programs and services along with traditional schooling (see "East Beginning," issue of Feb. 4-10, 2004).
At home with the police
Dacey says the new building is just part of the story. The former McKinley Elementary was one of three CPS schools that reached program targets enabling Riverview East to renew a federal Reading First grant. In the morning, children have a 90-minute period of reading.
"My real responsibility is academic achievement," Dacey says. "What really works in here is our partnership with Mount St. Joseph College. Students from the Mount are in an advanced program where they teach along with our teachers. They're interns. The kids get so much more individualized attention. It's so powerful."
Another partnership Dacey is excited about is with the Cincinnati Police Department.
"It's a very exciting new concept," she says. "We don't want it to just be a school resource officer's office. It's a community policing center, where they're part of us. Cincinnati Public and the Cincinnati Police want to change things in this community, especially for the young people. We can't keep what we've been doing. We have to do something new."
Just as the school has a purpose different from traditional schools, so does the police facility within it.
"They are not here to catch anybody," Dacey says. "They're only here to interact with us. They're going to be with us and share our home. They're here to serve this community in whatever way this community starts to develop its ideas. If the kids need something anti-gang, they'll develop that. It could be a day program, it could be a night program."
Although Lt. Tim Sabransky of CPD, who was the lead for this project, is no longer involved, he's still excited about the opportunity it offers for police to interact with the kids and the community.
"Throughout the process, the community response to our presence was amazing," he says. "We always felt welcome. We always felt like they wanted us to be a part of it. That was a really nice response from the community, to really want us in their school. People don't always look at the police favorably somewhere. They say, 'I wonder what's wrong,' as opposed to, 'This is great. We're going to have a visible police presence. Police are our friends, our neighbors.'
"That's the whole idea. Connecting with the students is (happening) because we have a school resource officer there, and connecting with the community is after school hours. The idea for having a space there for the police department was for us to have a visible presence in the community."
The facility itself will also allow police to conduct educational outreach.
"Our goal, our hope is that we can take some of our programs from our centralized location and bring it out to the community," Sabransky says. "Our Citizens Police Academy runs every Wednesday for X number of weeks. People come to the Police Academy. Everything's set up there to do presentations. All that stuff should be available at Riverview East so all we have to do is send our instructors out there and let the community come into the facility."
Dacey repeats the community involvement refrain whenever talking about the school. Showing off the stage, the back of which opens into a music room with a practice room behind, she says she can see a band or choir practicing in the "music complex."
Letting the community decide
"I can see all kind of things, but I want them to tell us," Dacey says. "I think that another thing we do wrong, those of us who serve the public: We tell them all the time what they want. We have to listen to what they want. That's what else that was different about this school. The public engagement process was very long. We had hundreds of people involved at thousands of meetings. I know, because I was there."
That process led to the involvement of social service agencies. Seven Hills Neighborhood House connects community members with an array of resources ranging from housing and assistance with heating bills to youth employment and pregnancy prevention. Cincinnati Children's Hospital has a psychiatric staff member on site to help educators, parents and other on-site agencies identify and coordinate mental health services for students and their families. Organizations receive office space in exchange for being available to the community.
The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati has a large area for activities and coordinates the volunteers and paperwork associated with over 25 after school programs. Dance, karate, scouting and photography are just a few of the clubs that keep the facility open until 6 p.m. weeknights.
"We try to set the appropriate boundaries and expectations but also give young people plenty of creative activities where they can have a constructive use of time after school," says Rebecca Kelley, executive director of community services. "We believe in developing what we call positive social skills and behaviors. When young people have certain attributes in their lives — the influence of caring adults, a caring school climate that's encouraging and supportive of their commitment to learning, as well as opportunities for kids to make their own decisions — it helps them plan ahead and know how to make choices. Those skills can be developed after school in a positive way that ultimately impacts our society as a whole because we want the young people to be well rounded and committed back to their community."
A requirement for any child participating in a club is to receive one hour of tutoring. With 50 to 75 volunteer tutors in the building on any given day, the students have access to a variety of adults who frequently serve as mentors.
Empower MediaMarketing has 40 to 50 employees involved with Riverview East and was recognized as an "Outstanding Corporate Partner" by the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati. They began volunteering at McKinley School more than five years ago.
"They're flexible," says Jayme Madden, an account manager who recruits tutors at Empower. "I think it's helpful because they let us customize the program to what works for us, and that helps me recruit more people to become involved each year."
Bill Price, president of the company, credits Dacey, whom he calls "an off the Richter Scale principal," with their positive relationship.
"We're in awe of how well the Riverview School has progressed from McKinley to its current state and hope to be an important part of helping out as the school serves more and more people in the community," Price says.
Dacey says the school has a list of 350 items that need to be addressed, including getting flat-panel televisions and DVD/VCR players operational in every room. She's counting on community involvement to check off some parts of the list.
Her disappointed tone of voice, describing empty bookshelves in the library, quickly shifts to excitement.
"The librarian who retired is coming in," she says.
On Martin Luther King. Jr. Day 20 volunteers from Harland Financial Services - Intrieve Systems Group were expected on-site.
"They always do a volunteer project, their whole company, so they're coming and we're going to direct them where to put the books," Dacey says.
It's a wonderful end to the old ways, she says.
"It's the beginning, the beginning of seeing all the groundwork that we have laid come to fruition." ©