Not Just Classrooms

Despite problems with declining student enrollment and sluggish test scores, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is garnering praise from at least one prominent education group. The Coalition for Commu

Despite problems with declining student enrollment and sluggish test scores, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is garnering praise from at least one prominent education group.

The Coalition for Community Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of more than 170 national, state and local organizations, is crediting CPS for its efforts at involving the public in creating "community learning centers" at its schools.

Calling Cincinnati a "national model" for other schools, the coalition recently singled out CPS as one of 11 districts nationwide that has successfully transitioned the community learning center concept from pilot program phase to a large-scale, district-wide education reform strategy.

In a report entitled "Growing Community Schools: The Role of Cross-boundary Leadership," the coalition lauded CPS for involving parents, businesses and others in deciding what each school should include.

CPS is creating the community learning centers as part of its $985 million plan to renovate or rebuild virtually all of its schools during the next decade, a project that already has begun (see "Growing Roots and Wings," issue of March 24-30, 2004).

Community learning centers are buildings designed with input from residents and other stakeholders as shared-use facilities to accommodate various programs and services. They typically remain open after the traditional school day and can offer amenities ranging from mentoring programs and reading assistance to pregnancy prevention classes and psychiatric help, depending on what the local neighborhood requests.

For example, the coalition's report cited the creation of the first neighborhood Montessori school in the Cincinnati district at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School. Additionally, the facility is the first school building in Ohio to be registered with the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the national standard for sustainable design.

Also winning the coalition's praise is the learning center at Winton Hills Academy, where more than 200 children received dental care last year.

The center also provides pharmacy and primary healthcare services for students and the entire neighborhood. Winton Hills offers year-round, after-school programming through the assistance of local churches and the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.

The newest learning center is Riverview East Academy, on Kellogg Avenue in the East End, which opened in January. It includes a community policing center designed to help youth become more comfortable interacting with officers. Dance, karate, scouting and photography classes also are offered after the normal school day.

Other planned learning centers include the Fairview German Language School, a German bilingual magnet school slated to open next year in Clifton and Oyler School in Lower Price Hill, which will include a focus on bringing students who dropped out back to school with a new online degree program. It should open by 2009, district officials said.

So far CPS has opened nine community learning centers at its schools, and 15 more are in the works. Currently in the third year of a 10-year effort, about 60 centers are planned overall.

District staff and Xavier University's Community Building Institute provide technical support to neighborhood groups so they can apply for foundation funding to support the services.

Advocates of the learning center approach say it ultimately could reduce the need for other social service agency funding.

"The health of our schools and the health of our communities are inextricably linked," CPS Superintendent Rosa Blackwell told the Coalition for Community Schools. "This movement understands that both must succeed for either to succeed."

Area groups involved in learning center partnerships include Knowledge Works Foundation, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the YMCA, Cincinnati Youth Collaborative and the Boys and Girls Club.

Cincinnati isn't alone in its efforts. Other districts using the approach include Chicago; San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; Evansville, Ind.; Lincoln, Neb.; and St. Paul, Minn.

CPS serves about 39,000 students. Seventy-one percent are African-American, 23 percent are white and nearly 65 percent qualify under federal poverty guidelines.

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