As of a few weeks ago, it seemed the classrooms and hallways of William H. Taft STEM Elementary School in Mount Auburn would be vacant come next school year.
Parents of about 330 students received a letter late last month informing them about the likelihood of closing Taft at the end of the academic year. Sent on Dec. 22 by Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan, the letter states parents should expect “enhancements that will affect where (his or her) child attends school next year” and implores parents to get a head start on exploring student transfer options.
Prior to the letter, Deputy Superintendent Laura Mitchell made an announcement to staff members that the school would be closing in June 2011, despite the lack of a formal vote by the Cincinnati Board of Education.
After numerous well-attended meetings with the Board of Education, however, parents and other fervent supporters of the school have helped catalyze a change of plans that will result in the preservation of south Uptown’s only elementary school, which serves Mount Auburn, Corryville and Clifton-University-Fairview Heights.
More than 50 parents and other supporters presented their arguments against closing the facility during a Jan. 10 meeting, during which the board directed that the final decision to close the school would be put on hold pending further study, according to CPS spokeswoman Janet Walsh.
Finally, at its Jan. 24 meeting, the Board of Education reversed course and decided to keep Taft open, based on the backlash.
“I’m grateful that the school board has made the decision to keep Taft Elementary open and I hope they are sincere in their statements about properly funding and promoting the school in the future,” says Nathan Lane, of the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO). “There is so much potential at the school, and I hope that we can build on the success of not only the past three years, but on the success that we had keeping the school open.”
The earlier letter was sent under the board’s direction in order to give parents and their children enough time to plan for the following school year in case Taft was shut down as a result of insufficient enrollment trends and lack of state funds to renovate the 52-year-old building, Walsh says.
Lane, whose daughter attends Taft, had called the letter a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” emphasizing its euphemistic double-speak.
“They phrased it as ‘a relocation of the student curriculum,’ ” Lane says. “They’re saying that the plan is an expansion of opportunity to other students within the district, however, none of the teachers at Taft are being guaranteed positions at either Hughes or Frederick Douglass, and so the plan isn’t actually a seamless relocation of the curriculum.”
Taft has roughly 20 teachers on staff, some of whom had already begun searching for employment opportunities at Frederick Douglass School in Walnut Hills and Hughes STEM High School in University Heights.
If Taft were to close, students in preschool through grade six would likely transfer to Frederick Douglass. Students in seventh and eighth grade would likely transfer to Hughes, where they could continue to participate in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program for which Taft is recognized.
As one of 10 STEM schools in Ohio, Taft Elementary has the potential of becoming a world-class school in the next year, according to Hershel Daniels Jr., who currently is a trustee on the Mount Auburn Community Council and has two grandchildren enrolled at Taft.
“Right now, Taft is the only school in the nation that acts as a feeder through a high school and onto college, but it’s yet to live up to its potential due to lack of investment,” Daniels says.
Although STEM schools are now emerging across the nation to help the United States rank higher among the nations in technological breakthroughs and scientific research, the programs oftentimes lack sufficient funding and must rely on both private investors and state programs to operate them.
Both Frederick Douglass and Hughes have already undergone renovation as part of CPS’ 10-year, $1.1 billion “master plan” to reconstruct or renovate every school in the district. The Facilities Master Plan was cooperatively developed by CPS and the Ohio School Facilities Commission, the state agency that directed a statewide campaign to upgrade all Ohio school buildings.
In 2003, a $480-million school-construction bond issue was approved by voters to help pay for the renovation projects, along with the help of limited funding provided by the state. But after seven years, schools in the last few phases of the master plan lack sufficient funds to be upgraded as originally planned — including Taft Elementary.
Taft was initially slated for an $8 million renovation, compared to Hughes’ $35 million renovation completed last fall. Despite big plans for Taft’s overhaul, Lane reports that it has been extremely minimal.
“New computers have been added, but the basic facility has not changed,” Lane says. “We were slated for new computers four years ago, but due to under-enrollment, we were pushed to the back-burner and as a result they put resources into schools that were working better than Taft at the time. Now, that pool of money is drying up and there’s not much left for Taft.”
Walsh confirms Lane’s statement that Taft’s renovation was pushed back to the plan’s last segment due to remarkably low enrollment trends when the plan was organized. She calls this final segment “the wish list.”
“If the state could provide more money, then we could renovate the school, but that hasn’t materialized,” Walsh says.
The board’s decision to delay its final decision on Taft Elementary’s closure allows time for Lane and like-minded supporters to explore other avenues of funding, including the possibility of partnerships with local businesses.
“We’re discussing taking the school into public-private partnerships, similar to what is occurring at Walnut Hills High School and the School for Creative and Performing Arts,” Lane says. “We’re looking at Procter and Gamble, University of Cincinnati, Christ Hospital, General Electric and other local businesses.”
He points out that building a new facility would cost tens of millions of dollars, but keeping the school operational at its current location wouldn’t cost nearly as much.
“We’re facing a huge deficit district-wide,” he adds, “and we’re getting caught in the dragnet of the entire district’s problems.”