Puttin' Out the Bone

This School Experiment Worked -- and Changed the Law

Who says that to pass on culture, ideas, skills and information you should put kids in enclosed rooms and have academics talk at them? Yet that's what educational pedagogy usually is today, including in the best suburban and private schools: mass indoctrination using a one-size-fits-all paradigm. And thus was it always.

But in 1973, 100 rebel teenagers and their parents teamed up with five of us long-haired teachers who knew deep inside that this system was like making an Alaskan brown bear live in a red barn in Indiana. So together we hatched the City-Wide Learning Community.

Donald Waldrip, a bit of a rebel himself out of Dallas, had just become superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools. He took a liking to us and told us to do our thing, which was launch Cincinnati's first magnet school. That same year another group formed the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

At City-Wide we stepped back and drew in some schooling breaths. There seemed to be a lot of social studies going on downtown at City Hall and the Hamilton County Courthouse.

So what if we regularly took our high school students to council meetings and trials and talked to judges and mayors?

We noticed plenty of culture going on over at the Art Museum, so we spent a lot of time walking those rich halls and others at the Contemporary Arts Center. We even had a black belt in Tang Soo Do, a junior in the school, teach physical education to students.

One time we went totally nuts. We learned about ordinances, statutes and laws by getting one passed ourselves, as a class.

We called the endeavor "Government in Action." It met all afternoon on Wednesdays for a quarter. The time was the late 1970s, and stores and restaurants around Hughes High School, our home base, regularly denied teenagers entrance or restricted their numbers, something the students lamented on the first day of this class.

"Can they do that legally?" someone asked. "They don't do that to adults."

"I don't know," I answered.

I saw my job as staying out of their way as they struggled to make a difference in their community — uh, I mean, to get their required government credit.

"Why don't we make that this class?" a student in the back shouted. "Why don't we try to get a law passed banning merchants from treating teenagers different from adults?"

Everybody looked at me.

"OK," is all I said.

Before the 3 p.m. bell rang, the blackboard was filled with strategy and chronological steps. A meeting with a private attorney, another with the city solicitor, one with City Councilman Jerry Springer to see if he would be their sponsor, the development of a lobbying plan, the guts of a press strategy, a research team to crunch adjudication data from juvenile court and assignments for every student to try to win a new statute for Cincinnati's kids, equalizing their rights in institutions of public accommodation.

Several weeks, in a public hearing of city council, the students went head to head with a public relations suit from United Dairy Farmers. This thing started getting front-page billing as a David-and-Goliath throwdown.

The quarter ended in a climax in council chambers on a hot spring afternoon. Working with Springer, the students found their five votes, but Councilman David Mann was waffling.

"Get over to him," Springer barked to one of my students as he crouched near Springer's council desk. "He's got to be with us." Off he went — a 16-year-old to do a man's job.

When Webster Posey, the clerk of council, called the roll, we had it on a 5-to-4 vote. The students were admonished by the mayor — I think it was Jim Luken — for cheering upward to the crystal chandeliers.

When we debriefed the experience the next Wednesday in class, the final one of the quarter, everyone in the room knew we had made learning what it was meant to be: natural and provocative. Long before the end of our experiential learning project, the students stopped thinking of this as a public school class. It was life. It was stimulating. And the inner workings of a legislative body were permanently imprinted.

As years passed, City-Wide students beat back the first attempt at a youth curfew and exposed a stunning level of cheating on academic tests within the Cincinnati Public Schools by working with a reporter at The Cincinnati Post. Several years later they worked with other Post reporters to name and describe teenage gangs that were spawning in Cincinnati. With guidance from a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, they uncovered the illegal abuse of nitrous oxide that killed one of their classmate's brothers.

This was a school that said learning is meant to be active, that authorities on a subject are those who do live and practice it in life, that school rules should be set with involvement of the ruled and that rebelliousness is natural and acceptable.

These wonderful kids — some are now middle-aged adults since City-Wide's run was from 1973 to 1989 — are holding their first all-school reunion Labor Day weekend at a venue near Hughes. If you were a member of the City-Wide Learning Community or if you know someone who was, the contact person is Tom Leamond at [email protected].

As you look at the most innovative schooling models, and often the most successful, the lessons of our early experiment and others like it around the country have made their way to main street practice. Learning by doing, teaching across the curriculum and team instruction are respected tools with some.

I'm proud to have been part of it.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.

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