Ohio School Boards Association / Summer 2017

More than 30 urban school district board members and administrators heard about efforts in Cincinnati to help schools become community learning centers.

Darlene Kamine, executive director of the Community Learning Center Institute in Cincinnati, spoke at the OSBA Urban School District Advisory Network’s winter meeting Feb. 14 in Columbus. Not only has the institute’s work been instrumental in improving Cincinnati City Schools, the concept potentially translates to many urban districts.

Kamine’s work began at the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio office in Cincinnati when the city was experiencing a population decline. Between 1970 and 1990, Cincinnati’s population shrank from 500,000 to 300,000. Part of this decline was due to a lack of trust in the schools, and it was clear change was needed.

Kamine and the schools went to the taxpayers for answers in what was an impressive and highly successful effort. Using grant money, teams were sent into communities to do fact-finding for the district. Remaining open to feedback and not fearing what the community might say was key to the project’s success. The goal was to learn what was needed and why it was needed.

The community had quite a bit to say. Residents clearly wanted the schools to be more than just a school; they wanted a hub for community activity. Their response was often nonacademic and aspirational in nature. People wanted plays, sports, music and literature.

If the board was going to be successful in bringing people back to the community and into the schools, it needed to incorporate these ideas. The feedback led to the creation of community learning centers, where medical, dental and mental health services, arts, sports and many other community interests are housed within the local schools.

The centers’ success was dependent on many factors. They must be self-sustaining and separate from district operations, offer services and activities reflecting community needs and build partnerships with community organizations and businesses. Developing and continuing those partnerships must be separate from the schools’ educational work.

An independent coordinator responsible for maintaining the partnerships is crucial for success, Kamine said. The position requires strong commitment and energy from someone who can handle criticism from others. A major advantage is that this position can be funded through Title I money. Other needed funding should come from the partnering organizations.

In addition, board support is imperative to success. The board must develop a policy and create a vision for the initiative to be successful. Also vital is allowing staff members to do their work and remain unencumbered by the community learning center’s work.

Cincinnati City board member Eve Bolton said success of the district’s community learning centers had everything to do with the passage of last November’s levy (63%) and the influx of over 1,000 new students in each of the last two years.

The Community Learning Center Institute is a wonderful resource for districts wishing to pursue implementing learning centers. School leaders at the Feb. 14 meeting overwhelmingly agreed that a site visit to Cincinnati City’s Oyler School would be beneficial. To help plan this event, please respond to the short survey in this newsletter.

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