Counseling, Health Care And Laundry Transformed Cincinnati Schools. Could It Work In Pittsburgh?

Dec 14, 2017

Jayda Rogers is a three-sport athlete who earns As and Bs in her classes at Shroder High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. The senior wants to go to college to study public affairs and eventually start her own nonprofit organization.

Rogers and the principal of her school agree she wasn't always on this track. They said she had some issues when she first started attending Shroder as a 7th grader. She was often in detention or in school suspension for behavioral issues like talking back or violating the dress code.

“There was a lot of people that had the label on me like, ‘oh she has the behavioral problem because she was always in (in school suspension)’. And then there was one day that I came to the realization that that’s not something I want to be labeled as,” she said.

So Rogers, with the help of her school community, started to get to the root of the problem.

When Rogers was 9 her grandfather died. A year later, her grandmother had a massive heart attack in front of her and also died.

“At the time, I didn’t recognize that I was struggling with it,” she said. “I just knew I had bad behavior.”

A school psychologist helped Rogers determine that the trauma she experienced was influencing her behavior. She met with that counselor regularly.

“There were a lot of teachers who never gave up on me,” she said.

The principal of her school, Larry Williams, said many of his students have experienced trauma and some are dealing with homelessness, which can make it harder for them to learn when they get to school.

“You may have kids living in cars and living in shelters, but they’re coming to school every day,” he said. “So really giving them some coping skills to deal with … I’m still able to come to school and achieve.”

Cincinnati is a nationally recognized as a model for restructuring schools and working with partners to meet the needs of students and community members. The district started using a model called Community Learning Centers – also known as community schools – in the early 2000s, with the goal of eliminating barriers to learning, like the ones Rogers faced.

The system works by appointing one person at every school to coordinate existing service providers working both in the school and after hours—and to also leverage new services. At Shroder, students can do their laundry at school and walk across the street during the day to go to the health clinic.

It’s a model that Pittsburgh Public Schools endeavors to emulate. This year, the district designated five schools as community schools.

What Pittsburgh Wants

In 2014, 30 representatives of Pittsburgh went to a national community schools conference in Cincinnati. There had been conversations about bringing the model to the city schools for years, but for many — including board member Sylvia Wilson — that visit was the tipping point.

“We already have a lot of pieces in our schools that could be considered on the way to community schools,” she said. “Some more involved than others. So for me, I saw it as an easy project that we could just step up, some pieces needed to be worked on, but it wasn’t a pipe dream for us.”

The school board approved a policy in July 2016 to formalize the district's commitment to organizing existing partnerships with a focus on academics, enrichment, health and social services.

Two board members – Terry Kennedy and Lynda Wrenn – supported the idea but voted against the policy, citing concerns for sustainable funding. Wrenn said she was worried the policy could turn into an unfunded mandate.

But board member Moira Kaleida, who in 2015 ran on a platform that included community schools, said it's a step in the right direction.

“We have kids that are hungry, sick, dying out there. Are you willing to continue the status quo? Because that’s what we have right now,” she said at the July 27, 2016 meeting when the policy was approved.

First graders at Langley Elementary School meet after school during Mustang Club to practice math skills.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

District administrators and board members have made it clear that funding levels will be different for each school, because the needs of each school are different. So far, PPS has hired a district community schools coordinator, LouAnn Ross, and a site coordinator for Sheraden's Langley Elementary School, Lingaire Njie.

Njie started in August and said so far her job has revolved around figuring out what organizations are already working in the school and what unmet needs remain.

“Our children spend the vast majority of their day in a school building. I just do not believe you should wait until they go home or that someone else should deal with whatever issue it is. If it’s there and it’s in your school building, you should be addressing it there as well,” she said.

Both Njie's and Ross's positions were funded through the district’s general budget. But staff have said that the goal is to fund future positions with state or federal funding.

How Cincinnati Made It Work

Board member Sylvia Wilson said Pittsburgh learned a lot from the 2014 trip to Cincinnati. Mostly, they realized they couldn’t exactly replicate what that district was able to do. They could, however, scale back what the Ohio city did.

Cincinnati Public Schools was a pioneer of the community schools model. It started in early 2000s and was done in tandem with a $1 billion dollar capital investment to rebuild and renovate schools.

Families were leaving the district in droves and in 2000, just over half of students were graduating. Then voters were asked to approve a local bond issue to support a plan to rebuild schools with a promise of transforming and revitalizing neighborhoods.  

Now, there’s a point person in charge of that work at every single school. These site coordinators evaluate existing partnerships and engage more than 600 community and corporate partners to donate funds and programming to the schools.

This year, Cincinnati is again celebrating being the highest ranked urban school district in the state of Ohio. The district also gained 500 students and built two new schools – both major wins for an urban public school district.

That can be attributed to a number of recent initiatives, said Susan Bunte, assistant superintendent of schools. But she said it all started as a grassroots effort of educators who said their students had many barriers to learning that would typically be resolved outside of the classroom, such as problems with health or vision.

“A student can’t read if she can’t see the board,” said Bunte.

A dental clinic opened opened in Withrow High School in 2015. It is funded by the county health department.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

At Cincinnati's Withrow High School, the old choir room was renovated in 2015 and now houses four dentist’s chairs and a full clinic staff. Dentist Emily Hudephol said students can get everything they would at a regular clinic – fillings, extractions, replacement teeth – but that they don't have to take extra time off school or rely on a parent taking time off work.

“So the kid who was just there, we fixed two of his teeth, he’s all done now. And he’s probably come down for three or four 40-minute appointments to get all of his work completed. So it really doesn’t cut into their school day as much,” she said.

This is how Cincinnati started its model nearly 15 years ago. The basic concept was to make sure kids were healthy enough to learn.

Now, the district is pulling in more partners to prepare students for job opportunities and help them plan for after graduation.

In 2000, before the district embarked on this huge plan to reorganize and rebuild, just over half of students were graduating. Last year, that figure was up to 73 percent.

It is, though, still receiving a failing grade from the state when it comes to test scores — along with 80 percent of Ohio schools.

Many of the same problems that plague Cincinnati also plague Pittsburgh. Eighty percent of Cincinnati students are economically disadvantaged, compared to Pittsburgh’s 65 percent. Racial disparities persist when it comes to achievement in both cities.

How Does Pittsburgh Get There?

Sylvia Wilson said the model is not the silver bullet to the persistent issues in Pittsburgh schools. The district has no plan to launch a large campaign to rebuild schools.

For now, Pittsburgh is still in the evaluation phase of the pilot. They need to figure out what’s working and what’s not. The district’s community schools coordinator, LouAnn Ross, said a health or dental clinic could make sense in Pittsburgh schools, "if the community wants it.”

But district leaders agree that Pittsburgh is still many years and many millions of dollars away from what Cincinnati has developed.