Modernizing the little red schoolhouse

Thursday, July 23, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The little red schoolhouses survive. Not just as a symbol, although they are that. Fancy subdivisions are named for them. Restaurants and day-care centers borrow their image of quality and wholesome values.

But the actual buildings are there, if you care to look. Square. Sturdy. Red brick with tall, narrow windows. They were built to last and designed for the way people lived.

Many still dot Ohio's back roads from Indian Hill to Lima to Toledo to Ashtabula, reborn as houses and gift shops and barns. They are from a time when people did not "move into a good school district." The buildings looked pretty much alike, giving at least the illusion that everybody was getting a fair and equal shot at a public education. Now nobody has any such illusions.

Illusion of equality

Public schools are a mess. Oh, not in Anderson Township or Blue Ash or West Chester or Mariemont. Public schooling for kids who live there is just fine. Remarkable, in fact.

It's our city schools that struggle.

Half of Cincinnati Public Schools' 48,000 students are failing. Buildings are in disrepair. Textbooks are old. Teachers use their own money to buy supplies. And sometimes they've been known to buy food and clothing for their students.

Most urban public school teachers fight an incredible daily battle to educate the kids in their classrooms. I wonder if they'll have the energy left to battle the bureaucrats and the politicians. I hope so. Because teachers will be the ones who will save our schools.

Teachers like Pauline Ach, who grabbed hold of a new Ohio law to start a school. Her Oak Tree Montessori school is downtown in the Anna Louise Inn at 300 Lytle Place. It has room for 72 students, kindergarten through the third grade with 18 more tuition-paying pre-schoolers. This is one of Ohio's first community or charter schools.

The law, passed last summer, allows individuals or groups to start new schools in urban districts. They start from scratch, without a reputation or contractual promises to teachers. Their promises are made to parents. And to the kids.

This young woman - 29 years old - has designed a school that notices the way we live.

People come downtown to work - 80,000 of them every day. They have kids they might want to bring on the commute. More time with their kids, or maybe just less time chauffeuring them in another direction. There's an early morning and a late afternoon program to accommodate the schedules of working parents.

The righty stuff

The facility is beautiful. There's a mirrored beige marble fireplace in one of the classrooms, the old parlor of the Inn. The colors are cheerful, the materials seem plentiful. But these are the mechanics.

The real success of this school will ride on the shoulders of the teachers, just as it always has. In addition to Pauline Ach, who is the director and founder, I met three of them. They have the right stuff, on paper and in person. They know what they're doing. And are allowed to do it.

If I had a kid who was the right age, I'd sock her in this little school right now. Today.

Those who blame teachers for the problems of our public schools should spend some time at the front door of most American urban schools to meet the students who arrive in the morning. I believe they would see that the problem is not parents who have lost control of their schools, but parents who have lost control of their children.

And those who still have control of their children often feel as though they have lost control of their children's education. Teachers like Pauline Ach can give it back.

In a school designed for the way people live.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at