Saturday, June 24, 2000

A hope for revival at Sands

        Gary Browning can see the future. He can also see the past. These are handy talents for a man about to recreate the past at Sands Montessori, a Cincinnati Public School in the West End.

        He is an educator who has been gone from the district for five years, but Sands' glory days were always in his memory. He remembers the 1980s, when international delegations of educators toured the award-winning school, hoping to recreate its magic on the other side of the world.

        He remembers Sands' Suzuki violin students playing at City Hall, awing city leaders. He remembers parent conferences at which 8-year-olds ran the show, rotating their parents through learning stations and explaining Montessori methods and materials. He remembers black students and white students learning together, parents from Hyde Park and Over-the-Rhine standing side-by-side in line to get their kids into the popular magnet school.

Stepping up

        For seven years, he watched it all from room 308. He was a legendary math teacher whose name still brings tears to parents' eyes. They say Mr. Browning changed kids' lives.

        Now, after five years as an administrator in Forest Hills School District, he is going home. Aug. 1 he becomes the principal at Sands.

        It is a day the school district — and the city — should celebrate. Gary Browning is a franchise principal. And he's coming back to coach the home team.

        He knows there is tremendous work to be done. Despite the best efforts of hard-working staff, Sands has lost its luster. A change to a “quadrant system” for enrollment cost Sands some of its racial and economic balance. Enrollment dropped, which cost Sands per-pupil funding. Parent participation dropped, which cost Sands more than anyone can calculate.

Electric ideas
        Gary Browning is determined to get it all back. He knows what Sands was and what it can be. He has met with Sands parents, is drafting letters to staff, has made contact with business leaders, is renewing relationships with district administrators. If ideas were electric, he would light up a room.

        He supports a proposed plan to move Sands from its Poplar Street location to the O'Bryonville site of the Academy of World Languages. It will give Sands space to boost enrollment, a needed outdoor education component and a strategic location. He wants closer ties to nearby Xavier University, one of the nation's premier Montessori training sites. He wants stronger business partnerships. He wants Latin in the sixth-grade curriculum. He wants a revitalized staff, and enthusiastic new hires. And he wants the autonomy to make Sands the the jewel in the crown of public education that it once was.

        In the past, Cincinnati Public Schools has had a habit of intentionally undercutting its stars. Schools and staff members that shined brightly were dimmed so as not to cast shadows on the rest. So shameful, when they could have been beacons.

        Now one bright light is back. Gary Browning is an example of the dozens of educators who left Cincinnati Public Schools regretfully, who never stopped believing in the district, or loving its children.

        His return is no small blessing. If district administrators are wise, they'll herald his coming, heed his ideas, and then simply stand out of his way.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202, or e-mail her at