Sunday, June 03, 2001

Strong schools, strong cities

Excellent education draws people, failure drives them away

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More than 20,000 people left Hamilton County in the urban exodus of the Nineties - yet plenty of families found reason to stay and even move in.

        Excellent schools helped draw people to a number of communities that grew between 1990 and 2000, despite population losses all around them, an Enquirer analysis shows.

        An examination of 2000 Census data and Ohio Department of Education school district ratings provides some of the hardest evidence yet of public education's influence on the region. Maintain good schools, and people will come; fail to upgrade schools, and people will leave, the data suggest.

[photo] Norwood Middle School: Room air conditioning is on in a third-floor classroom as a student enters. The district has struggled to reduce truancy, suspension and expulsion.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        While Hamilton County officials bemoan the only 10-year population loss among Tristate counties, the Enquirer analysis shows that

        • All 10 Hamilton County communities served by public schools with the state's highest academic rating remained stable or grew during the past decade. The number of school-aged children in most of these communities grew at double-digit rates.

        • Five of six communities served by schools with the state's lowest academic rating lost population. The largest of these places, the city of Cincinnati, lost 9 percent of its population, the 10th biggest loss of any major U.S. city.

        • Growing communities with high-performing schools remain overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent. Shrinking communities with poorly rated schools have large minority populations and tend to be poorer.

        • While Cincinnati and Hamilton County lost significant numbers of people, populations grew in each of the three surrounding Ohio and three Northern Kentucky counties - all places where most school districts are highly regarded.

        Maintaining quality public schools has implications far beyond community pride and stable property values. Strong schools also produce the supervisors and leaders of tomorrow.

[photo] Wyoming High School: Freshmen (from left) Caitlin O'Neill, 15, Alyson Ahearn, 15, Sophia Meyers, 15, and Lindsey Beck, 14, work on a project in furniture arranging.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        “The education status of the whole region then becomes important in terms of labor-force skill levels,” says Howard Stafford, a University of Cincinnati geography professor who studies why companies relocate.

        “Indian Hill can't be smug about the problems in College Hill.”

Population losses

        Among findings of the 2000 Census, the most stinging for Hamilton County was its population loss in a metropolitan area where every other county is growing, most at double-digit rates.

        Since 1990, Hamilton County lost 20,925 people, or 2.4 percent of its population. In contrast, Ohio's Warren County grew by 39 percent and Kentucky's Boone County by 49 percent.

        The population loss hurts the county's image and political clout and costs the city of Cincinnati millions of dollars in federal aid.

        Many cite the allure of suburbs that offer big, new homes as reason for the exodus of people to booming communities surrounding Hamilton County.

        But a closer look at Census and state education data suggests that excellent schools are another strong indicator that communities will grow, even in a county that's losing people.

        Communities served by the Indian Hill, Madeira, Mariemont, Sycamore and Wyoming public schools all grew or remained stable even as Hamilton County as a whole lost population. All five school districts are ranked “effective,” the highest of four state academic ratings.

        “Realtors tell us the success of the school district has been a real draw,” says Gerald Harris, superintendent of Mariemont City Schools.

[photo] Woodfill Elementary, Fort Thomas: Parent volunteer Betsy Sanders helps Joey Lyman and Jeff Ossege (right) with math problems in their second-grade class.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        He sees the results. Since 1990, three communities served by Mariemont schools experienced large population increases of children under age 18 Mariemont (44 percent), Terrace Park (28 percent) and Columbia Township (15 percent).

        In Indian Hill, the number of school-age kids grew 31 percent; in Wyoming, 23 percent; in Madeira, 12 percent. School-age population grew 21 percent in Symmes Township and 9 percent in Blue Ash, both served by Sycamore Community City Schools.

        On the other hand, most Hamilton County communities served by public school districts designated “academic emergency,” the state's lowest rating, lost population.

        The one exception was affluent Amberley Village, part of the Cincinnati Public Schools district but a community in which most students attend private schools.

        Most homebuyers care about the quality of public schools, even if they send their kids to private schools or don't have school-aged children.

        “Schools are one of the first things people ask about,” along with housing styles and size, personal safety and nearby shopping, says Dale Weisker, president of the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors.

        Because good schools help maintain or increase property values, creating demand for housing, “The board is always pro-school levy” to raise money for schools, Mr. Weisker says.

Challenging results

        The clear link between good schools and healthy communities challenges underachieving and successful districts alike.

        Low-performing districts are pressured to improve in order to have stable enrollments and attract new students. Successful districts are pressured to keep up with increasing numbers of students.

        At stake for both is their ability to attract and retain residents and the businesses that serve them.

        Hamilton County's largest school district, Cincinnati Public Schools, has been rated “academic emergency” the past two years that state ratings have been issued. The designation means the district has five years to improve or risk state oversight.

        The quality of the school district is considered a key factor in whether the city can halt a decade-long population slide. From 50,077 students in the 1991-92 school year, the district currently enrolls 42,680. (District officials say 3,600 departing students actually stayed in the city and are now enrolled in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.)

        Fixes will take time. Half of Cincinnati public school students who enter ninth grade don't graduate, although Cincinnati traditionally scores higher than the state's seven other urban districts -- all of which are designated “academic emergency,” too.

        In addition, 60 percent of city school students live at or near poverty, and 39 percent live in households that receive public assistance.

        So unstable are some of these households that kids are frequently pulled in and out of schools, limiting their ability to learn. For example, at Gamble Elementary in Westwood, 256 of 640 students withdrew from school between September and March. Another 162 enrolled, including 47 who had left Gamble earlier.

        “We can't change in six hours what takes place the other 18 hours,” Gamble principal Tom Miller says.

        The Cincinnati school district is trying to improve both the quality and image of its schools. The district has closed four under-achieving schools, and it's beginning to market its best schools -- such as Walnut Hills High School, the School for Creative and Performing Arts and the Clark Montessori High School -- to homebuyers and families who live in nearby counties.

        To bolster the performance of at-risk children, six Cincinnati schools -- including Gamble -- also have social service programs run by the Hamilton County Family and Children First Council.

        “We are working hard to fix failing schools,” says Jan Leslie, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who declined to be interviewed. “We have to compete regionally for students. We know we have to be better.”

        In Norwood, a Hamilton County school district on “academic watch,” a rating one step above “academic emergency,” school-aged population dropped 15 percent over the past decade.

        Norwood is in its fourth year of providing social services in three of its schools. The programs provide student and family counseling and work to improve teacher-family communication. Through three years, truancy, suspension and expulsion rates are all down.

        “We have a large percentage of single-parent households who work second and third shifts and can't be there when the child needs to be doing homework,” middle school principal Gerry Addison says. “We're trying to provide incentives to students and show them they can compete.”

        As a result of that effort, some families are staying in the district. Lorrie Stockman wanted to pull her 13-year-old son, Anthony Taylor, out of Norwood schools until she got help through Family and Children First. The agency helped Ms. Stockman diagnose Anthony's autism.

        “I felt the district didn't want to put out the money to find out what was wrong,” Mrs. Stockman says. “I wanted to move. I thought about Catholic school but couldn't afford it.” School administrators “have been great” since they learned why her son was having problems, she says.

Grow and improve

        The pressure in top-performing districts is to maintain quality and manage growth, which often means building more schools and hiring more teachers.

        Top-ranked Wyoming Schools has seen a 42 percent increase in student enrollment since 1990. That year, there were 1,355 students; this year, there are 1,930.

        “As homes turn over, buyers tend to be families,” superintendent Ted Knapke says.

        Nationally, 25 percent of households have school-age children. In Wyoming, that number is closer to 35 percent.

        One of those families is the Ahearns. Rich and Susan moved from Buffalo, N.Y., five years ago with their children, Meghan, a senior, and Alyson, a freshman.

        “We narrowed the search to where we would look for a house based upon the public schools,” Mr. Ahearn says. “Compared to the New York schools, what we found refreshing is that it's OK to be smart in Wyoming. In a lot of schools, the kids who excel are not necessarily looked upon favorably by their peers.”

        The district expects to reach 2,000 students in the next three years, with the biggest bulge of students in grades 6-10. In anticipation of the growth, a $25 million building project was completed two years ago. The project included 125,000 square feet of new space at the high school and new classrooms at four elementary schools and the middle school.

        Top-ranked Mariemont schools has re-opened the Dale Park Building, a school building that was turned over for a senior citizens center in 1984. Today, it's a middle school, easing overcrowding in the high school.

        Karl and Peggy Braun moved to Mariemont from Cincinnati's Hyde Park neighborhood 12 years ago, shortly after their first child was born.

        They could have left Mariemont for the Warren County boom but chose to stay.

        “We like the schools and the quaint village environment,” says Mrs. Braun, who now has three children.

        Growing pains are evident, too, in school districts outside Hamilton County.

        Top-ranked Mason City Schools in Warren County expects its student population to double in the next 10 years, from 6,700 students today to 13,000.

        A new high school is under construction and will house 2,500 students. A new elementary school will likely be built in 2003, and another added in 2009.

        The district gains about 650 students each year -- the equivalent of another school building's population.

Racial disparity

        Underlying any discussion of public school quality are complex issues of affluence and race.

        The Enquirer's analysis shows that high-performing districts tend to be well-off and predominantly white, while low-performing districts are poorer and populated by more African-Americans.

        Income disparities are a crucial factor in where kids go to school. Household income data from the 2000 Census aren't expected until later this year. But the trend is not expected to differ significantly from 1990, when Tristate whites earned almost double that of African-Americans $34,485 compared to $18,876 a year.

        The obvious result is not everyone can afford to move into school districts where homes may sell for $200,000 to $1 million and up. As a result, many poorer families don't have the choice of simply moving to one of the top school districts because they can't afford housing there.

        The answer, then, is to fix schools where people live.

        Former Ohio governor John Gilligan came out of political retirement to make a successful run for the Cincinnati School Board in 1999. He says poverty - not race - is the leading indicator of poor student performance in school.

        “Scores of studies emphasize the direct correlation between family poverty and poor performance in schools,” Mr. Gilligan says.

        “In the white suburban districts, students expect to go to college. On the other end of the spectrum, college is not even a dream. Kids don't have any relation between their studies and the rest of their lives, so they drop out.”

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