Sunday, July 08, 2001

School buildings getting more uses

Rec centers, health clinics reach communities

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The days when school buildings lock up for the summer and sit mostly unused after school hours are fading fast. Across Greater Cincinnati, school facilities increasingly are home to banks, recreation facilities and satellite medical offices — some open day and night.

        From public library branches located in schools to school buildings built on zoo grounds, community-center schools are hot.

        “This is going beyond the bell,” said Dee Fricker, chairwoman of the local school decision-making committee for Cincinnati Public Schools' McKinley School in the East End.

        “Schools can be open 18 hours a day year-round. But one overriding theme in choosing partnerships and programming is it has to be approached as how to improve the achievement of students.”

        The movement expands on longstanding partnerships schools have had with businesses. Proponents say they can save the public millions by preventing paying for land or financing buildings twice.

        Voters who approve community projects know they are footing the bill for new buildings, like Mason's future high school/community recreation center, which will cost millions in new property taxes.

        “It will be slightly difficult for some people to handle,” 79-year-old Mason resident John F. Simon said of the added property taxes.

        Mr. Simon, who said he supported Mason's $72 million bond issue for the high school/community center, lives in a retirement community. Property taxes are passed on to residents through maintenance and living costs, he said.

        “There are a lot of people who have a lesser income and lesser assets who might be significantly hurt,” he said.

        But educators say the costs are more than offset by the benefits students reap.

        Educators see the in-house partnerships as a way to involve communities in students' learning, offer students more enrichment opportunities and provide valuable services.

        The goal is to create healthier, smarter neighborhoods.

        These building partner ships — known as “schools as centers of community” — have sprouted in Cincinnati, Mason and Blue Ash in the past year. They are expected to appear in Kings, Lebanon and North College Hill school districts in the near future.

        “Everyone in the community is taking part (in community schools) — not just businesses and parents,” said Barbara Worth, marketing and communications manager for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.

        In Cincinnati, Ms. Fricker and community leaders are considering several partnerships in planning a new East End school. Approved by CPS' Board of Education in January, the school will replace aging Linwood and McKinley school buildings.

        Among ideas being considered:

        • A YMCA inside the school that students could use. • A satellite home for a performing arts troupe to provide students with cultural enrichment.

        • A health clinic that would provide services to students and possibly the community.

        “(These schools) bring communities together to say, "We value our children's education and we cannot do it alone,'” said Sheri DeBoe Johnson, senior associate for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Community Schools.

        Ms. Johnson said a key component of a community school is that residents, business leaders and educators collaborate in the design to ensure the school meets the needs of its population.

        That's what Mason did in 1999.

        Mason City Schools held several community forums that year, drawing hundreds to each to come up with plans for a new high school. A combined high school/community recreation center was proposed and in March 2000 residents passed a $72 million bond issue to build it.

        “By putting one issue on the ballot and doing something for the entire community and not just Mason, it fulfills its name and becomes a center for community activity,” said Mason Schools Superintendent Kevin Bright.

        Still, the community was divided. The bond levy vote passed by a margin of about 440 votes out of approximately 6,900.

        The facility — which will be open beyond school hours and on weekends — will include a bank and a wellness center for the community, Mr. Bright said.

        Students will have internship opportunities at both. The community will have access to the recreation center with a pool, field house, auditorium and indoor track.

        The school will open in fall 2002; the recreation center, in January 2003. Though voters are funding the recreation facility, they'll still pay a membership fee. Another example of shared facilities is the new Blue Ash Elementary in the Sycamore school district, which opens in August 2002. The school's teachers will take professional development courses in a new $10.7 million school being built on a donated patch of land at the southeast corner of the Raymond Walters College campus.

        Raymond Walters will use a shared wing in the evening for classes, and the schools will share athletic fields.

        CPS' Rockdale Elementary in Avondale opened a school-based health center last fall through a partnership with Children's Hospital.

        The center for Rockdale students — open weekdays during the school year — offers a full-time school nurse, nurse practitioner, health technician, social worker and center director.

        A $349,000 grant from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and leaders from Rockdale, Children's Hospital Medical Center and Avondale helped fund the center.

        A consulting psychologist and physician also have scheduled visits at the school, said director Shirley Brame. Evening programming for Rockdale parents is offered, too.

        “Through the partnership, we found a lot of unmet health care needs,” Ms. Brame said. “A lot of times, the school nurse was the child's only health-care provider.”

        Before locating the center there, organizers found half of Rockdale's 560 students came to school without proper immunizations and up to 15 percent were absent daily for health-care reasons, said Gene Robinson Jr., a member of the health center's executive committee.

        Last year, about 75 percent of students had enrolled in the health-care program, and the center amassed more than 3,000 student visits, Ms. Brame said.

        Gov. Bob Taft has pledged to spend $23 billion on new school construction over the next 12 years and communities are listening to the creative, useful ways to design their schools.

        With an $800 million-plus school facilities renovation plan to be unveiled for Cincinnati Public Schools in December, possibilities for partnerships — like those being considered for the new East End school — are being widely discussed.

        “I think (these partnerships) will continue,” said Krista Ramsey, spokeswoman for Sycamore schools. “We are finding a wonderful outgrowth of this in terms of technology and research. We're seeing a lot of reasons why this makes sense — educationally and economically.”


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