Saturday, September 29, 2001

Charter school opens new site

But students attend in 3-hour shifts

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Harmony Community School opened as scheduled Friday morning for about 200 of the the school's 500 students in a shiny bright Price Hill building with a spectacular view of the city.

        “They have everything they need,” said Joni Cunningham, interim director of the Office of School Options at the Ohio Department of Education. “This is their official first day of school.”

        However, students will attend in three-hour shifts until the warehouse section of the office building-turned-school — the former Slush Puppie Corp. — is ready for classes.

        Before Friday, many loose ends threatened Harmony's opening. The school:

        • Lacked a required building inspection.

        • Lacked a certificate of occupancy.

        • Faced calls from a state senator to close the school because he heard students were being educated in facilities throughout the city.

        • Lacked a signed contract from the state to operate.

        By Friday morning, however, all the papers were in order for the 3-year-old charter school, which receives state funding but runs separately from public schools. Charter schools are instead governed by parent groups or nonprofit organizations.

        But questions remain on how students aged 11-22 will achieve the required 920 hours when students are temporarily attending school in three-hour shifts for lack of space. There also are concerns about where students will eat their lunch when they are on full shifts.

        The school vacated its former building at Swifton Commons, a shopping center in Bond Hill, in July with more than $40,000 due in back rent and late fees, according to an attorney for the property owners.

        School officials said they didn't pay the May and June rent because of concerns over safety violations in the building.

        School officials began to hunt for a new site this summer. But controversy erupted last week when state officials received reports that students were being educated in public and private facilities around Cincinnati, including at the downtown branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

        Harmony school officials said teaching students in locations throughout the city, including banks, the Cincinnati Museum Center and the library, was part of a project to get to know the city.

        The former Slush Puppie Corp. building is atop a hill in an industrial park.

        Inside, brightly colored walls are decorated with students' artwork. As teachers talked about health and politics, students sat at tables facing floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook downtown.

        However, few seemed to notice the view as they discussed the definition of health, whether too much soda is good for the body and the political parties of their state representatives.

        Director David Nordyke, who founded the school in 1998 as one of the state's first charter schools, said he hopes to have the remainder of the warehouse open soon so the students can attend school for a full day.

        Mr. Nordyke said he also expects transportation, which will be arranged with Cincinnati Public Schools per the state's charter school agreements, to be coordinated soon. The school paid for a charter service Friday to transport the students from downtown.

        State Sen. Mark Mallory, who on Thursday called for the school to be shut down, took a tour of Harmony on Friday and still questioned the school's lack of accountability.

        “My concern is for the stability of the educational environment of these children,” he said.

        State officials say oversight by the state will continue.

        “We're watching it closely,” said Dottie Howe, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education.

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