Monday, February 10, 2003

Pleasant Ridge fights to keep school

Community opposes plan to move building to Kennedy Heights

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In a battle playing out across Ohio in communities facing school closings, Pleasant Ridge is fighting to keep the public school it's had for nearly two centuries.

Long before Montgomery Road was paved, residents began investing in the school that now sits along the busy four-lane road. They sent their children to a log cabin school and then several brick structures that took its place on or near the current site.

Today, the partnerships remain strong. A pharmacy donates money for dictionaries. A church across the street tutors students twice a week. Other businesses contribute gift certificates for school supplies.

• Address: 5945 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge.
• Built: 1909 (addition completed in 1931).
• Enrollment: 410.
• Capacity: 600.
• Grades: Preschool-8.
• Proposal: Close the school and build a 450-student school in Kennedy Heights at Kennedy Avenue and Montgomery Road during first phase of Cincinnati's planned decade-long school construction project.
• Option: Buy additional land at current site and rebuild there.
All that could change if Cincinnati Public Schools goes ahead with plans to close Pleasant Ridge Elementary and build a new school 1 miles away in Kennedy Heights as part of its $1 billion building plan.

The new school would open around 2005. The old one would be used to house students from other schools until around 2011 while their schools are being renovated or built.

More than 40 residents during a November meeting of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council, however, led an effort to get the school rebuilt at its current site.

Pleasant Ridge, an integrated community of 8,900 residents, has welcomed several new restaurants in the past few years. An old IGA was recently converted into a new market with a wine store, smoothie shop and deli. Residents say the school is an anchor.

"Our goal is to attract people to our neighborhood," said Jeff Terlinden, president of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council. "Losing a school would be heartbreaking."

Cincinnati Public is not the only district wrestling with closing schools.

The state plans to contribute billions of dollars to districts that can raise local tax dollars for school reconstruction so that every school meets new state standards by 2012.

In many communities, including Cincinnati, that means closing schools that are too costly to renovate or rebuilding them in other communities.

In 2001, Hamilton school district announced plans to replace 14 elementary schools with nine new schools.

Last week, Princeton schools announced plans to reduce their elementary schools from nine to eight by rebuilding or renovating them.

This month, 150 residents in the Mariemont school district rallied to save Fairfax Elementary School, which was recommended for closure. Last week, the board decided not to consolidate but to study the issue further.

Cincinnati, which has lost 10,000 students in the last decade, unveiled plans in January 2002 that now include building 35 new schools and renovating 31 others. Some buildings will close, leaving the district with 14 fewer buildings by 2012.

The district's plans are contingent on the passage of a $480 million bond issue for school construction, expected to be on the May 6 ballot.

Officials reconsidering

After hearing last month of the nearly two-century relationship between Pleasant Ridge school and its neighborhood, school officials are reconsidering the school closure.

Pleasant Ridge has had a school on or near the current site since 1819, when a single-room log cabin was built. The nearby Presbyterian church contributed $20 to build it.

That relationship remains strong today with Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church, across Montgomery Road.

The school now has about 400 students, drawing from Pleasant Ridge, Kennedy Heights and a few from Golf Manor. About 70 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Churchgoers donate white shirts and blue trousers for students who can't afford uniforms, and raise thousands of dollars for projects such as buying window shades, painting hallways and refurbishing the auditorium.

Church volunteer Dorothy Fisher raised more than $45,000 from corporations, the church, residents and foundations during 1997-98 to pay for a tutoring program at the school. That program now has 83 tutors.

On Wednesday, three volunteers tutored about 15 students from Pleasant Ridge at the church after school - just as they do every Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a separate church-run tutoring program.

Students in one small group played word Bingo, practicing words like story, paste and could.

Volunteer Susan McLennan of Amberley Village called out the words and then gave an example of their usage: "In our story, they like to TELL knock-knock jokes," she said, after calling out the word tell under row B.

"Bingo," a student shouted, while three other students let out a chorus of "Awwws!"

Third-grader Malcolm Foster, 9, said he likes coming to the after-school church program."I like the relationship with the church and everyone here," he said. "They help you read if you don't understand a word and they help you do math problems."

McLennan said the students need a neighborhood school.

"A program like this probably wouldn't work (if the school moved) because many of the children walk home from here," she said.

School must go

Despite the school's history, district and state officials agree Pleasant Ridge, built in 1909, must be closed or rebuilt. They cite the aged heating system. Its temperature controls, though upgraded, date to 1909.

Classrooms lack enough outlets to accommodate modern technology, and single-pane windows allow chilly drafts to seep into classrooms.

Any major renovation would require bathroom stalls, doors, stairwells and drinking fountains to meet requirements for handicap accessibility.

The cost to renovate would be more than $9.7 million, according to state assessments, versus $10.7 million to rebuild the school.

School officials say the five-acre site is too small for a new school, separate bus turn-around and parking, because only three of the five acres are usable.

The school is on a cliff and the land drops 35 feet through a wooded hillside in one corner. The playground is about 16 feet below the main entrance off Montgomery Road. Officials paid $1.8 million for about four acres at Kennedy Avenue and Montgomery Road in Kennedy Heights, site of a closed furniture store, for a new school to replace Pleasant Ridge.

"The schoolchildren could be provided with a better, safer school," said Mike Burson, Cincinnati schools' director of facilities.

"Although smaller, the new site is all usable and would allow us to separate and accommodate bus, car, and pedestrian traffic, the two equipped playgrounds, and the larger hard surface play area on our site."

He said the new school also could use an adjacent city recreation field.

Tough decisions ahead

Pleas from the community caused some school board members to reconsider closing the school.

The school is just a few blocks from the rehabbed business district, where a taxpayer-funded parking lot was built to allow consumers easy access to businesses, and where the new market and restaurants now sit.

"It would be nice for it to stay in the community," said Tom Mullaney, owner of Mullaney's Pharmacy and Home Health Care on Montgomery Road. "It's good for the neighborhood and you'd have a hard time filling that space."

School officials are now considering an option to sell the Kennedy Heights land and buy two acres adjoining the current site to build the new school.

Board members asked district officials to provide information for a Feb. 21 facilities meeting on how the change would impact other schools in the building project.


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