Saturday, May 31, 2003

Whittier Elementary's principal says farewell

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Principal Dominick Ciolino with a third-grade class Friday at Whittier Elementary School in Price Hill, the final day of school.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
As a toddler in the 1950s, Dominick Ciolino often watched from his Woodlawn Avenue porch as then-Principal Omer Renfrow strolled into Whittier Elementary in East Price Hill.

Renfrow, a respected school administrator, would wag his finger at the small boy and say, "You better not be late to school."

The words stuck.

On the first day of school, Ciolino's mother woke to find her 5-year-old son not in the house, but waiting on the front porch fully clothed and with his satchel packed.

"I looked upon that gentleman as the authority in the neighborhood," Ciolino said. "He was my first introduction to administration. The first positive thing I saw was that."

Ciolino wanted to make an impact, too, and became an educator.

Fifty years later, he is retiring as principal from that school, albeit in a "new" 1959 Whittier Elementary building on Hawthorne Avenue, where he started kindergarten in 1954 and where he watched Mr. Renfrow lead.

Ciolino knows Whittier's halls as well as anybody and can rattle off the lineage of principals since 1891, but on Friday he said goodbye to many of his students.

Some staff grew teary-eyed, even though Ciolino will stay in the position through the end of summer school, retiring June 30.

But this week was the last time many of them would hear him crack his characteristic jokes and the last time they would see the 31-year educator walk his students to the curb after school, doling out hugs.

It would also be the last time they would watch him hand out his principal's awards for good deeds, complete with one of his own ties for the students to wear and keep.

Instructor assistant Donna Simpson repeatedly choked up when talking about Ciolino's departure.

"The key thing about him is he knows these kids," she said. "He knows their family backgrounds."

Like his students, Ciolino grew up in Price Hill. He graduated from Elder High School in 1967 and didn't stray much farther - just to the center of the city at the University of Cincinnati - for his undergraduate and master's degrees.

He met his sweetheart when they both were student teachers at Western Hills High School.

On Groundhog's Day in 1972, while Sandra Palmer was working at a bagel sale to raise money for the College of Mount St. Joseph's yearbook, Ciolino put a bagel on her left finger and proposed. Later that night, he offered her a real ring and she said yes. She retired last year as a teacher from Hyde Park Elementary.

Ciolino's career took him through more than a half-dozen Cincinnati Public Schools, including North Avondale, Rothenberg, Chase, Schwab and Bloom.

But when in 1992 Ciolino had the opportunity to interview to be principal of Whittier, he knew it was right.

"When I came here, I always had the feeling of home," Ciolino said, sitting in his office where a picture of him at Whittier in 1954 adorns his wall.

Whittier has seen many changes, including a change from a K-6 to a K-8 school and an end to busing between Whittier and Washburn elementary schools to achieve racial balance in the schools.

But people close to the school say the one thing that hasn't changed is that Whittier administrators - from Renfrow to Ciolino - still command respect and make a lasting impression.

Simpson told how Ciolino affected her daughter, who refused to come back to school right after the infamous Columbine shootings.

Ciolino would meet Megan at the door every day and walk her from room to room, allowing her to look inside and grow at ease.

"You know I'm not going to let anything happen to you," he would say.

And though he lives in Madeira now, Ciolino is tied to his Price Hill roots.

Thanks to Ciolino, Madeira schools now conduct an annual clothing drive for Whittier students around Christmas. This year, they donated more than 200 boxes of items.

For the past few years, he has been sending his teachers to the Price Hill Historical Society to learn about the area and the school, where 92 percent of the students come from poverty.

"You have to know what you're a part of," he said.

"I wish he didn't have to go," said seventh-grader Ashley Ruble, 13, who assists Ciolino by changing the lettering on the Whittier Elementary sign. "He's the best principal I've ever had. He's not so principal-y. He's kind of like a friend."


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