Dayton Public Schools reconfiguration challenges

When I grew up in Cleveland Heights, we had elementary schools from k-6, junior high for 7-9 and high school from 10-12. To me, that was the way it was. It was a little odd that 9th grade counted as high school but you weren’t at the high school, but that’s the way it was. As I was finishing elementary school in a building from the twenties, they were building a new elementary school in the parking lot next door and were closing off the street the school was named for to have enough room to build the new modern “open” building. From the day it was built, teachers have struggled with noise from the open plan, where classrooms didn’t have walls to the ceilings or a door. Progress.

Luckily, Dayton Public Schools didn’t fall for the open floor plan in their 28 new buildings, but they did structure the buildings originally for PK-8 and 9-12. Of course, it wasn’t totally consistent, with Stivers being a 7-12 building, but close enough (note it’s the only school that we kept the old building and just added new wings).

Since the de-seg order, almost all DPS kids were bused, so “load balancing” of kids to the school was relatively simple- just drive the kids to the right building, no need for placing schools where the school age population is. As we’ve learned in the attempt to switch back to “neighborhood schools” shifting populations makes for difficult allocation of kids to schools- add in a steadily fluctuating enrollment in charter schools and things get very complex.

To make matters worse, thanks to annexations and strange map-drawing skills, Dayton looks more like an octopus than what most cities look like. Throw in bold geographical and man made dividers like rivers and interstates, it makes getting kids to schools a major undertaking- never mind what you have to do with kids once you get them into the buildings.

Wright Brothers Elementary School with construction sign

A few old parts were saved, like Wright Brothers Auditorium

When the state offered the 2/3 financing of new buildings and voters passed the levy for the new buildings (a bonanza for the construction industry) money was allocated based on enrollments at the very beginning of the charter movement when virtually anybody could open up a school and start getting $5k per kid, per year, while teaching in a building that didn’t have to meet any of the same standards required for the public schools. When many of these failed, their students bounced back to DPS causing a new crunch on space. Unfortunately, to keep the demolition companies happy (also major donors to politicians) we agreed to demolish all of our old buildings. I’ve been watching the very slow progress as Patterson-Kennedy is destroyed- a building built better than any of the new buildings. These could have served as over-flow and load balancers in some cases, but it’s too late for that.

Despite the fact that Harvard is able to teach in 250 –old buildings and Cambridge in 600 year-old buildings, taxpayers were told that public school education couldn’t be done in our existing old buildings- while charters managed to do just fine in the same old buildings (Emerson Academy is at the end of my street and seems to be performing above DPS averages in a building from the 1920s and Richard Allen Academies are also doing well in the old United Way building on Salem). Even UD has managed to sell a high-dollar educational experience in old buildings, imaging that.

It now seems that educators in Dayton are having second thoughts about not having middle schools. Unfortunately, we don’t have buildings to spare or necessarily in the right places, so we’re considering expanding the high achools to 7-12 with Belmont coming online now, others may follow. There is no chance of building anything new- and of course, we were in a huge rush to tear down the former Julienne which might have served well as a central junior high, albeit a large one.

None of this is easy logistically. Unfortunately, the best solution might be to work collaboratively with some of the charters that have extra space in their buildings, however that’s almost like asking for a Hatfield/McCoy marriage.

As a neighborhood-focused community activist, what I find most disconcerting about the whole gerrymandering of kids and schools by market forces is that our neighborhood children have an incredibly hard time getting to know each other well- with most neighborhoods having kids in 5-10 different schools. East End Community Services has worked incredibly hard at connecting their neighborhood with Ruskin School (a rare instance of a charter coming back into the DPS system) and creating a true “community school.” To me, this is the major downfall of deseg. busing and our public/charter school configuration: kids don’t know their neighbors.

Cleveland Heights had true neighborhood schools. Of my friends from high school (with a graduating class of about 850) the people I’m still most connected to as I turn 50 are the ones who went to elementary school with me. We had between 80 and 100 kids in my grade and so I’m extrapolating that there were 8 elementary schools in the district (they’d actually closed a few due to declining population when I was in grade school). Kids in Dayton aren’t getting that shared experience that I had- and that’s a shame. Somehow, we need to figure out how to reconfigure our neighborhoods so that despite kids going to so many different schools, we can at least give them a stable connected community to build their long-term relationships that have meant so much to me.

As I drove past the former Boys and Girls Club at Keowee and the U.S.-35 off ramp (the strangest place to put a kids’ facility I think I’ve ever seen) I noticed that the building was for sale and it looked like the charter school had left. I then drove down Hickory Street past the old YWCA which was given to the neighborhood by Virginia Kettering in 1971 and stopped being a Y or a neighborhood facility sometime before 1986 when I moved into South Park. The city also just closed and sold off the Bomberger Teen Center and has cut the number of neighborhood Recreation centers down. How are we supposed to give our kids what we took for granted? How can we compete with the seemingly stable districts in our suburbs like Kettering, Oakwood or Beavercreek?

I have a vision for bringing  our neighborhoods back to being neighborhoods, the problem is I’m finding mostly deaf ears. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Full disclosure: My company, The Next Wave has done some work for DPS, this post doesn’t contain any proprietary knowledge or information and wasn’t written on behalf of the district or with its permission or oversight.

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