Monday, May 3, 2010

The impact a school can have

I recently came across a really interesting example of a downtown high school that I think Oklahoma City could benefit from, especially as we're still in the middle of MAPS for Kids, especially as we're currently determining the fate of the Emerson Alternative School at Walker and Fifth, and especially as we begin to consider the possibility of a downtown elementary school.

The example is that of the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio--which is currently moving into a new home in the revitalizing Over-the-Rhine district of Cincy. For those who remember the Cincy riots in 2001, this is the neighborhood where most of that violence occurred. Today OTR, which has a style and scale similar to the Greenwich Village in NYC, is redeveloping steadily. Numerous multi-million $ public improvements are slated. One group, the Cincinnati Center City Redevelopment Corporation (which is a private nonprofit known as 3CDC) has alone invested $84 million into 152 "seriously deteriorated" buildings and 165 vacant parcels. Of their 100 for-sale condos, 70% have been sold to people under the age of 30. This February they finished another 200 condos and 30 storefronts and have sold 60% so far (at least), despite the "down economy." Indeed, the neighborhood has come a long ways since the riots--much like how OKC has come a long ways.

The community in Cincinnati came together to put a school in the OTR community which would provide an influx of culture. The school is a charter school that has existed for decades that traditionally focuses on arts education, which these days you don't get in normal schools. The community developed what I believe is a very innovative strategy for funding and running such a school: $41.3 million of the funds came from the public, which was matched by over $31 million in funds from community benefactors. As a result, the benefactors have been guaranteed 5 out of 12 seats on the school board (for the school, not the school district). This is to avoid, shalwesay..John Marshall/U.S. Grant/etc type results..

The school union balked, imagine that, but lost in the end. The community would have a say in the school, even if it meant teachers only had 3/12 say. Parents got the rest of the say (which personally, I would think parents should have the majority of say in a school). Anyway, the school opens this year.

I understand that OCPS currently has a number of alternative and charter-type schools and this is good. We need to be offering a diverse system of education with many different options for many different lifestyles and types of students. Some of these alternatives are in fact highly desirable, such as magnet schools and arts-centric schools. Others, the ones just labeled "alternative schools," are directed towards the special needs of some of Oklahoma's most at-risk students: a special educational environment for a special challenge, with the end goal being a high school diploma for everyone. The reality of course is that not nearly everyone attending school in the inner city graduates and the drop out rate is tragic and high. BUT we're doing our best, plain and simple--by offering these alterntives.

Now let me go and one-up that. Why don't we offer better facilities for these alternatives? None of these alternative or charter schools, save for the Oklahoma School for Science and Mathematics off Lincoln (which is state-ran, not OCPS-ran), have facilities to brag about--although many of them are absolutely beautiful old buildings that I would have enjoyed going to school in (myself being far from normal in that regard). Example: Harding Prep School and Harding Academy are both growing rapidly and currently fighting with each other for space in the same historic building. Here's an idea, give one of them the historic building and move the other downtown into a new facility instead of a "traditional elementary" downtown (which I would argue is not really in line with reality).

The reason that this solution is, in my opinion, by far the best adapted for us is two-fold, one having to do with the students, and the other the community. The students at an arts-focused academy would be the best fit for the downtown environment and would stand to add their own unique flavor to it as well in my opinion, and we should not discount the ability of minors to heavily affect a community. It would be bringing more arts and more arts-minded individuals downtown, and that would be an awesome thing. Then as for the community, well you know what they say, it takes a village to raise a child. The money is probably not there for a $60-80 million school for downtown, but with the community's help and support, it could be done. With the community involved in running the school, my hope is that the community would be involved and stand in to help prevent the poor initial situation at several of the brand-new OCPS high schools such as U.S. Grant, probably the most dire. I love it when the community and schools are involved in a partnership for the betterment of the community..I love seeing the commercials about Chesapeake's school mentor program, I love the drawings the OCPS kids made for the Devon construction site, and so on. That's what this community is about. In order to achieve success on a higher level you have to be able to merge Oklahoma's strong community values with the kind of multi-million $ projects that we now have the means to pull of.

Think about it, OKC.

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