Below the Line: Over-the-Rhine

'That's home to me, and that's my safe haven'

The quiet sixth-grader was tall and curvy for her age. She needed a dress for a special occasion at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy. Ms. Dorothy and a team of school moms were doing their best to find one.

The women sorted through piles of donated clothing in the school's parent resource center, looking for a size that would fit in a style that was appropriate. Dress after dress was too short or too tight, and the girl's shoulders drooped with defeat.

Finally, one of the moms pulled out a long, red gown in a fabric with some stretch. Within minutes, the girl was wearing the dress — along with a wide smile.

"Come here," Ms. Dorothy told the girl, then looked her up and down to study the fit. "OK, OK."

Parent resource center volunteers rummage through a pile of dresses to find one that appropriately fits a female student for a graduation ceremony. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The girl grinned again before she rushed down the hall with her mom.

A lot of Rothenberg's 414 students arrive at school without the clothes or socks or shoes they need. All of them qualify for free school lunch. Some kids show up hungry or unwashed, and others sleep in apartments with bedbugs.

But while poverty surrounds the small school and the families it serves in Over-the-Rhine, it is not what defines them. Rothenberg's paid staff and volunteers wrap the school's families in as much love and support as they can, just as they have for generations.

"We do not focus that much on the barriers and all the things that people say 'you can't be' or 'you can't do,'" said Barbara Bell, Rothenberg's Community Learning Center Resource Coordinator. "We know where you are right now. However, this is not where you need to stay.

Rothenberg Preparatory Academy sits at the intersection of E. Clifton Avenue, just off of Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Thousands of families across Greater Cincinnati are struggling, despite the region's improving economy and lower unemployment rate. Across the Tri-State, nearly one in five children live in poverty. In Cincinnati, almost half of the city's kids are poor. The Tri-State's spreading, persistent childhood poverty problem is why WCPO has decided to shine a spotlight on the problem in 2015 with ongoing reports online and on air.

In the pocket of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street where Rothenberg sits, all but a handful of children live below the federal poverty level, according to the most recent Census data available. Many live in poor families that have called Over-the-Rhine home for generations, families who have chosen to stay there because it is home.          

"A lot of people do look down on Over-the-Rhine," said Shana Darden, a teacher's assistant at Rothenberg who grew up in Over-the-Rhine and returned to the neighborhood after college. "That's home to me, and that's my safe haven."

Poor For Generations

Poverty in Over-the-Rhine is nothing new. The neighborhood has been home to poor people for generations — first for poor and working-class Germans and then for poor Appalachians before poor black families filled its historic homes.

View our interactive timeline of poverty in Over-The-Rhine.

The four Census tracts that make up the sprawling, historic neighborhood just north of Downtown are home to 820 children younger than 18, according to the 2013 Census figures.

The vast majority of those kids — 658 of them — live in families with annual incomes below the federal poverty level. That's a mere $24,250 for a household of four.

But nowhere in Over-the-Rhine is childhood poverty more concentrated than in the slice of the neighborhood north of Liberty Street and east of Vine Street where Rothenberg sits.

A total of 387 kids live in that area, which covers about a quarter of a square mile — the equivalent of four and a half football fields. Roughly 98 percent of those children, 378 in all, live in poverty, according to the 2013 data.

All that poverty brings challenges for Rothenberg, which relies on donations of money and manpower from the community to support its students, said Principal Amber Simpson. The Over-the-Rhine Community Council and Pendleton Council meet at the school regularly, and their members contribute coats and clothes and other items the schools' families need.

Longtime volunteer Dorothy Darden puts together a clean uniform for a student who showed up to school out of dress code. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

At Rothenberg, the school works to eliminate barriers for its students by providing three meals a day, an on-site health clinic, free after-school tutoring and childcare and, of course, the parent resource center. The resource center fills a classroom-sized space on the first floor of the school. Students go there for clothes, shoes or hugs. Their parents go for moral support, workshops or just a quiet place to sit.

"We teach them to see beyond their current circumstances and have hope," Simpson said of her school's students. "Our school motto is 'Where learning is embraced with love.'"

This marks the 14th school year that Dorothy Darden — Ms. Dorothy — has been serving up that love at Rothenberg.

A native of Over-the-Rhine who raised her own children in the neighborhood, Ms. Dorothy sees beyond the financial despair to the love and support that she and her neighbors show each other and the community's children.

That support extends far beyond Rothenberg.

Rothenberg provides up to three meals a day for students. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Over-the-Rhine People's Garden and Peaslee Neighborhood Center have been offering refuge and support to the neighborhood's families for years. Crossroad Health Center has been there since 1992 to provide quality medical care. The Freestore Foodbank on Liberty Street has its food pantry, clothing program and other emergency assistance. And there are the neighbors who take care of each other, the godmothers and godfathers of Over-the-Rhine who nurture the children and keep watch over them when their parents cannot. People like Ms. Dorothy.

"When they talk about Over-the-Rhine and poverty, I see it in a different light," Ms. Dorothy said. "I see a rich community where you can get help, where you can help, where you can be helped. But because of dollar signs, we are considered at the bottom of the barrel, and something's got to change about that."

Helping Parents to Help Kids

Rothenberg has 413 students this year in preschool through sixth grade. Like many of Cincinnati Public Schools' inner-city schools, it begins helping the community's children each school year even before classes start.

Its Imani Fest back-to-school event on Aug. 15 offered students free backpacks, food and haircuts along with free school physicals and blood pressure checks. A local petting zoo even brought baby chicks, a rabbit and pig for kids and their parents to touch.

Michelle Bailey appreciated the backpacks loaded with school supplies that she was hauling around that day for her five kids. She had backpacks slung over each shoulder as she watched her 5-year-old son, Sir, check out the pig.

But, she said, she appreciates even more the caring teachers and after-school program at Rothenberg, all designed to support the school's students and families.

Michelle Bailey helps her daughter sort through supplies in a backpack they acquired from Rothenberg's Imani Fest. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"I even got a lot of job information at Rothenberg," said Bailey, who works as a janitor and housekeeper.

That stems from the school's philosophy that students can't learn if their families are constantly reeling from the stress of unemployment or poverty.

Or as Ms. Dorothy put it: "If you get a well parent, then you've got a well child."

She knows that as well as anyone. Simpson, Rothenberg's principal, describes Ms. Dorothy as the "mother" of the group of resource center volunteers. The 58-year-old grandmother is at the resource center every school day, despite her bad knees. She's almost always parked in an office chair with wheels so she can roll around the room or up and down the halls.

"I'm here for the parents," Ms. Dorothy said. "I talk. I encourage. They encourage me. When you can see the value of each person's gifts and see the gifts in them and they see the gifts in you, you can make things happen."

Elizabeth Burnside has felt that first hand. A grandmother of four, Burnside started raising her granddaughter, Jada, four years ago when her daughter lost her housing and couldn't care for her kids on her own.

Burnside, 53, would take Jada to Rothenberg each morning for school and then go back to her apartment and cry. She didn't know why she was so sad until she attended a workshop sponsored by Beech Acres Parenting Center. Beech Acres is the nonprofit organization that employs the resource coordinator and the family peer support specialist who run the parent resource center with the staff at Rothenberg.

RELATED: A growing number of grandparents in the region are caring for their grandkids

Burnside realized she was suffering from depression. She saw a therapist, continued attending workshops and became a volunteer in the parent resource center.

Eventually, Burnside got a job at Rothenberg's after school program, too. Now, she spends weekdays at the school from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Barbara Bell (left) and parent center volunteer Elizabeth Burnside (right). Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Some mornings she and Ms. Dorothy get uniform shirts and shorts for students who need them. Sometimes the women wash children's hair, launder their clothes or allow them to shower and brush their teeth in a private bathroom across the hall from the resource center. Other days Burnside goes to a classroom at a teacher's request when a student is crying and screaming and out of control.

"Ms. Burnside will find out what's really going on, that the child didn't eat breakfast," Bell said. "She will spend five minutes, give her what that baby needs. That's what takes place here every day."

One morning last spring, nearly 20 students funneled into the resource center, one after the other, to get a uniform shirt or a pair of shorts that fit and met the school's dress code. One skinny boy's hair was a tangle until Ms. Dorothy sent him into a bathroom with a staff member, a bottle of shampoo and a comb.

"It takes all of us together to do what we do here," Ms. Dorothy said.

Love in the Community

Still, it can be difficult for some of Rothenberg's parents to trust.

Many didn't have good experiences with school themselves, Bell said. Some can't read well and are ashamed to admit it. Others worry that if they talk about their struggles, school employees will call child welfare workers and have their kids taken from them.

LaTonya Spikes was skeptical initially about whether Rothenberg's teachers, staff and volunteers had her kids' best interests at heart.

LaTonya Spikes folds uniforms in Rothenberg's parent resource center. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Spikes has three children. Her older son, Kyrion, and her daughter, Zyauna, both started kindergarten at Rothenberg last year. Kyrion was 7 at the time, but he has autism and intellectual disabilities so he started in the same grade as his younger sister.

Spikes had been home-schooling the two and was worried about sending them to Rothenberg, especially with Kyrion's challenges.

She started by going to the parent resource room each school day and sitting quietly so she would be nearby if her son or daughter needed her. Eventually, she began talking and helping, too.

Her youngest is a baby boy born over the summer. She spent the last few months of her pregnancy at the resource center last school year, even when she was supposed to be on bed rest. Ms. Dorothy joked that if Spikes went into labor during school, she had to name the baby "Dorothy," even if it was a boy. Spikes delivered her baby, Je'Dari, on June 21 after school was out for the year.

"It's been very, very helpful," said Spikes, 29. "I've even stood outside my kids' classroom when the teacher didn't know I was there. What they say they do, they do, when you're looking or not looking."

Two of Ms. Dorothy's own daughters are at Rothenberg each school day, too.

Parent center volunteer Quinea Darden with her 6-year-old daughter, Brooklynn. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

There is Shana Darden, the teacher's assistant, who also works as a tutor and has been a long-term substitute teacher, too. She has a degree in education from Kentucky State University. She came back to Rothenberg and the neighborhood because of the opportunity to make a difference there, she said.

"The neighborhood has always been good to me," she said. "It's one of those things that I constantly preach to the children — especially the children in this neighborhood: It's not about where people think you're from. It's where you're going, and where you allow your mind to take you."

Another of Ms. Dorothy's daughters, Quinea Darden, volunteers with her mom nearly every day in the parent resource room while her 6-year-old daughter, Brooklynn, attends first grade at Rothenberg.

"There's a lot of love in the community," said Quinea Darden, 31, who usually brings her 18-month-old son, Kingston, with her, too. "I want to make sure I'm part of that to give back, to make sure I'm doing my part to make sure our community remains alive."

'I Haven't Seen My Mom In Days'

Navigating the sea of poverty that surrounds them can be tough for the kids at Rothenberg.

"There are students that come in here every day that may or may not see their mom because mom's working third shift," Bell said. "A 7-year-old is getting up and getting up a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old."

Bell recalled a student who tumbled into Burnside's lap one day and said, "I haven't seen my mom in days."

Other students are coping with the death of a parent.

Those kids visit the parent resource center for more than uniform shirts or to find a pair of shoes that fit.

"They come in here every day to see that same face," Bell said. "To get a hug or get their clothes washed."

Students gather in the parent resource center at Rothenberg. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Those are the actions that show students the love that embraces them even as poverty seems to want to swallow them whole.

"We have to learn how to be human first," Ms. Dorothy said, "and recognize and respect each other."

It's not that the people of Over-the-Rhine want to be poor, she said.

But the long-time residents see each other for what is in their hearts, not what's in their bank accounts. That's what keeps them in the neighborhood and keeps their children coming back.

For more information about how to help Rothenberg Preparatory Academy and its parent resource center, contact Barbara Bell at bellbar@cps-k12.org or call her at (513) 363-5743.

Ongoing school needs include:

  • Back to school sponsors
  • Holiday sponsors
  • Sponsors for the school's annual celebration after testing
  • Toys or items that students can purchase with "Falcon Bucks," which are given as incentives
  • Navy blue sweaters, jackets and cardigans. (No hoodies.)
  • Clorox wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Tissues
  • School supplies
  • Book bags
  • Pencils
  • Composition books
  • Folders
  • Flash drives
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • Colored paper
  • Coat racks

Reporter Lucy May, photojournalist Emily Maxwell and data specialist Mark Nichols have spent the last nine months examining the stubborn issue of childhood poverty in the Tri-State to bring WCPO readers Below the Line. This is the third story in the series. You can read the first installment and the second installment to learn more.

Childhood poverty will be an ongoing focus for WCPO.

Data: Mark Nichols

Editor: Mike Canan