Below the Line: CISE provides Cincinnati inner-city kids a path out of poverty with Catholic school

'The whole CISE difference is hope'

Correction: The amount of money that CISE spends on each of its students was misstated in the original version of this story and has been corrected. WCPO regrets the error.

As part of WCPO's ongoing coverage of childhood poverty, we are profiling local organizations helping families out of poverty. This is the third in a series of three stories about what is working. Click here to read the first story. Click here to read the second story.

CINCINNATI — Antoinette Jackson attended public schools growing up in Cincinnati. She graduated from high school and later got a two-year degree, but she wanted something different for her kids.

So when it was time for her daughter, Trinity, to start kindergarten, Jackson enrolled her at St. Boniface Elementary School in Northside even though Jackson wasn't raised as a Catholic.

"I wanted her to have a better education than I had," said Jackson, who is 34. "They gave her more of a challenge. Some of the stuff that she knows, I don't even know."

Trinity, now 14 and a freshman at Roger Bacon High School, attended St. Boniface through eighth grade. Her younger sister is a second-grader there now.

"I'm just happy to be in a Catholic school," Trinity said. "We have more one-on-one. And they get you prepared for college and all that. They're on you with SATs, ACTs."

As much as Trinity and her mom appreciate that Catholic school education, Jackson said she never could have afforded the tuition for Trinity and her sister without the Catholic Inner-city Schools Education Fund, or CISE.

Launched in 1980, CISE raises money to help poor, inner-city youth attend eight Catholic elementary schools located in various Cincinnati neighborhoods. CISE also raises money to award grants to graduates of those eight schools who are admitted to Catholic high schools in town and need financial support to attend them.

The organization started as a way to keep inner-city Catholic schools open as enrollment declined in the 1970s and has become one of the primary ways the Archdiocese of Cincinnati fights poverty, said Cary Powell, the director of CISE.

"Our donors believe in Catholic education, and they believe it's the most transformational gift they can give young people," Powell said. "Does it make a long-term impact on their lives? Absolutely. We know that for all kinds of different reasons."

It costs $6,000 annually to educate each of the 1,806 students in pre-school through eighth grade that the organization supports. CISE allocates its funding based on enrollment and the number of students with and without state vouchers and allocates an average of $1,300 per student. Of those students:

• 90 percent live in households with incomes at or below the federal poverty level

• 79 percent are minorities

• 78 percent are not Catholic

On average 63 percent of the eighth-graders who graduate from one of the CISE elementary schools go on to attend a Catholic high school, and 86 percent of the CISE students who apply to Catholic high schools are offered admission.

"I have always seen the CISE program as being a step out of poverty," said Michael Flick, director of the Center for Catholic Education at Xavier University. "Education is the way out."

The people who run CISE believe more specifically that a Catholic education is the way out.

"I really think the whole CISE difference is hope — that these kids do see maybe a different path for themselves," Powell said. "It's taught. You should be hopeful, and faith is taught."

'Things Are Getting Worse'

Tiffany Love credits CISE with giving her six children the opportunity for a better future.

Love dropped out of Western Hills High School when she became pregnant and later got her GED. She has raised her four sons and two daughters to value education, and the CISE schools reinforce that, she said.

"I want them to have the best life possible," said Love, who has three sons at Elder High School and two daughters and a son at Holy Family Elementary School in East Price Hill — all with the financial support of CISE. "I know what can happen when you don't take your education serious."

With the support of CISE, Love said, whenever she talks to her kids about college, "we don't talk about 'if,' we talk about 'when,'" she said. "I want them to think: 'When I go to college.' That way it's in their mind. It's in their head."

As a college graduate who benefited from CISE throughout elementary school and high school, Robert Shields said he looks back and appreciates the values his teachers instilled.

"Diversity was always a big thing," he said. "Understanding other people's perspectives and being empathetic towards others. There were always values like that."

Shields attended Holy Family Elementary from kindergarten through eighth grade and went to Elder High School after that.

His family was poor, he said, although he didn't really understand that at the time.

"It was never a conversation you had as a child," he said. "There were some times in the middle of grade school when my dad was not with us. He was locked up for a little bit. That was rough for my mom."

Robert Shields in 8th grade

Even after Shields' father rejoined the family, he could never find a good, stable job and ended up working for cash for years.

Still, Shields' mom and dad valued education and always encouraged him and his older brother to focus on school, he said.

Shields, now 26, graduated this year from the University of Cincinnati with a master's degree in social work. He already had earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from UC with a minor in Spanish. He now works as a school-based therapist for Lighthouse Youth Services, a nonprofit focused on the well being of children and youth.

"I'm working with kids that live in Price Hill, and it's almost like things are getting worse," he said. "You name it, and we see it all the way from kids who are suicidal to running away or who don't have running water."

Robert Shields in October 2012 while teaching English in Spain.

Shields said he doesn't know where he would be without the education he got with the help of CISE.

'It's What They Learn'

Over the years, the mission of CISE has grown to include helping to improve the academic results of its eight elementary schools, providing preschool and working to offer more behavioral health services to students in need. There is more to be done.

"We know that (the eight schools) are lacking in terms of access to a school nurse every day, all day," said Cate O'Brien, CISE's assistant director for education.

"We've got mental health needs that are always great. That's not getting any better," O'Brien said of the students living in poverty who attend the CISE schools. "And we have deep concern over toxic stress."

Even with all those challenges, though, the teachers and staff at CISE schools ensure that their students understand and believe education is the way out of poverty, said Xavier University's Flick.

Xavier has trained most of the CISE schools' teachers and administrators in how to make the focus of the schools learning instead of teaching, Flick said.

Antoinette Jackson's daughters Trinity, left, and Serenity at St. Boniface School. (Photo by Phil Didion for WCPO)

"It doesn't sound like that's a big change. But it's not what you teach, it's what they learn," Flick said. "In the old days, teachers would say, 'I taught it. They didn't learn it.' That's not good enough anymore."

That focus on learning and the well being of students came through even years ago when Shields was in grade school and high school, he said.

"I really know those teachers cared about us, that's for sure," Shields said. "There are always those ones that impact you and ones in particular that valued the community and respect in each other."

Trinity said she has felt that all through her school years, too.

"They encourage you," she said. "If you, like, try to give up, they're there to be, like, 'No. You're not going to give up.'"

The CISE Way

It's that pushing and perseverance and caring that has convinced Jackson that a Catholic school education is worth it for her girls.

It's not a free ride — especially in high school.

Each family's situation is different. So each Catholic high school principal determines how much a family should pay, said Sharon Civitello, CISE's spokeswoman.

"It's the CISE way for the family to have skin in the game, to say there's value in what I'm giving my son or daughter," Powell said.

Jackson believes that there is, she said.

She likes the smaller class sizes at St. Boniface, and she appreciates the emphasis on faith.

"It's something to grow into," she said.

Jackson is pushing her daughters to take their education farther than she did and to finish college before they start having children of their own.

"I tell them to go out there and experience the college life," Jackson said. "Go out there and reach as many goals as you can so they can experience a different kind of life than I did."

Jackson tells Trinity, especially, that she could be set by the time she is 25 if she stays on the right path, goes to college and gets a good job.

"It's hard out here," Jackson said.

Trinity doesn't doubt it. She hears stories from her friends at other schools about the fights and the bad behavior and teachers who don't seem to care as much, she said.

And while her big dream is to play in the WNBA, Trinity's backup plan is to go to college and get a degree in social work.

"I want to help with foster kids or be a probation officer — stuff like that," she said.

It's the kind of giving back that gets taught daily at the CISE schools, O'Brien said, and it makes a difference in the lives of kids living in poverty.

"The culture in all those schools is, 'What are you going to say to God at the end of your life?' And it can't be that I sat around and did nothing," O'Brien said. "That has an impact."

Antoinette Jackson, left, with her daughters Serenity, center, and Trinity. (Photo by Phil Didion for WCPO)

To learn more about CISE or to donate, go to www.CISEFund.org.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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