CINCINNATI -- Voters created perhaps the most diverse Cincinnati Public School board to date, with the election of its first-ever Latino member, the first alumna of Teach for America and business and union backed candidates.
It was also an affirmation of the path that the previous seven-member board had forged, with the lone incumbent, Melanie Bates, garnering the most votes by a large margin. The three newcomers – Ericka Copeland-Dansby, Elisa Hoffman and Daniel Minera – praised their predecessors for past improvements, though they each promised to improve schools during their tenure.
“I think the voters want to see a reflection of what’s happening in our city on their school board,” said Minera, a Guatemalan immigrant who is director of Hispanic Outreach at City Gospel Mission. “They want representatives for all students, and I believe that the city understands that Cincinnati Public Schools can be even greater than what it is.”
There are about 33,000 children who attend Cincinnati Public Schools. About 70 percent are African-American, 24 percent are white, 2.6 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are of mixed race.
Bates and Minera were endorsed by the teacher’s union while Copeland-Dansby and Hoffman were endorsed by the Cincinnati Business Committee.
Brewster Rhoads, a longtime political campaign organizer and now executive director of environmental advocacy group Green Umbrella, said the group’s diversity would be an asset to the school system.
“I think it’s a good day for Cincinnati schools,” he said, noting that the group included an African American woman (Copeland-Dansby), a veteran of the board in Bates, a Teach for America alumna in Hoffman and Minera, a man and the board’s first-ever Latino.
Copeland-Dansby’s long experience working with social agencies, including the Urban League and currently as development director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati, brings needed grass-roots affiliation to the board, Rhoads said.
Three of the four are current or former parents of CPS school children, which he believes will make the board more in tune to the concerns of parents throughout the school system.
“There’s a higher percentage of current or former parents than I can recall in a dog’s age,” Rhoads added.
Over and over, election observers and the candidates themselves praised the entire field of candidates for being extraordinarily well-qualified and well-intentioned.
Kent Friel, a Cincinnatus Association leader and longtime public schools advocate, called Bates a steady leader and thinks that Hoffman will be an outstanding addition given her dedication through her work with Teach for America to tackling the problems that plague inner-city schools.
“I think they all support the direction the district is going in,” he said.
Bates took her win as a message that voters want the district to continue on its current path, which she thinks will lead to CPS being the best public school district in the country.
Short-term priorities include hammering out a new contract with the teacher’s union, she said, and establishing a new system to build excellence with principals and other school leaders.
Hoffman, director of centralized hiring with Teach for America, successfully reached out to colleagues around the country for support and to a diverse mix of groups within the city, including businesses.
“I was amazed at how much people cared, whether I was talking with the CEO of a business or a community organizer,” Hoffman said in an interview on a chilly Eighth Street between the board of elections and Arnold’s, where she joined other revelers.
She plans to join others on the board to push the expansion of preschool offerings in the district, which she said would be a “game-changer” in the lives of students. She also wants to explore ways to increase parent involvement, perhaps with call-in hours instead of demanding parents come to board meetings that may conflict with their work or family schedules.
This year’s race for the Cincinnati Public Schools board was unusually competitive, featuring nine candidates, each with a long resume, running for four seats. Board President Eileen Cooper Reed, along with Catherine Ingram and Vanessa White, chose not to seek reelection, leaving Bates as the only incumbent on the ballot. White ran for city council, finishing 14th for the nine-member council.
Fixing the lowest performing schools, expanding preschool offerings and expanding and improving the district’s Community Learning Centers emerged as top issues.
The district has high performers like Walnut Hills High School and Clifton Fairview German Language School where parents camp out for up to two weeks to secure a spot – but many of its neighborhood schools are fraught with problems.
Under a new evaluation system, the Ohio Department of Education gave CPS six F's, one D and two C's in August, highlighting the need for improvement in areas like its 66 percent four-year high school graduation rate and 68 percent five-year rate.
The nine candidates brought a broad mix of experience, including former teachers, executive leadership in the private and public sectors and many who sent their children through the CPS system.
The issue of inconsistent quality within the school system was a campaign theme, with candidates lamenting how parents camp out for 10 or 12 days and nights to enroll their kindergartners at Fairview Clifton Language School in Clifton while neighborhood schools suffer from high dropout rates and poor outcomes.
The district has prioritized early literacy – working to make students literate by third grade to boost success later; full implementation of the common-core academic standards; and employing more technology.
The newcomers are expected to continue with those priorities, though some, like Minera, are approaching the job with an open mind.
He sees contract negotiations and implementing common core standards as the short-term priorities.
“We’re going to have to do our homework,” he said.
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