Rothenberg Preparatory Academy takes learning to new heights on its rooftop garden

'This is their school'

OVER-THE-RHINE -- Kindergartners composting in their classroom. Second graders counting and comparing seeds before planting them. Fourth graders graphing temperature changes over the course of days spent in a garden.

Welcome to Rothenberg Preparatory Academy in Over-the-Rhine, where teachers and administrators with support from community and environmental advocates are poised to take learning to new heights in a rooftop garden classroom. 

The garden space in the freshly renovated and reopened 100-year-old building occupies what was originally the playground. That explains the brick walls that offer protection, but don’t completely obscure glimpses of the church steeples and corporate headquarters that sit within blocks of the school.

Rothenberg, located just north of Liberty Street, is one of two Cincinnati Public Schools built with rooftop playgrounds – efficient ways to serve children in densely populated urban neighborhoods. The other was Oyler School in Lower Price Hill.

For Rothenberg Principal Alesia Smith, the new space for learning fits well with her ongoing efforts at the school as well as the surrounding community.

“It’s always about giving kids opportunities,” said Smith, “always about letting them see the world outside of where they live. Having this rooftop garden is a world outside of where they live.”

While construction workers finish preparing for the garden and outdoor classroom and community spaces, Smith and her team, including garden visionary Pope Coleman of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation and garden manager Bryna Bass, are busy planting seeds for its success.

They weren’t always so optimistic.

Preservation First

Rewind to 2007 when, despite its deep roots in the community, Rothenberg was slated for demolition by state architects who deemed it too expensive to renovate. Its survival depended on support from both mostly low-income neighbors and mostly well-heeled preservationists. The disparate groups prevailed in 2008, when the district committed to renovation.

This fall, the school reopened with its original floors gleaming and original 1913 Rookwood tile water fountains along colorful walls and sparkling new bathrooms. Add to that an on-site laundry, a supply of extra school uniforms for students and after-school activities like ballroom dancing, and you begin to glimpse how carefully Smith and her team have built this community school.

“So many generations of families have gone here,” said Smith, who is in her fifth year as principal.

For them, she said, preserving the school was about more than construction costs: “This [building] has become like a beacon of hope. My parents have a sense of pride, and when you have a sense of pride, you give people hope.”

It was Pope Coleman’s idea to build the rooftop garden. The 87-year-old Coleman, who was also a member of Rothenberg’s community design team, served as lead cheerleader for a new use for the old rooftop.

The former insurance professional had been particularly impressed by the work of Roberta Paolo’s Granny’s Garden School in Loveland -- he wanted to bring a similar program to Over-the-Rhine.

“It’s a schoolroom using a garden to illustrate points,” he said. “This is a big outdoor classroom.”

Smith remembered the first time she met the Coleman, whose white hair and grandfatherly gait belie his laser-like focus on constituency building. He visited her when she took the principal job.

“He brought me flowers,” she said.

Along with blooms, he shared stories of the school’s history and, she added with a smile, plans for the garden.

Community Investment Raises Stakes

Coleman’s charm offensive didn’t stop with the school. He convinced his peers at the Over-the-Rhine Foundation to help him raise the more than $400,000 needed to create the garden, including more than $30,000 to extend the elevator to the roof.

The community development veteran noted that CPS’ Community Learning Center initiatives , which extend the life of new and renovated buildings by fashioning them into community gathering spots, facilitated the creation of the garden.

“We are guests on the roof,” he said of the OTR Foundation, noting that the finished rooftop features spaces for community members, as well as teachers, to gather.

Each teacher has a garden; each student has a portion of a plot, Coleman said. “They can see the effects they had on the ground.”

So far, the Foundation has raised more than $300,000, mostly from foundations, although $1,000 did come from relatives of Louis Rothenberg, the school’s first principal, Coleman said.

Funds allowed them to hire a garden manager, long-time middle-school science teacher Bryna Bass, this fall.

“We’re using this garden as a living laboratory,” said Bass, who also works as a service-learning coordinator for select

elementary schools as a part of Children Inc .

Bass knew Rothenberg through her work with Children Inc. as well as her board member status with Permaganic Eco-Garden , a three-acre permaculture farm and outdoor educational site that hires youth as farmers just across the street from Rothenberg.

“We can’t do everything on the rooftop,” said Bass, who sees Permaganic as a natural resource for Rothenberg’s students. She noted that relationships cultivated early could allow neighborhood youth to turn volunteering into paid apprenticeships. “The Eco-Garden can solidify [students’] place in the community.”

School Opens Doors For Families

Rothenberg’s effort to foster a healthy school environment starts on the ground level, by reaching out to families and neighbors.

On school mornings and afternoons, parents walk their children to and from school, just as the German immigrants who came before them did in the early 1900s. Only now, many of those parents are fathers. They exchange greetings and shake hands with Smith and her colleagues, including the school’s Resource Coordinator Barbara Bell.

Smith liked what she saw at a recent welcome session for parents.

“We had so many parents here,’’ she said. “It’s that sense of ownership. This is their school.”

The barriers to success, though, remain steep. For starters, there’s poverty. More than 96 percent of Rothenberg students come from economically disadvantaged homes. “All students get free breakfast and lunch,” Smith said. Read Rothenberg's most recent Ohio report card here:

Bell and Smith estimate that about 10 percent of parents have cars and few live further than one mile from the school, which means that one bus can serves all of Rothenberg’s 440 students. “It’s old school,” Smith said.

Getting parents on the roof for class projects and meetings not only keeps them involved in their children’s education, it extends the learning potential for the space, whether Bell is hosting a parent workshop about cooking healthy on a budget or supporting parents working toward their General Educational Development tests.

Up On The Roof

Garden manager Bass started talking with teachers about collaborative projects long before the classroom beds have been built.

“I don’t think we’ll have to wait until spring,” Bass said. “There are a lot of opportunities to be in the classroom right now and offer lessons to teachers and students.”

The composting kindergartners may be the first to take advantage of Bass’ expertise, but they won’t be the last.

She envisions bringing math lessons to life by having students compare weight and volume using seeds and working with different types of seeds and plants to identify patterns in math. Students will collect their own data from their own spaces in their own classroom garden and measure changes in variables over time.

When students get their hands dirty, they learn how to measure and make and test predictions in ways they remember.

“It’s applied learning,” Bell said. 

Smith added that helping students connect their academic lessons to the outdoors adds earth-friendly benefits to youth growing up amid brick row houses and endless stretches of concrete.

“When you’re talking about recycling and our environment and being ‘green,’ they will actually get to feel that, touch that, talk about that in a classroom setting,” she said. “It will be directly connected to where they live.”

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