CINCINNATI – Fixing Cincinnati’s lowest-performing neighborhood schools was the top priority for a slate of nine candidates at a forum Thursday night in Northside.
This year’s race is an extraordinary one, with just one incumbent, Melanie Bates, running for reelection with four seats on the ballot in the Nov. 5 general election.
The nine candidates bring 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.
“You are one of the most outstanding groups of school board candidates I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many,” said Carolyn Miller, the forum’s moderator.
Bates, a board member since 2002, led off the forum with the boldest objective of the night. “We are going to be the best district in the country,” she said. Twelve years ago, few would have believed that the school district would undergo a $1 billion capital project to transform its buildings, she said. There’s no reason the district can’t continue improving dramatically, she said.
The issue of inconsistent quality within the school system came up repeatedly, 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.
Sally O’Callaghan, a former Cincinnati Public teacher who camped out at Fairview Clifton, said the disparity is unacceptable. One of her main goals is to work toward universal, quality preschool throughout the district, which multiple studies indicates is an effective way to boost literacy by third grade.
“We need to bring excellence to every building,” she said. “Until I would be willing to send my kids to any school, we’re falling short. If it isn’t good enough for me, it shouldn’t be good enough for anyone.”
Marcia Futel, a former Convergys manager and current board president of Parents for Public Schools of Greater Cincinnati, wants to bring a business sensibility to the board. “We need to treat our parents as valued customers,” she said, adding that a deep analysis of what is going right and wrong is in order.
Ericka Copeland-Dansby, director of resource development with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati, promotes a four point plan that she said will help lift up the poorest schools: equity in education; excellence in the classroom; preparing students for 21st century jobs; and empowering parents and the community.
“We must raise the academic achievement of every student in every school in every community,” she said.
Elisa Hoffman, who has worked in education for 17 years, said CPS’s graduation rate of 66 percent was unacceptable. Outcomes could be improved with more interaction with parents, an increase in the number of high-quality preschools and a better system of hiring new teachers as Baby Boomers retire in large numbers.
Daniel Minera, a native of Guatemala and the only man running for the board, said poverty is the overarching problem that leads to poor outcomes in school. He wants a broader range of secondary services to help students perform, including Spanish translators for the growing number of Latino families entering the school system.
“There is a disconnect between the community and what is happening in the school system. Wrap-around services need to be emphasized,” he said.
Victoria Straughn, board member of the Cincinnati chapter of National Action Network and of Interfaith Workers Center, supports the idea of CPS’s Community Learning Centers, which work to connect schools to the surrounding community with education, health and social services and recreation. But she said red tape prevents people from using the centers as much as they’d like, being turned away from using athletic fields or rooms for liability reasons, a problem she intends to fix, she said.
Betsy Shank, who taught at Walnut Hills High School for 29 years, thinks the current board is on the right track with room for improvement. “I want to build upon the success that the present board has had. The things that need improvement include community involvement, ensuring financial stability and leadership accountability,” she said.
Martha Good is a former CPS teacher who is proud her children were educated by CPS and went on to pursue degrees at Oberlin, Yale and Harvard. She thinks Cincinnati can compete and win against charter schools and other non-public options.
“While it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a school to make a great city,” she said. “One of my goals is to attract more and more students from charter schools and others.”
Good agreed with the moderator on the quality of the slate of candidates: “We’re really fortunate to have an excellent group,” she said, adding, “We don’t have anybody running who is opposed to public education.”
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