CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Public Schools system, once derided for decades of enrollment decline, is looking to add classrooms and maybe even new schools to accommodate high demand and growing enrollment.
About 33,000 students attend CPS schools, and neighborhood schools, which serve nearby families, on the west side of town are filling to capacity.
Many magnet schools, which are open to students from any neighborhood, are also at capacity, including Fairview-Clifton German Language School in Clifton, Sands Montessori in Mount Washington, Dater Montessori in Westwood and Parker Woods Montessori in Northside, which had more applicants than it could accommodate this fall.
"It's a good feeling," said Melanie Bates, a CPS school board member. "Our west side schools are all at capacity. We have to expand, and this is a great opportunity."
Growth after shuttering
Cincinnati taxpayers rallied around a $1 billon capital investment in 2000 that resulted in dilapidated schools being replaced with new buildings, renovated or shuttered.
Planners projected fewer students would be enrolled in CPS schools today and sold many properties.
Bates said the district was smart enough to design new buildings with space for expansions. Buildings that were closed are being evaluated to see if the cost of bringing them up to modern safety standards is cheaper than building new.
"We sold off a lot of them. We needed the money, in addition to the bonds and the state money, to build the new and renovated 55 schools," she said.
She said the district will consider all possibilities for acquiring new properties, including working with the Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati and swapping land with the city.
Janet Walsh, a spokeswoman for the district, said it was far too early in the process to talk about specific sites, which would be considered in closed-door board meetings.
Magnet schools in high demand
CPS was the first public school district in the nation to offer open schools that teach using the Montessori method, which usually involves grouping children into classrooms of different ages and more latitude for students to pursue individual interests.
Dater Montessori in Westwood, which serves preschoolers through sixth-graders, might need to expand to accommodate growth. Parker Woods Montessori in Northside had to turn away families this fall for the first time.
Parents camped out for two weeks every fall to enroll their kindergartners in Clifton-Fairview until the school board eliminated the first-come, first-served option for next year.
Board members promise the lottery system that replaced the campouts will give them a better idea of demand for magnet schools like Clifton-Fairview and Sands Montessori, and they'll direct investments into accommodating those demands.
A new Montessori high school
Clark Montessori High School in Hyde Park and now Gamble Montessori High school in Westwood are at or near capacity, and leaders are considering a new one.
"We're going to definitely need a new Montessori high school," Bates said.
A Walnut Hills High school expansion?
Walnut Hills, consistently ranked one of the top public high schools in Ohio, was built to accommodate 1,900 students but now has an enrollment of about 2,900. Expanding the school is under consideration.
"We're turning away kids from out of district we can't take them, and we're all about equity and inclusion," Bates said.
How to get it done
Ericka Copeland-Dansby, the school board's vice chairwoman, said the district's ongoing Quality Seats Initiative is evaluating demands throughout the system and trying to predict where future needs will be.
"We know that our west-side schools are nearly busting at the seams. That also tells us that the population in our city maybe migrating to the west side," she said.
Copeland-Dansby said the district is trying to respond growth in Over-the-Rhine by studying the best use of the vacant Vine Street Elementary, possibly creating a new preschool there. No decision has been made on what to do there, she said.
"If young families are going to live there with young kids let's be responsive to that," Copeland-Dansby said.
She wants the district to consider opening an elementary school that focuses on the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — that employers are desperate for future workers to learn.
But she also wants the plan to build new and expanded schools to be based on what community members are requesting.
"My push will always be community engagement. We have to ask the community what they want," Copeland-Dansby said.
District administrators are due to present a community engagement plan to the board's partnership/public engagement committee on Oct. 28.
"If we need to acquire property on west side and get that in front of lawmakers, that would be a turning point, a great example of how we can move this district forward," she said.