Jewish and predominantly black schools plan to bridge divides starting with reading a book together

Two schools bridge divides by reading together
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jul 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-14 07:00:08-04

This is the first in a series of stories that will follow the progress of the collaboration between Hays Porter Elementary School and Rockwern Academy.

CINCINNATI – At a time when racial violence is tearing American communities apart, two Greater Cincinnati schools are reaching across racial and economic divides to forge new friendships and understanding by reading a book together.

Two books, actually.

All students from Rockwern Academy, a Jewish day school in Kenwood, and Hays Porter Elementary, a predominantly black Cincinnati Public school in West End, will read "Last Stop on Market Street," and "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm" together this fall.

The books will serve as a launching pad across grades and disciplines and to connect the schools through students becoming pen pals, video conferencing and possibly convening with the books' authors and illustrators.

Most Rockwern students come from middle- and high-income families, and 98 percent of Hays Porter students are from low-income families, giving students the chance to interact with people they normally wouldn't.

"I hope between these two books that we can start the conversation," said Julia Weinstein, Rockwern librarian. "We hope to show with our partner school that we're part of the same community."


Julia Weinstein, Rockwern librarian.

"Market Street" chronicles a bus ride with a child and his grandma, with the boy questioning why they don't have nicer toys or homes and grandma responding with making the boy see the magic and beauty of the world around him.

"Rhino" is a moving story that deals with great personal loss and recovery through the allegory of a rhino and his bird friend.

Nancy Johnson, Hays Porter's reading specialist, hopes her students dream bigger dreams of escaping poverty by interacting with Rockwern students.

"They need these opportunities just to have an outside connection to say I can be someone who does something other than work at McDonald's,' she said. "Instead of saying this is all I can do, that they see the value of education."

Rockwern sought a school to collaborate with, and a Rockwern parent who volunteers as a Hays Porter tutor suggested the West End school.

Johnson said the timing was perfect because Hays Porter debuts this fall as Cincinnati Public Schools' first complete tech elementary school, meaning that all kindergartners and first graders are assigned a tablet computer and second- to third-graders get a laptop provided by the school.

The new technology will be used in coordination with new ways of learning math and English, including expanded use of project-based learning and independent study that will be easily tracked on the computers.

A Hays Porter student using a laptop in class. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools.

"It just seems like it's a perfect fit for the students (using computers) to see another aspect that they can thrive just like any other school," she said.

Hays Porter has significant challenges to overcome. The school received an F on its state report card, with more than 75 percent of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students failing math, reading and social studies tests last year.

Nearly 80 percent of third graders passed the all-important reading test, a relatively bright spot among failing grades.

Both schools hope to build on that reading success with the introduction of Little Free Libraries at and near the schools. The libraries will be stocked with books that Rockwern collects that will be free for residents to borrow and return as they please.

The schools have enlisted the help of Michael Zaretsky, a University of Cincinnati architecture and interior design associate professor and some of his students, who will compete to create the best design for the libraries.

They hope the libraries give children the opportunity to read more at home, which educators point to as a key way for children to develop intellectually and socially as they interact with their parents or other caregivers.

"I don't care if the books don't come back. We'll just keep filling them," Weinstein said.

Johnson plans to enlist her school's fifth- and sixth-grade students in the effort to install the libraries.

This marks Rockwern's seventh time holding an all-school book reading and the fourth time it's shared the endeavor with another school, including:

El Sewedy International Academy of Cincinnati, which incorporates Islamic teaching into its curriculum.

Pleasant Hill Elementary

Joseph and Florence Jewish Day School, formerly Agnon, in Cleveland.

"One of the things we do at our school all the time is talk about helping each other. It's two ways. We can learn from them and they can learn from us," she said.

"We hope that our kids will meet kids from other circles and see that they have more in common than they think they do. It's fun to learn about people from different backgrounds," Weinstein said.

The collaboration with El Sewedy gave Jewish students a chance to visit a mosque, often for the first time, and for Muslim students to visit a synagogue for the first time.

The experience resonated, with graduates of the two schools sometimes reconnecting at Walnut Hills High School or elsewhere.

Weinstein said students quickly move on from exploring differences to bonding over video games they like or junk food they eat.

The project is just beginning, and Weinstein is hoping to raise $15,000 to fully fund the Little Free Libraries and pay for some of the authors to visit Cincinnati to meet together with students from both schools.

Part of that money would cover bringing author Susan Schaefer Bernardo to Cincinnati but not his co-author, LeVar Burton, who is famous for his roles on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Roots," and as host of "Reading Rainbow."

Luring Burton would take a bigger community effort, Weinstein said.

"If other people in the broader Cincinnati community want to partner with us in any way I'd be open to suggestions," she said.

She doesn't expect the inter-school collaboration to solve all the world's problems, but Weinstein thinks it's a step in the right direction. 

"When these children meet each other then they have their own experience with a different community. What I hope is that they think on this and reflect on this. If we start with the kids, we have a bigger chance of reducing stereotypes," she said.