Friday, July 14, 2000

Church hopes school helps neighborhood rise

Episcopal diocese hopes to use former museum

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Marie Johnson welcomes a new inner-city school proposed by the Episcopal Church Diocese of Southern Ohio.

        The Over-the-Rhine mother believes a school with smaller classrooms, more individual attention and a focus on values could give kids a jump on a good education and decent jobs.

        The school “could help a lot of our kids come up a little bit on reading and math because they do miss a lot,” said Ms. Johnson, mother of 11-year-old Ritamarie. “It could help the neighborhood.”

        Instead of parachuting in with occasional relief programs, the Episcopal Church wanted to offer a long-term change in some of the city's neediest neighborhoods.

        Church officials have made a deal with the Cincinnati Museum Center to swap a building on Gest Street with a Gilbert Avenue landmark, the former Natural History Museum. Cincinnati City Council must give final approval because they have leased the Gilbert Avenue property to the Museum Center.

        The church hopes to open the school in September 2001 to 125 students from pre-school to third grade. Eventually, classes would extend to eighth grade and the school enrollment would grow to 350.

        “If kids from the center city don't have the kind of quality education right from the start, they're not going to be able to test into the really outstanding schools that do exist,” said the Rev. Bob Hansel, who came out of retirement to spearhead the diocese's project. “Their future educational options by default have been closed, and that's just not right.”

        In addition to helping inner-city students, the school also wants to encourage diversity. Enrollment will be at least half inner-city students, with suburban students — dropped off by commuting parents — filling the rest of the slots.

        “We're looking for parents who are commited to the idea that preparing kids for the world we live in includes more than a suburban experience,” said the Rev. Dr. Hansel. “The school would expose children to all kinds of people across social, economic, racial and religious backgrounds.”

        The diocese, which includes 26,000 members in Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and the rest of southern Ohio, likely will contribute about 10 percent of the total cost of the project, which could reach $9 million with renovations at Gilbert Avenue.

        The rest of the money is to come from individual and corporate donations. The Rev. Dr. Hansel would not divulge the amount of money raised so far.

        The school would not receive tax money. Tuition likely would run $7,000. The Rev. Dr. Hansel expects at least 25 percent of the students to receive full scholarships. Classroom size would be about 12 students per teacher. Although Cincinnati Public Schools averages 14.6 students, Ms. Johnson said her daughter's fifth-grade class had nearly 30. The state average is 16.3, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

        Xavier education professor Michael Brandt anticipates an increasing number of faith-based organizations will experiment with education alternatives. The former CPS superintendent attributes part of the rise to charter schools — for which the state pays the per pupil cost. In fact, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy will open an elementary charter school this fall in the former Crosley Square Building at Ninth and Elm.

        But, he cautions, the obstacles of finding adequate funding, attracting top-notch teachers and providing continued training are difficult to overcome.

        “Just because it's a private enterprise doesn't mean the challenges go away,” he said.

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