A Regional Education Initiative Worth Striving For

As the greater Cincinnati region moves into the second decade of the new millennium, the city's urban core faces numerous significant challenges but perhaps none more crucial than the effective education of its children.

Ten years ago, as Cincinnati entered the 2000's, its school system was failing to graduate 25 percent of its student body population. Across the Ohio River, Cincinnati's neighbors weren't fairing much better - only 52% of Newport and Covington High School graduates were planning to attend post-secondary institutions. Government and industry leaders questioned whether local schools could provide a competent, educated workforce capable of servicing the city's business community.  Clearly, something had to be done.

In August 2006, a broad cross section of the city's governmental, educational, business and non-profit community gathered for a news conference on the Purple People Bridge to announce that they had a plan to mend the region's ailing education system. That solution, called Strive, is an initiative meant to redefine the region's educational system.  By ensuring that students be prepared for school, supported in and out of the classroom, and, upon graduation from high school, enrolled in college or career training, the partners that comprise Strive believe each child would have the opportunity to enter a meaningful career.  This holistic approach would encompass all facets of education and student support, and would include those students who had dropped out or were at risk.      

It Takes a Village
And while no one at the time of Strive's initial press conference four years ago doubted the need for such an initiative, there were those who wondered whether or not Strive was just another well-intentioned, but ill-equipped effort destined for mixed results. To its credit, Strive has not seen fit to duck or minimalize neither the difficulty nor the enormity of its task.

To accomplish its goals and get the necessary community buy-in, Strive convened the educators who teach, the non-profits that support teaching and well-being, the philanthropies that provide financial support, the elected officials who create policy change, and the corporations who need a local, skilled workforce. Recognizing that change in one district would not ensure community wide success, Strive's organization stretches across state lines in an unprecedented attempt to effect change not only throughout a single school system, but also throughout the region.

It's now nearly four years later and while many may not have heard of Strive, let alone had an opportunity to witness Strive's work in Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky classrooms, its relative anonymity is about to come to an abrupt end.  Today, over 300 partners are working across Strive's Roadmap to Success to ensure the success of each and every student in these three districts.  Efforts are underway to more fully engage students, parents and educators as an integral part of the initiative.  And while Strive has been launched into the national spotlight, local leaders have also embraced the partnership as a major tenant of our regional civic agendas, Agenda 360 and Vision 2015, recognizing the undeniable role education plays in our region's overall economic development strategy.   

In a recent conversation with Soapbox, Strive leadership further indicated that improvement would also be reflected in their 2010 Report Card, to be released later this month.  Specifically, according to Strive, data that measures the initiative's impact has improved over last year's report as 40 of 53 indicators Strive uses to evaluate success are on the rise.  These indicators include a large increase in 4th and 8th grade math aptitude for Cincinnati Public students, as well as an increase in high school graduation rates, and number of graduates enrolling in college. Covington Schools also enjoyed large increases in 4th grade reading and math scores as well as an increase in graduates enrolling in college; Newport schools have seen similar results.  Furthermore, the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University are reporting that students are entering more prepared, and associate degrees being granted are on the rise at Cincinnati State and Gateway Community and Technical College.

In addition, the Strive Partnership is focusing its resources on a number of key strategies that they believe will be levers for "moving the needle" on outcomes.  Some early strategies the partnership has initially identified include supporting Success By 6 in leading early childhood successes, driving the creation of data systems to create a stronger infrastructure for effective decision making, supporting the creation of STEM schools in Cincinnati Public Schools, and more effectively engaging the community, students, parents and educators in seeking solutions.

Every child. Every step of the way.
Anecdotally, there are also bright spots: Terron Moton is currently a student at Cincinnati State studying business management.  Moton attended Middletown High after his mother brought him to Cincinnati from Chicago - ostensibly to protect him from life on the streets.  At Middletown, he played some basketball but was only able to complete the tenth grade, ultimately leaving school without a diploma. He then spent, "a rough couple years on the street, got arrested a few times and did some time in juvenile detention." None of which made much of an impression on him. That is, until he found himself in the adult system.

After finding it hard to get anywhere without a diploma, he investigated Connect2Success (C2S), a Strive partner. Moton attended about a month and a half of classes, two to three days a week, and studied outside of class another several days a week.  After a month and a half, he was ready to take and pass the GED.

"I would have never gotten to where I'm at so fast without Connect2Success," Moton says. "The program was a definite boost to helping me find my way."  Now his long-term goal is to own a business. "I'd like to own maybe a retail business or a barber shop, something I'm familiar with."

Raquel Grant also attended C2S. and credits the program with giving her a chance to realize her dreams. Grant grew up in Batavia and later moved to Cincinnati.  She attended both traditional and nontraditional schools, but felt that she could not fit in either setting.

Grant says that she found herself constantly being excluded because she "spoke like a white girl." Grant, however, refused to be discouraged. Within a year of leaving her last high school she completed her GED. She's now studying for her SAT with the hopes of attending San Francisco State to study fashion.

Wooten and Grant are two examples that indicate that Strive and its partner programs can work.  Arguably, the more important question is, why?

To find out why one only has to visit C2S, located in the larger agency called SuperJobs at 1916 Central Parkway. On a rainy Friday morning, off to the side of the lobby, there are a knot of people sitting at a pod of computers looking for work on the Internet. In the back are a series of cubicles housing various agency employees. In a second computer room, behind the cubicles, are gathered a group of students, all of whom are working or have recently worked to obtain their GED through C2S. Included in this group are Raquel and Terron. It's here, in the back of this converted hardware store, that one finds the heart and soul of C2S: Will White and Darren Thigpen.

White and Thigpen are Cincinnati natives and serve as C2S's Employment and Training Facilitators.  In reality, they're that and much more. They are also tutors, mentors, guides and, most importantly, role models to the young people who come here. It's clear from watching the students at C2S, as they circle about Thigpen and White, that these men are the pole stars for these kids.  Students come and go asking advice, telling stories and confiding hopes.  One young boy, a recent transplant from California begins to regale Thigpen with what is clearly the latest chapter in an ongoing drama.  He recounts how recently while visiting a relative, he, through no fault of his own, became enmeshed in gang-banging.

Thigpen listens and then begins to counsel.  He does not counsel as a bored social worker might or someone who's been on the job too long and has heard it all.  Rather, his tone of voice is authentic and fatherly.  He talks to the student in even, low tones and it's obvious that he cares a great deal. In fact, it takes only several minutes of watching Thigpen and White to understand that they perform well outside their written job descriptions and they are not at Connect 2 Success just for the paycheck.

Thigpen tells his student "you've come too far to end up that way.  You may as well just have stayed home and never even tried.  Don't end up that way," he says.

His tone is neither harsh nor pleading, but carries with it the informed assertion of a man who has been through the wars, and has seen what could happen, what does happen all too frequently. GED's, while important, are clearly not the only thing on Thigpen's mind.  That's part of Strive's adoptive approach, from "cradle to career."

In the end, it's clear that any success this partnership will achieve will ultimately have to rely not just upon data or report cards, but with interested educators and community leaders like Thigpen and White. The entire community must be a part of the solution.  It will clearly take people who exceed expectations and obligations and who are willing to reach out to make a difference. Not because there's a paycheck in it, but because it's clearly the right thing to do.    

Stay tuned for more from Soapbox about Strive, including details about Strive Week, May 10-14 and the launch of the Strive 2010 Report Card.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Classroom at SuperJobs on Central Pkwy
Raquel Grant and Darren Thigpen
Terron Wooten
Raquel Grant
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