Soapdish: Better School Choices for Urban Dwellers

Raising a family in the urban core of any city can present more complex challenges than your typical suburban cul-de-sac, however, the rewards of such an experience, in many respects, far outweigh the risks.  When I moved here from Detroit, the poster child for public school dysfunction, corruption and malaise, one of the key factors in deciding where to locate were the public schools, and the quality thereof - provided they were in the respective vicinity of the urban core.  Sure, Cincinnati's reputation for those from afar, interestingly enough, is all about the parochial and private schools spread about the region - St. X, Moeller, Seven Hills, Country Day, Elder, St. Ursula etc.  Looking at the Cincinnati Public Schools, however, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of excellent schools, all in and around the urban core. 

When I moved here, the sellers of my North Avondale house indicated that they were moving to Indian Hill "for the schools."  Ironically enough, however, one of the consistently top 50 ranked public high schools in the country, Walnut Hills, was exactly two miles from the end of my driveway.
The circa 1931 era campus, situated on 24 acres and designed in a Colonial Revival style by Garber & Woodward, overlooks Victory Parkway in Walnut Hills, its two story dome encompassing a sky lit library beneath.  A magnet school located just a few short miles up Gilbert Avenue from downtown, Walnut Hills draws a diverse student body from across the region for its rigorous classical curriculum.  Out of its 1,800+ students, approximately 44% are minorities.  Not one to shy away from the PR machine, Walnut's merits have been historically well-documented in the local media, however, in my humble opinion, those merits cannot be lauded enough.  Simply put, the school is an incredible asset to the city - all smack dab in the heart of the urban core.  

In addition to Walnut, nearby North Avondale Montessori, an elementary school just a mile or so away, is famous for families camping out over night in order to get on their coveted enrollment scrolls.  North Avondale is preparing to welcome back students this fall with a glittering, newly constructed facility rising from the site of its older, outdated home.  

While they are both Cincinnati Public Schools, Walnut and North Avondale are known for their ethnic diversity as well as their educational excellence, all within a few miles of downtown.  While Indian Hills no doubt has an excellent school system, the fact remains that, for a family who wishes to reap the cultural and sociological rewards of urban living, Cincinnati schools present a unique opportunity that more far-flung outposts simply cannot match.  Fairview-Clifton German Language School, a highly coveted magnet school, is yet another example just a few miles away in nearby Clifton.  And let's not forget Clark Montessori in Hyde Park, runner-up in the Obama commencement address sweepstakes, and the nation's first public Montessori high school. 

The point here is that for those wishing to live in and around an urban center the whole school issue is, in many respects, an urban myth - a canard.  Everyone knows the old saw about "we'd love to live in the city….but where would our kids go to school?"  Sorry, but that's one saw that simply doesn't cut it any longer. There are options out there folks.  Sure it may take some effort, but for those wishing to live in the city, it's an effort most assuredly worth taking.  

The Cincinnati Public School system is in year eight of a ten year, $1 billion Facilities Master Plan.  Under the stewardship of superintendant Mary Ronan, the district continues to push forward in updating both physical plants as well as underlying curricula, oftentimes in creative and groundbreaking ways.  For example, not much further out from the aforementioned schools, Pleasant Ridge Montessori offers a newly constructed $15.3 million facility which was the first public K-12 school in Ohio to achieve Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Certification.  Adhering to the sustainable, "green" credo, Pleasant Ridge's 2008-constructed campus features sustainable accoutrements such as solar panels, specially designed utility and mechanical systems, north and south facing windows to prevent sun glare, a white roof to reduce heat absorption, and the use of recycled and locally produced materials in the construction process. 

Hughes Center, also located in Clifton, is a somewhat sprawling and gorgeous structure. Established in 1853, the second oldest school in the system, it was founded with the bequest of a cobbler, Thomas Hughes (side note - I just love when we can work cobblers into the equation), who came to Cincinnati from England in the early nineteenth century.  Hughes' Fairview campus was erected between 1908 and 1911, in a Jacobethan style popular for academic buildings of the era, and is noteworthy for the gargoyles standing sentry on the east-facing exterior. 

While gargoyles, in and of themselves, are a sufficient reason to attend any school, the 1,200 students returning to Hughes this year will also benefit from an immodest $40 million renovation of the entire structure as part of the CPS Facilities Master Plan.  Hughes offers a multitude of unique programs, some in partnership with the University of Cincinnati as well as the Zoo.  These programs include the Cincinnati Academy of Mathematics and Science, High School for the Communications Professions, High School for the Health Professions, High School for Teaching and Technology, Paideia High School and the Zoo Academy.  The "STEM" high school, also at Hughes, is a college-prep focus which includes project-based learning that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Of course, in addition to those mentioned above, the crown jewel/belle of the ball of the grand opening of this season has to be the new School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a gleaming new structure on Central Parkway just south of the soon-to-be-renovated Washington Park.  The $55+ million new school, which draws students from across the city as well as the tri-state region, replaces a late, not-lamented surface parking lot, and will soon be the first public, K-12 performing arts school in the nation.   

Obviously, this is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are many, many other noteworthy schools deserving of mention.  But the point remains that there are, indeed, options. Moreover these are quality options - not just in the "yea we're not Detroit" sense of the word, and in order to realize the benefits, one doesn't have to reflexively go suburban and/or parochial. 

Living in the urban core may not be for everyone, but for those that do, it's good to know that these viable, quality opportunities are out there.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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