In the first half of the 20th century, as Walnut Hills became a center of African American life and culture in Cincinnati, it also carved out an identity as a center of education for black and white residents alike.
From its earliest days, Walnut Hills residents have had convenient access to a number of schools, both public and private, from elementary to seminary.
In 1830, during an era of extreme social and political unrest nationwide, Presbyterian groups founded Lane Theological Seminary. The school remained at Gilbert Avenue for 100 years, and would become a central figure in the abolitionist movement for its efforts to facilitate difficult public discussions about race and slavery. The issue would ultimately divide the institution.
Several decades later, Rev. Dangerfield Early started what would become Frederick Douglass Elementary School, an institution that continues to hold a significant place
in black culture and education in Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, East Walnut Hills is home to a handful of private elementary schools: the neighborhood parish St. Francis de Sales has educated children since 1877 and Mercy Montessori opened in 1969. Private, independent college-preparatory school Seven Hills’ Doherty campus is tucked away on a picturesque street nearby.
Neighboring Evanston is home to Walnut Hills High School, which consistently ranks among the nation’s top 100, while two prestigious offerings — St. Ursula Academy and Purcell Marian — are within walking distance. Dohn Community High School, a tuition-free charter for at-risk students, opened in 2001.
In 1977, the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities (a non-traditional, private, nonprofit, research university) moved its central facilities to Walnut Hills and, in 1989, became The Union Institute.
Cycle of poverty and low education
As Walnut Hills entered the 21st century, educational opportunities remained robust, but for a multitude of reasons — primarily financial ones — many residents either did not or could not take advantage of them. The impact of these opportunities remained beyond reach for many Walnut Hills residents.
According to 2013 city data
, 40 percent of adults in Walnut Hills had never finished high school, more than double the Cincinnati average of 16 percent. Only 38 percent had completed an associate’s degree or higher. Poverty rates, also, remained well above local averages.
The connection between residents’ lack of education and the neighborhood’s high poverty rate is undeniable, but the symbiotic nature of this relationship is much more complicated.
A 2016 report
by Ohio’s Development Services Agency (a state affiliate of the U.S. Census Bureau) reported that nearly 30 percent of Ohio residents over the age of 24 who did not achieve a high school diploma are now living in poverty.
Looking to the neighborhood school for clues
The aforementioned Frederick Douglass Elementary — traditionally Walnut Hills’ neighborhood school — enjoys a rich history of African American pride and culture. These days, the school’s struggles reflect those of the neighborhood.
Between 1994 and 2014, Frederick Douglass lost more than 20 percent of its enrollment. Demographics shifted, as well, to almost 100 percent African American by 2015. (In 1988, the student body was much more diverse, with white students making up 24.5 percent.)
The school’s statewide ranking
in academic performance has averaged in the sixth percentile over the past 10 years, making it one of the lowest-ranking schools across the state and in Cincinnati.
The decline of Walnut Hills’ neighborhood school dealt a major blow to a neighborhood that was once a beacon of opportunity for Cincinnati’s African American residents. It also contributes to the public perception of Walnut Hills as a dead end.
But with the fate of the neighborhood so closely tied to the success of its neighborhood public school, many in the community are committed to making a difference. The past few years have brought many small but significant changes.
A few years ago, Frederick Douglass came under the leadership of a new principal who is working to change the school from the inside out. A sharper focus on pride and character building is challenging students with new cultural expectations in the hope that it will pave the way for better academic achievement and personal success.
The video below shares the story of Christina Brown, one community activist who relocated to Walnut Hills after college to fight longstanding perceptions of Frederick Douglass School and aid in neighborhood redevelopment with Douglass as a central component.
There is also a move to implement the Cincinnati Public Schools Community Learning Centers
model of schools as neighborhood hubs — places where parents, children and neighbors can gather for life-long learning and support.
For now, the school administration has a lot of ground to cover and such significant changes happen slowly.
Editor’s Note: Next week’s On The Ground feature story will take a more in-depth look at the historic changes taking place at Frederick Douglass School.
With the Frederick Douglass School still struggling toward success, some Walnut Hills parents have sought other options.
CPS offers magnet options with a lottery-style enrollment process: if a child secures a spot, their family can remain in Walnut Hills while sending the student to their school of choice, free of cost. For parents willing to submit to the lottery process, this can be an excellent inroad to the district’s highest-ranking schools.
For those interested in affordable private or parochial options, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Inner-City School Education
(CISE) fund provides scholarships for low-income students.
St. Francis de Sales in East Walnut Hills is one of eight Cincinnati schools that participate in the CISE program and it draws many students from Walnut Hills. The student body is nearly 100 percent African American, almost entirely low-income and more than 85 percent of students receive financial aid to attend.
But even with these and other options available to Walnut Hills families, the neighborhood’s most underserved youth often default to the struggling Frederick Douglass School, while their wealthier neighbors go elsewhere.
Parents with options ask, ‘What if?’
Steve and Kelly Carr have lived in Walnut Hills for 11 years. When their daughter, now in fifth grade, was approaching elementary school, they were disappointed with the quality of their neighborhood school and opted instead for CPS magnet Fairview German Language School.
The Carrs weren’t alone in their decision. Nearly all middle- and high-income families in Walnut Hills opt out of the neighborhood school. (This is especially true of neighboring East Walnut Hills, which shares both a zip code and the neighborhood school with Walnut Hills, but almost no East Walnut Hills children attend Frederick Douglass.)
In recent years, Kelly Carr has seen changes in Walnut Hills, academically and otherwise. She wonders what would have happened if they had taken the chance and enrolled their daughter in the flagship school for the neighborhood they love so much.
“I'll never forget the words of my friend and neighbor,” Kelly Carr said. “She looked around at several of us whose kids are at Fairview together and said, ‘Look at this great group of parents. What if we had all known each other before enrolling at Fairview. What if we had gotten together and sent our kids to Douglass and vowed to make a difference?’”
At the time, though, there didn’t seem much of a choice. The Carrs did what seemed best at the time.
Kelly explained, “I'll admit I wasn’t ready to be a lone advocate back when my daughter was younger. Nor was I one to rally strangers together toward a cause. I was trying to figure out how to be a parent to a baby, then a toddler, then a preschooler. I didn't have confidence as a mom, much less being active about making a change.”
With hindsight, she said, she may have chosen differently. “If I had known these parents back then and if I had the gumption to believe in myself and my potential to be an agent of change — what if?”
As Walnut Hills moves into a 21st-century model of educating local youth, it taps into its historic identity as a community that has survived 200 years on a strength that is greater than its temporary deficits. Neighborhood residents like Carr, and others closely aligned with the vision of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation
, will rely on that strength to support better educational opportunities for all Walnut Hills residents, regardless of income or ability.
On The Ground takes an in-depth look at Walnut Hills, one of Cincinnati’s oldest and most culturally diverse communities. Over 12 weeks, our team will offer insight into the people, places and projects that have long defined the neighborhood, as well as its plans for moving toward a bright future.
On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support for data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.