In the mid-1800s, Rev. Dangerfield Early opened the Elm Street School to provide a quality private education to young black residents of Walnut Hills. Over the next 50 years, the school would be annexed into the Cincinnati Public School (CPS) system and renamed for famed writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Although officially integrated, Frederick Douglass Elementary School has always been a haven for African American families. It’s long been a place where students can learn in comfort and safety, without pressure from racial tension outside school walls.
A dozen years ago, Walnut Hills offered two public neighborhood schools: Windsor Elementary and Frederick Douglass. As both buildings aged into functional obsolescence by the end of the 20th century, plans were made to rebuild. In 2004, demographic shifts and population decline forced Windsor School to close; it merged with Frederick Douglass and a new building was completed in 2007, ushering in a new era for Walnut Hills' community school.
Douglass School’s most recent history is a far cry from its beginnings. The school is now struggling with shrinking enrollment and academic failure. The student body is 99 percent low income, with a chronic absenteeism rate of 53.8 percent. According to data from the Economic Center, at the University of Cincinnati, Frederick Douglass registered a failing grade in the state’s most recent performance index, which measures the percentage of students who have passed state tests.
Families with options ‘opt out’
An open-enrollment process allows residents in the Cincinnati Public School system, CPS, to enroll their children in the magnet school of their choice via lottery. This option — along with the many private schools in Walnut Hills — is liberating for wealthier families, but it hits schools like Douglass hard. Rather than integrating the neighborhood school with mixed-income students, middle and high income families simply opt out of the struggling neighborhood school.
Many Walnut Hills parents find themselves torn between a desire to bolster Douglass School and a need to ensure quality education for their kids. This was Kathy Atkinson’s dilemma when she moved to Walnut Hills in 1995. The single mother, new to town, lived on the line between two neighborhood schools — Frederick Douglass and Windsor — neither of which seemed adequate.
Atkinson ultimately chose to enroll her son in another CPS school in a different neighborhood, but the experience stayed with her.
“I remember thinking, if these schools aren’t good enough for my child, they aren’t good enough for any child." - Kathy Atkinson.
"I remember thinking, if these schools aren't good enough for my child, they aren't good enough for any child," said Atkinson. "Something needed to change."
As her children aged out of the school system, Atkinson remained actively involved in Walnut Hills, serving as a volunteer, area council representative and educator. Atkinson continues to advocate for education reform through involvement in various neighborhood development initiatives, including a 2010 community action plan with education as a major focus.
Atkinson believes that although the situation at Douglass is severe, the community of Walnut Hills has the strengths and assets needed for success. Relationships and collaboration, Atkinson says, will help put the pieces together.
Strong neighborhood school, strong neighborhood
Sheena Dunn is also fighting to improve the quality of life in Walnut Hills, starting with its neighborhood school. As Frederick Douglass School’s Community Resource Coordinator, Dunn connects the school with neighborhood families.
Dunn believes that improving the school (and thereby, the neighborhood) will require internal change as well as a shift in public perception. Both things are currently happening, she says, thanks in part to a relatively new principal, Jeff Hall.
“[Principal Hall] is focusing on academics, but also building strength, pride and character,” said Dunn. “He realized there was a culture problem inside this building, inside this neighborhood. In turn, perceptions of the school had been damaged without people really knowing it. This year, our theme is ‘The Shift.’ We’re now in a battle of culture change. We’re in a place where we’re having lots of tough conversations and there’s a lot of high energy and high spirits, but a lot of conflict, which I believe is good. We’re in a place of growth.”
In addition to new standards and expectations for students, the school will offer robust after-school opportunities like See It, Believe It, Achieve It (SBA), a mentoring program that partners with students from nearby Walnut Hills High School, a nationally respected public school that Dunn says most of her students don’t realize exists, much less so nearby and within reach.
Other offerings at Douglass School now include Panther Picassos (art club), Panther Voices (choir), robotics, a step team and the New Wave Swim Club, as well as a popular 4-H program and a garden club called Mr. Cecil's Planting Panthers, after Cecil Evans, a locally beloved resident and volunteer who passed away earlier this year. (Watch a Cincy Stories video tribute to Cecil Evans here
Douglass administrators are working internally to improve the school, but Dunn says recent support from the broader community is a good sign. With very little parental support at the school, the Walnut Hills community must care for the school as it would a family member.
To help forge that reciprocal relationship, in 2007 Douglass embraced a goal of recapturing the school’s history as a community hub where students, parents and community members gather for more than just education. It's a plan based on CPS’s Community Learning Center (CLC)
model, which defines a community school as a place that, “…utilizes school space during extended hours, on weekends and through the summer to provide additional academic support, health resources, social services, arts programming and civic and cultural opportunities to students, their families and the community.”
By adopting this model, Frederick Douglass is pushing for more than just improved academic statistics; the school is rethinking its relationship with the community.
One Douglass parent crusades for community buy-in
Parental involvement is essential to student success at any school but sadly, Sheena Dunn says out of nearly 300 students she has only one truly engaged parent at Douglass School.
Jeanna Martin has lived in Walnut Hills for six years, and two of her children have attended Douglass. Martin has been involved at her kids’ school, serving as the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) president up until the PTA officially disbanded because it had no other members.
Martin is not a traditional PTA mom; she herself didn’t finish high school as a teenager. But after overcoming many personal obstacles, Martin earned her high school diploma 13 years ago and began volunteering at school because, she said, “It gives me something to do. It gives me a purpose.”
This will be Martin’s last year as a Frederick Douglass parent; her daughter ages out of the school this year. But she doesn’t plan to stop being involved — a good thing for the school, since for the past six years, Martin has been more or less alone.
“We have a lot of parents who have other issues, other things to worry about,” said Martin. “And the only time they show up is when their child is in trouble. They’ve got kids to take care of. They’ve got bills to pay. We all have a lot of hindrances, but I wish they would become more involved.”
Martin thinks many families in Walnut Hills will benefit from Douglass adopting the Community Learning Center model. She mentions the lack of medical resources in Walnut Hills and wishes the school could offer a basic clinic for students’ families. She remembers when she was a child in the public school system and how the neighborhood schools used to meet many of those needs. If Frederick Douglass could provide those services, Martin thinks it could engage more parents in the community.
Her advice for other Walnut Hills parents is simple: nothing will change unless you do something about it.
“Don’t talk about it; be about it,” Martin said. “Stop complaining and come say something about it. You might not be the only parent that feels this way. But unless you all get together, it’s just going to stay the way it is.”
Martin’s hopes for the school and community are bigger than just her and her children.
“I want my kids to graduate high school, go onto college and find careers, not just jobs,” she said, adding, “I want that for all the kids, though.”
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.