Princeton City Schools—A patchwork of diversity and partnerships

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among local jurisdictions. 

The ways forty-nine Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive with innovative solutions and the ties that bind them together is the focus of a new series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. We’ll explore the diversity and ingenuity of longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand our collective thoughts and actions to galvanize revitalization in the city’s tried and true first-ring.

Princeton City Schools is a unique facet of the greater Cincinnati community, as it is one of the most diverse school systems in the state of Ohio. With expansive, updated facilities, and a name harkening back to the PR phone prefix once used within the vicinity around thoroughfare Princeton Pike, the Princeton City School district is now home to a very large student population that is a collage of representative groups from several disparate area communities.

The more than 6,000 students of Princeton City Schools are currently spread throughout two high schools, two middle schools, eight elementary and six preschools. This massive construct resulted in part from eight much smaller school districts opting to consolidate back in the mid 1950’s.

“We are made up of the city of Sharonville, the city of Springdale, the village of Woodlawn, the village of Evendale, the village of Lincoln Heights, and the village of Glendale,” explains Tricia Roddy, Director of Communications for Princeton City Schools. “And then we have also parts of Blue Ash, parts of Symmes Township, parts of Sycamore Township, and parts of West Chester.”

Roddy notes that the district’s span includes parts of Butler and Warren Counties, although most of it falls across Hamilton County.

“We've been using the hashtag ‘Our community is our campus. Our campus is our community.’ We feel like we're involved in so many different communities right now, because all the diversity of where people live,” says Roddy.

Minority enrollment in the district is 80%, with 68.7% of the student population considered economically disadvantaged. The general division of the student body is around 38% Black, 30% Hispanic/Latino and 20% Caucasian. Nearly 22% of the students are ELL, or English Language Learners – meaning that English is not their first language. Most of these are Hispanic students. About 13% of students have disabilities.

The population of students in the district is a representative microcosm of the surrounding areas, brought together with the purpose of preparing individuals for success in life – beyond merely achieving in the realms of college or future careers.

Princeton has the oldest International Baccalaureate program in the state of Ohio, which is widely recognized as a highly respected college prep curriculum. It strives to produce lifelong learners who thrive and make a difference, with an emphasis on critical thinking. Students are rigorously challenged and choose from a variety of pathways for personalized learning. The schools offer specialized programs such as honors, AP, STEM and STEAM.

“You want kids to be able to go directly into college and directly into the workforce and directly to the military. You want to have them to be self-starters and have initiative,” says Tom Burton, Superintendent of Princeton City Schools.

This may seem easier said than done, especially in light of the cultural and economic disparities between different factions of the student body. But Burton sees the diversity of the students as a great asset, despite the generally understood challenges of catering curriculum and services to meet a wide variety of culturally, economically, and socially divergent students’ needs.

“We are routinely seen as the most diverse school district in the state of Ohio, and I think it's really an opportunity.” says Burton. “We have an opportunity to learn and grow from each other. That growth and the strength that comes from the difference of the way people look, the way they feel, the way they think – that, to me, is one of the biggest strengths of our country. Even though we've been very divisive over topics, the reality is we need to embrace that.”

Burton applies this standpoint broadly, beyond the district itself, with implications that extend to the strength of the country from a global standpoint.

“You know, even if you look at what is happening in Russia today – I mean, that sheer sign of people not being able to get along. I feel, for us, that the greatest strength of who we are as a people in this country is diversity, across the board,” says Burton.

Burton chose to come to Princeton because he believed his own childhood had given him something significant to offer. He says he was familiar with the diversity of the schools and their surrounding communities from his experience of growing up in Cleveland.

Superintendent Princeton City Schools, Tom Burton“I was born and raised in Cleveland Heights. People always talked about the diversity of Cleveland Heights, and we had struggles in the 70s,” says Burton. “Before we kind of came to be this is all-American city, there was a lot of focus on the whole diversity that was within that community.”

The Princeton City School District has a huge undertaking in trying to ensure that all students receive the tools necessary to nurture their individual successes. Due to the sometimes vastly differing student backgrounds and subsequently requisite tools for achievement, Princeton has implemented an equity program.

Old school thinking designates equality, or in some cases inclusion, as the mark of a just educational institution. However, the term equity has recently emerged as an ongoing goal and standard of measure for institutional treatment of diverse populations.  While equality implies fairness in terms of all recipients being given the same resources, equity entails specific resources being allocated based on particular circumstances and requirements for success.

“When I say ‘Do you think that all students should get the same education every single day, regardless of if they're ambulatory, regardless of if they're new to this country, regardless of if they had a horrific incident as a kid and they can't process and read?’… When you look at the sheer definition of what equity is, it should very much be meeting kids’ needs where they are. That's really what it's about,” distinguishes Burton.

Implementing equity program tools

Specific actions such as trainings for teachers of ELL students in SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol), offering a Newcomers Program for students arriving from other countries, and providing culturally responsive teaching practices in the classroom are just some of the ways the Princeton City school system is striving to provide an equitable learning environment for all students.

“For example, different learning modalities and having different ways to teach, so that all kids get it – not just lecturing to kids because not all kids can learn that way. Sometimes it's having teachers talk to kids. Sometimes it’s having students talk to students, and these more cooperative learning types of strategies that you use,” explains Dr. Mari Phillips, Associate Superintendent of Princeton City Schools.

Through innovative and specific types of outreach, the district has also created various, mutually beneficial partnerships that help ensure the overall success not only for students, but of the community as a whole.

The district's Second Cup of Coffee program delivers valuable information using Spanish interpretation.Understanding that language barriers can hinder connections with parents, the district has implemented a program called Second Cup of Coffee, which specifically engages the Hispanic population. Second Cup delivers valuable information from the school using Spanish interpretation, and provides opportunities for parents to ask questions or contribute to the conversation in a comfortable environment.

“It's a wonderful program. It's specifically for our parents that are Hispanic to learn more about the schools, the opportunities and whatever we have going on in schools right now. And it's wildly successful. We have great turnouts and participation,” says Burton. “When it comes down to having people that speak your language, it's obviously critical. It's the same thing when we look at providing interpreters for speech and hearing. We do that as well. We don't have a large population there. But we felt that that's important.”

The district also engages itself in the surrounding area by hosting regular business community partnership breakfasts. With over 500 business partners in the surrounding community, and, according to Burton, as many as 300 in attendance at a breakfast, the sense of investment felt by the adjacent business district is evident. That sentiment goes both ways.

February 2022 Business Partner Breakfast“It's amazing – being really able to capitalize on that. But we listen and we do thought exchanges. That's a specific program, actually. And it allows people to give authentic input,” adds Burton.

Another creative tactic in use by the schools is procuring its own instructors and staff by facilitating their education and then hiring them on. Realizing that there are teaching and administrative opportunities for worthy candidates within their existing staff, the district partners with institutions of higher learning to give them a leg up. This has benefitted the Princeton schools with a more diverse and representative instructional team.

“So when you look at recruiting a teaching and administrative staff population that is representative of our student population and diversity, we want the very, very best educators that we can have,” explains Burton. “And having 80% students of Color, we know that kids thrive when they can see themselves in other people being successful.”

Princeton has partnered with Ohio State, Xavier, and Central State universities in an effort to ensure opportunities for those they feel could become greater assets to the schools if only they were afforded the resources.

“It's specifically about having people go back to school. We've seen wonderful staff members who work really hard – educational aides and paraprofessionals who do great things. They want to be teachers but many of them just didn't have that avenue to get back to school. Schools have written grants and we've been able to capitalize on those. So by and large, our staff can go for free,” says Burton.

Part of the League of Innovative Schools, Princeton is one of 114 countrywide districts (seven of them in Ohio), that collaborate by connecting leading educators, entrepreneurs, and research professionals who share their input on a broad range of topics relevant to the school districts’ changing needs.

“Winton Woods, Lakota, Middletown, Reynoldsburg, and Yellow Springs are all in this League of Innovative Schools. We do a lot of pipeline work with them and it's an amazing collaboration. So we share, we learn and we grow together,” explains Burton.

In keeping with this great spirit of collaboration, the superintendent imparts that a current challenge he’d encourage all Americans to undertake is to simply celebrate diversity every day of the year, not just on calendar-designated occasions.

“So the challenge is for us to really, truly value and appreciate the contributions of each other – and not just on a day, not just in a week, not just in a month, but every day of the year,” says Burton. “Next month is National Women's History Month. So, when you look at that, it's more than just March. It's not just October when you look at Spanish and Hispanic heritage. It’s every single day that value needs to be there.”

You can read earlier articles in the First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series here.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.