To Stay in the City with Kids, Parents Band Together to Improve Columbus Schools

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Lawyer Gus Dahlberg and his wife moved to Clintonville in 2003 while she was pregnant. The topic of schools came up often, and he kept hearing the same thing from his neighbors: Public schools in Clintonville are OK, but you may want to look at private schools. And be careful when you get to middle school.

Meanwhile, Dahlberg and his family became close with other families in the community, many of whom, like Dahlberg, eventually decided to send their kids to public elementary schools. As parents mingled at the bus stop on weekday mornings, they began to discuss what to do about their kids' education beyond the elementary level. "They all said, 'We like where we're at,'" Dahlberg says. " 'We like the schools we're in. We like the people we're with. Why should we have to leave Clintonville? What's wrong with these schools that people are so afraid of?'"

Nobody had answers, but one parent, Laura Kraus, had recently read a book titled "How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance," which detailed how author and parent Jacqueline Edelberg partnered with other moms, artists, local businesses and co-author and school principal Susan Kurland to transform Chicago's rundown, failing Nettelhorst Elementary into a beautiful, successful urban school. Coincidentally, Edelberg was visiting Columbus on a speaking tour the summer of 2011, so Kraus reached out to her to ask if some Clintonville parents could pick her brain. Edelberg agreed, and that conversation over a bottle of wine around a kitchen table became the catalyst for the formation of a parent-led grassroots group called Clintonville Go Public.

"It went from a promotional effort to: Let's dig in and make a community effort to invest in the school system and get people to realize they don't have to run from Clintonville when the kids turn 10," Dahlberg says.

"Lots of people who are in a city look at [the suburbs] and say, 'You know, I actually don't want to spend the rest of my life eating at an Olive Garden,' " Edelberg tells me over the phone. "I like my house. I have friends. My kids have friends. I have places I eat that I think are yummy. The only reason people left my neighborhood was because of the schools. But it seems silly to leave all that behind. So the question is: How do you create a threshold so that enough like-minded people all decide they'll jump with you? How many kids would you need to make it feel like you weren't a lunatic?"

Like Dahlberg, Merion Village resident Ken Flower felt a bond with his community. "People love German Village and Merion Village. They're proud of the neighborhood," Flower says. "But one of our consistent weak spots is schools. You hear of a lot of young professionals moving in, getting married, having kids, and then kids reach age 3 or 4 and they move out of the neighborhood."

Flower-a pastor, Bexley Public Library employee and father of two (with another on the way)-didn't want to leave, and he knew others probably felt the same way. Shiloh Todorov, director of the German Village Society, connected him with other neighborhood parents who were thinking critically about the school issue, and they all met with the society's Long Range Planning Committee in summer 2012. As a result of that meeting, Flower and the other parents created and distributed a short, simple survey to better understand the community's thoughts on their neighborhood schools. Particularly telling were responses to the question, "Do you plan on moving when your kids reach school age?" About 80 percent of respondents said, "Yes," and for most of them, the primary reason was poor school options.

Pretty soon, Flower and a group of parents officially organized, meeting every other week and naming their group Southside STAY (Standing Together to Advance Youth). Flower and others had also read "How to Walk to School," and they knew about Clintonville Go Public. "They were about a year ahead in terms of organizing," Flower says. "We invited Gus and Laura to one of our first meetings to tell their story. They were a huge help."

Both STAY and Go Public emphasize the importance of neighborhood schools and the "feeder pattern," which Columbus City Schools formally implemented about six years ago. It's a streamlined way for students to move from building to building. Previously, students might have attended a nearby elementary school and then graduated to a middle school on the other side of town. Now, with some exceptions due to school closings and the school-choice lottery system, students who start kindergarten together remain together all the way through high school.

"You get that in Upper Arlington, which has a tremendous sense of community," Dahlberg says. "There's a backbone, and everything feeds off of that. We really wanted that here. It's here already, and it would exist without us, but it needs nurturing. It needs promotion."

The theory goes like this: If a group of kids and their highly engaged parents stay together for the long haul, they'll see the same positive results every year, and those results will spill over to other students. "It's a rising-tide-floats-all-boats theory," Dahlberg says. "If you have that base in the system, it will improve everyone's lot. That's an essential theory in all of this."

Edelberg says her experience with Nettelhorst in Chicago proves the theory. After she and a group of moms persuaded others to send their kids to Nettelhorst, over time, everyone's test scores improved, not just the new kids'.

Go Public and STAY aren't trying to replace parent-teacher associations. They say part of their job is to ensure each school in the neighborhood has a thriving PTA. And while most school-reform groups tend to focus on hot-button issues like curriculum, standardized testing, No Child Left Behind and other various metrics, Go Public and STAY try not to get involved in those issues, which is harder than it sounds. Get a group of involved parents together who are passionate about the education of their own children and the children in the community, and those divisive issues will undoubtedly arise. "It's easy to divert the conversation by talking about curriculum, and then it's about the whole school system and what's happening at the state or district level," Dahlberg says. "And that's not what our focus is."

Columbus City Schools spokesman Jeff Warner says the mission of Go Public and STAY doesn't conflict with the district's philosophy, even though school choice plays an important role in the district's offerings. "We want the same things," Warner says. "We want the neighborhood schools to not be questioned in the least. The questions that these community organizations bring to the table help us think about things differently. They push us to be better. Their level of commitment to neighborhood schools is a breath of fresh air."

While Nettelhorst experienced a drastic turnaround in the span of nine months, the efforts of Go Public and STAY combine short- and long-term goals. Both groups differ in context. While STAY wants young couples to see the area's elementary schools as a viable option, Clintonville Go Public says the community in recent years has begun to embrace the neighborhood elementary schools-Clinton, Indian Springs and Colerain. [Disclosure: My two kids attend a Clintonville elementary school.] But persuading parents to consider Dominion Middle School and Whetstone High School will take more time and effort.

Part of that effort is marketing and rebranding-changing the community's perception of a school. When Dahlberg first attended a Clintonville school fair years ago, he was disappointed by what he saw. "All the private schools and schools from outside the neighborhood had these slick brochures and pamphlets," he says. "We'd get to Indian Springs and Clinton, and they were dittos. They had to have been made on a Xerox machine from 1978. So the district needs help selling itself. We are now in an age of school choice. If you want kids to stay, you've got to sell your program."

Some of Go Public's rebranding effort involves changing the accepted terminology. Dahlberg, for instance, hates the term "feeder," so Go Public instead uses "pathway." " 'Feeder' sounds like you're going to get chewed up and spit out," he says. " 'Pathway' says you're following a path to college or a trade."

STAY has focused much of its effort so far on Stewart Alternative Elementary, a German Village school that initially accepted students only through the Columbus City Schools lottery. In 2013, STAY petitioned and eventually won approval from the Columbus Education Commission to make Stewart a partial neighborhood school, albeit with smaller boundaries than STAY had hoped for. (Stewart's new borders fall within German Village proper, and many of the STAY families live in Merion Village and Schumacher Place.) Flower and others have been promoting the school by giving tours to prospective families, and the group plans to assign a reading level to every book in the library so teachers can easily find the right books for each student.

At Nettelhorst in Chicago, many of the changes were outward. Common wisdom says if you change the culture of a school, the climate will change. But Edelberg and her partners were betting if they changed the climate, the culture would follow. Doors were painted, and local artists were recruited to create murals in the hallways. Last year Clintonville Go Public took a page from this playbook and raised more than $18,000 by hosting a prom for grownups; that money was used to revamp the lobby of Dominion Middle School with new furniture and a mural. "It's a simple thing, but it makes such a difference!" Dahlberg says. "Before, you walked in and didn't know where you were going. Now it's very clear that this is the waiting area. There's a couch and chairs and a rug."

This fall Go Public hosted a Masquerade Ball; proceeds will go toward technology upgrades at Whetstone and Dominion, which doesn't have Wi-Fi access throughout the building. The group is also working with Dominion principal Dottie Flanagan to write grants for an after-school program.

In the neighborhood-school model, buy-in from the community-including local businesses and adults with no children or grown children-is important. But buy-in from the school principal is just as crucial. STAY has been working closely with Stewart principal Ebone Johnson. "She was excited about our desires and wanted us to be involved," Flower says. "Having a principal who was wanting the partnership and excited about it was huge." And Johnson says partnering with STAY has been every school's dream. "What they're trying to do will affect every child in our building," Johnson says. "Their approach is working. On any given day, we have between three and five parents or other members of the German Village community in our building."

Go Public similarly touts its partnerships with principals Janet Routzong at Whetstone and Flanagan at Dominion, along with the elementary school principals; in interviews, these school leaders echoed Go Public's enthusiasm and resolve.

Other similar-minded parent groups such as TEAM Berwick, Northwest STARS and Short North Parents have recently formed in other areas of the district. But all these groups face giant challenges, not the least of which is the damaged reputation of Columbus City Schools. Try as it may, the district is struggling to distance itself from the data-manipulation scandal that was brought to light by a Columbus Dispatch investigation. An 18-month investigation of the district by state auditor Dave Yost, completed in December 2013, confirmed what the reporters had found: The practice of falsifying records to improve students' test scores (and thereby the school's standing on the annual state report card) was widespread. In November 2013, nearly 70 percent of Columbus voters rejected a Columbus City Schools levy-its first defeat in 23 years-signaling that the district had not yet earned back the trust of the city.

And it's not over. Just this summer, state investigators subpoenaed the records of eight current or former employees of Whetstone. Routzong was not principal at Whetstone during the 2010-11 school year, but she's still dealing with repercussions of the scandal. "My goal that first year-and it still is my goal-was to establish and rebuild the faith in leadership of Whetstone High School and Columbus City Schools," Routzong says.

The lengths to which former district employees went to ensure good grades on the Ohio Department of Education's annual report card underscores just how much weight everyone-the state, local schools, prospective and current parents-places on those ratings, which the state tweaked last year to mirror an old-fashioned grade card with marks of A through F in different areas. For instance, in the achievement category, Dominion received a C (79.5 percent) for its "performance index" but got an F (42.9 percent) for "indicators met" in 2013-14.

"Most often I hear about the report card," Dominion principal Flanagan says. "It's not a failing school, and people need to understand what the report card means before we decide whether or not a school is failing." One example Flanagan gives is the report card's measurement of how well a school closed the achievement gap among students regardless of income, race, ethnicity or disability. "We went from an 8 percent closure [in 2012-13] to a 68 percent closure, which is huge," she says. "But on the state report card that looks like a D. So we're doing everything right, but working in this new report card system and helping the public understand exactly what it means is a challenge we face every day."

"Test scores don't tell you everything about a school," Flower says, noting Stewart Alternative Elementary's most recent "D." For instance, in Ohio, third-grade students must now meet a minimum score on the state reading test to advance to fourth grade, and all but three third-graders at Stewart passed. "To me, that's really encouraging," Flower says.

The state report card is a measurable result, but many of the groups' efforts aren't measurable; a community's perception of a school is a nebulous thing until it isn't. "I won't see much of a difference while my kids are in school," admits Dahlberg, whose children attend Clinton Elementary. "Do you know how many minds we'd have to change in Whetstone's educational base to make that change in five years? It'll happen in increments, not in large chunks. I'm OK with that. You can't change something on this scale overnight. You do it one conversation at a time."

In September, Edelberg and former Nettelhorst principal Susan Kurland returned to Columbus to speak with a group of parents, educators and community leaders as part of the multi-day Great Placemakers Lab conference. During an evening Q&A session in the second-floor ballroom of the Westin Columbus, members of Go Public and STAY peppered the speakers with questions, discussing what the next steps should be for schools like Whetstone and Stewart.

"This is a huge opportunity for Stewart," Edelberg told the audience. "You can make it anything you want!"

After the presentation, I spoke to two Whetstone moms involved with Go Public; their passion was contagious as they trumpeted the school's academic rigor and extracurricular offerings. Mary Pajor has graduated two sons from Whetstone, and they both received college scholarships-one at the University of Alabama, the other at the University of South Carolina; her daughter is a junior at Whetstone this year. The mothers also heaped praise on principal Routzong and described the school as the best-kept secret in Clintonville, though their goal is for the positive aspects of the school to be more well-known. "It's such a great, vibrant school, but people don't realize that because they hear all the old negative stuff," Pajor says.

It was a persuasive sales pitch. By the end of the conversation, I could envision my own kids going to Whetstone. I also realized part of Go Public's campaign had already reached my family. Last year I brought my kindergartener to a Whetstone "Pathway Night" before a Friday evening football game. My son, his friends, his friends' parents and I made a tunnel on the field for the players to run through before the game. It was the first time I'd set foot on Whetstone's campus, and it was fun-even comforting. "Middle school and high school seem so scary. It's nice to see that these kids are just like your kids, and it's gonna be OK," Pajor says.

The neighborhood school movement isn't revolutionary. It's merely an avenue for parents and communities to get involved. "The act of engagement is the only thing that matters," Edelberg says. "We've all been sold this bill of goods that has told us that education isn't within our control. But if people knew they had the power to fix the school on their corner-that they don't have to wait for somebody to give it to them. They can get a group together that walks in and says, 'Hi, we are here to help. We want this school to sing, and we will assemble an army to make it happen. Give us your wish list, and let's make this happen.' It's actually doable."