By Haley Edmonson
Sitting down for the girls writing circle that I help lead every Monday up at Rothenberg, the energy is soaring as my kids greet me and find their name tags. Fighting over who gets to sit next to me and talking about the drama from their day at school, they bring a big smile to my face as they always find something to compliment me on. The whole goal of the circle is to give the fourth to sixth grade girls in the after school program at Rothenberg a safe space to talk about challenges but also to lift up one another. I always leave surprised with their maturity and kindness for their age as somehow they always find a way to make me feel safe and lift me up as well.
But my positive outlook is not one commonly upheld within the community nor would the state of Ohio or Department of Education would reciprocate. Rothenberg has recently received yet another “F” on the state’s education report card, deemed solely on state test scores. Printed boldly on the Ohio Department of Education’s website are the words “Great things are happening in Ohio schools!” yet the blaring red letter grade on the school overview’s page makes that statement hard to believe. The report card has now set the tone for the school year and Principal Alena Smith’s first year as the head of the school.
The fact is, Rothenberg’s demographics already set their students and school as a whole to fail in the eyes of the Department of Education. Ninety-nine percent of students at Rothenberg are in low-income households and ninety-five percent are African-American. Our current system fails them through inequitable funding. Since the property taxes determine the funding available to public schools, low-income neighborhoods will receive significantly lower amounts of funding than their high-income counterparts causing a large disparity between educational systems.
Even as the demographics of the community of Over-the-Rhine has changed, the school’s have not despite some of the higher property taxes. Schools have also seen millions of dollars taken out of education, as the bounty of tax abatements for development directly affects their funding. Privileged families take their children outside of the city for education and take their sum of tax money with them to their new respective schools. They would say they don’t have their kids go to Rothenberg because it’s a “failing” school. Yet anyone working within the walls of Rothenberg would tell you that they are a community, providing services far beyond other schools in the district to ensure the success of not only their students, but their entire families.
Ms. Dorothy is a long time community member that has worked within the schools’ walls for years and has had all of her children and now grandchildren attend. She is satisfied with the results that Rothenberg is producing despite the adversity they are facing and is proud of who her kids have become with the help of this schools’ education. One of her kids is in fact now a teacher there themselves. Ms. Dorothy volunteers and runs the Parent Resource Center there, providing support in every realm possible from housing, to food, to a comforting hug. This resource center, is not only valuable supplying resources to the deficits within the school, but is also entirely unique to Rothenberg. No other school in Cincinnati Public Schools assesses and assists the student’s needs outside of the classroom that affects their education. No other school has a strong parent base looking out for the interest of all of the students, not just their own.
So is it fair to label our schools like Rothenberg and the students that learn within its walls “failing?” It’s important to acknowledge that this grade based exclusively off of test scores isn’t necessarily fair nor shows the other positive things happening. It doesn’t convey the compassion of the teachers and staff for their students and families. It doesn’t communicate the other real-world lessons they have learned from a young age regarding personal hardships and community adversities. Rothenberg offering the services and caring community to allow students to achieve their greatest heights, in of itself is spectacular.
What’s happening in Rothenberg is a story happening in many schools and contributing to the idea that public schools just don’t suffice anymore. The failing school rhetoric radiating in our nation has contributed to the rise of charters, magnets, and private schools, pulling sums of money out of the public education system. In turn this has made education for low-income students less attainable as now some neighborhood schools like St. Francis Seraph School, are no longer free. Rothenberg is now the only neighborhood public elementary school as development and the Department of Education has shut the remainder down despite some of their outstanding marks.
What is now the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, used to be a neighborhood elementary school, and was considered one of the best schools in Cincinnati despite the bad connotation the city had of the community surrounding it. Talking to a student teacher within St. Francis Seraph now, she mentions that her students are fearful that something will happen and they will no longer be able to attend the private school, meaning they would have to go to the “failing” Rothenberg. Our students believing the notion that our public schools aren’t good enough and should have to pay to receive a “better” education, shows the dangerous effects of the failing school rhetoric.
While test scores can make important assessments, they don’t assess everything that our schools have to offer and other learning equally imperative to our students and society. The state doesn’t see my girl’s explaining to me the importance of loving yourself and standing up for what’s right. The state doesn’t see one of my girl’s whispering to another, “I think you are beautiful” after questioning her beauty. The state doesn’t see one of my girl’s struggling to stay awake and participate in a circle she loves because she didn’t sleep last night for one of the various struggles that cause a lot of our kids are unable to come to school with a good night’s rest. Their test scores might not be where they should be, but the resilience and the kindness exuding from these students that can’t be measured makes them more successful than other kids in “A” rated schools. The Ohio Department of Education might say Rothenberg is failing, but the City of Cincinnati and the Department of Education is failing Rothenberg.