Urban Appalachian Community Coalition

by Maureen Sullivan

A few days ago I heard in an interview clip that Harry Belafonte said he was a drop out, I believe from 7th grade. I was reminded of the early 1990’s Cincinnati Youth Collaborative study that documented that many, if not most, of the drop outs weren’t the “dumb kids,” the least academically able, but were those who, for one reason or another, couldn’t be in school any longer. They just needed/wanted to get on with their lives.

More recently, as I was getting ready for work I caught a bit of a story on NPR about a group of teens in Africa who had produced a short YouTube piece about education. They explained how the video came to be and, in response to an interviewer’s question, said they expected that most of them would fail their final exams in high school. The reason—the exams were required to be given in English. Their elementary school classes were taught in their native language. When the youth got to upper school level, the classes were taught in English by people who barely knew the language themselves. Apparently, the teachers’ colleges don’t require knowledge of English as a requirement for certification.

You may wonder what relevance this has to urban Appalachian education concerns. Good question – somehow, it links in my mind with fundamental questions about what education is for, really. Why is school as likely to drain the curiosity and desire to learn out of some as it is to engage others in a life of academic success, recognition, and even delight? While there are no doubt studies and books, doctoral dissertations and university degrees directed to answering these questions, I’m caught by the nagging certainty that it boils down to the question of “who owns it?”


Students show off the anthology of their writing at Pauletta Hansel’s Write to Education Residency at the East Price Hill GED school.

In the 1980’s the Urban Appalachian Council worked with some existing adult basic education/GED schools (Lower Price Hill Community School and the East End Community Adult Education Center notable among them); supported the development of others (Camp Washington, Northside, and South Fairmount Community Schools); and organized and operated schools in Over the Rhine, East Price Hill and Norwood. Over the next 20+ years we worked collaboratively and struggled together to keep the schools open. Funding was always an issue though many of the schools operated on shoestring budgets, with volunteers—or staff working almost as volunteers—at community locations in churches, community centers, or in small, low-cost storefronts.

The schools were uniquely successful with the students getting “a second chance” at education. To a school, they were absolutely clear that they wouldn’t be controlled by “outsiders” whether representing funding sources or educational “experts.” During one discussion, a community school director was incensed because she had received a letter from a Cincinnati Public School administrator telling her that they were withdrawing funding of a teacher aide salary and further that they were closing her school. The director was practically trembling as she declared passionately that “they might withdraw the funds but they would not and could not close the school.” It wasn’t theirs. It, like the other community schools, belonged to the community and the people.

In some ways the community schools had unique aspects reflective of their communities: in some ways they had strong and consistent similarities. In addition to being community-based, these schools were operated with a high degree of personalism. The relationship between the students and the staff was close and personal. They were on a first name basis. Lessons, while not neglected, were never more important than a student’s personal issue or a crisis that was threatening or a health issue that needed to be addressed.

Another factor that was seen in the schools was their utilization of strong family and kinship networks. Jake Kroger, long-time director of the Lower Price Hill Community School, used to say that when his student population fell off he would go out and walk through the neighborhood. He’d talk to the folks on the stoops or the mothers and grans in their chairs in front of their buildings. He’d catch up on family news, answer questions about how their son or granddaughter was getting along, put the word out about what the school needed – whether more new students or help with an upcoming graduation celebration. Invariably, folks pitched in and things came together.

Almost needless to say, the schools were notably non-bureaucratic. It was not unusual to find a director answering the phone or helping a student with problems from substance abuse to evictions. The organizational structures were significantly “flatter” than agencies or corporations. We started out “lean” long before it became fashionable in mainstream business jargon.

As is always the case, time moves on and change happens. Two of the churches closed their doors and sold their buildings; one of the community centers changed leaders and fell into financial chaos; dramatic neighborhood development along Eastern Avenue and in Over the Rhine led to shifts in residents’ economics and resulted in long-time residents moving away. In addition some of the original directors got ready to retire. At some point, I realized that the changes weren’t all individual or coming from within. It became clear that the requirements regarding the GED were changing. Preparation and, in some cases, testing was done on computers. Costs to take the GED increased and cost waivers based on pre-test results ceased. In a variety of ways, getting the “second chance” became harder.

Possibly, because of the Cincinnati network’s success along with the advocacy of many, in and beyond Cincinnati, who tout the benefit of community-based education, the educational establishment began calling their schools, located as they were is specific neighborhoods, Community Schools. I don’t think I’d mind if what was being claimed wasn’t just the words “Community Schools” but was in fact the spirit and commitment that made education work in a number of inner city neighborhoods – Appalachian and African American alike. We need education to “work” for all of us – rich and poor; majority and minority; whatever our gender, or religion, or age.

I invite your comments, whether in agreement or disagreement.   You might want to add a new perspective or correct some of mine.

6 thoughts on “Community Education in Appalachian Cincinnati

  1. Maureen, Dorothy and Bob,
    (Forgive me – my whole point is in the first and last sentences – you needn’t read the middle, unless it interests you!) You all hit that nail on the head! I was privileged to work in a Pilot Project in Fayette County, Western Pennsylvania between 1972 – 1977. It was called “Outreach to Children and their Families”, and worked out of the Fayette County MH/MR Clinic. Now, see if this sounds familiar: we were funded only for Staff – 21 of us, total. The funding was 90% Federal, 9% State and 1% County. We originally opened 11 centers across this impoverished region where, as recently as the 1970 Census, “homeless” people were living in abandoned Coke Ovens. The centers ran part-time pre-school and after-school youth group programs. But, what we really did was screen pre-schoolers for learning disabilities, emotional and social disorders, etc. We also acted as liaisons – we were social activists – between people in the community and pertinent social and educational agencies (CYS, Meals-on-Wheels, DPA, colleges & universities). Half of our staff had college degrees: Speech & Hearing, Social Work, Phys Ed, Art, etc. I did Music.
    Anyway, the stumbling block was always the 1% County Funding. People from “wealthy” communities didn’t want their tax dollars going to “coddle lazy, dirty good-for-nothings” in these blighted and forgotten communities. County Agencies balked at the additional referrals we sent their way – they had full “official” caseloads already. State government echoed these concerns, but added demands for measurable proof – I guess keeping a Family of 6, whose Parents had killed each other, intact or finding that a “stupid” child was actually deaf or dyslexic or aphasic, didn’t fit into their scales all that well. We laughed and called it “Funding for Failure”. But, in the end, these were moot points when President Reagan and his budget-saving cronies came into office. That was that.
    I admire your travails and the communities’ pride and spunk. Proof again that what was said so long ago, still holds: “The letter of the Law killeth, but the Spirit of the Law giveth Life.”

  2. I enjoyed reading this and agree that schools ought to belong to local communities, as they once did. But, as funding of schools and academic standards set by state and national boards and bodies have increased over time, the thinking is that local communities are not able or willing to set and maintain these standards. State and national leaders these days view schools as sites for the development of national and international human capital; I.e., preparing students to develop skills that are transportable. So, local needs and interests are seen as secondary to national priorities. Which usually means control and practice has to be informed by national experts – with an eye to what is happening internationally, not locally. Best case scenario is that local communities can convince state authorities that they can organize and achieve both national/state and local needs at the same time. Unfortunately, the hope that local schools can create and achieve only local standards and satisfy local parents is gone in America. The globalization of education ends and means is here to stay; but it still needs to be resisted where possible.

  3. Maureen…Thanks so much…I concur with everything you have expressed. Undoubtedly we do need education to work for all of us. The current school system that operates on evidence based models, best practices, and measurable results continues to move away from making education work for all children. Meanwhile, if children and youth are not doing well in school, parents and families are scapegoated and blamed. This blame is not acceptable, and gets us nowhere. A shift is important. The schools must reach out in an authentic manner, and build trusting relationships with parents, families and community. Schools must act with an understanding that the schools belong to the community. It is not enough to expect parents, families and community members to volunteer and organize activities and programs for the school. Schools must find ways to restore the ownership of schools to parents, families and community members. It could start with people in the school reaching out to the community in a spirit of respect and reciprocity. This might entail shaping the school around the hopes, aspirations and dreams of parents, families and community members. In essence, professionals and experts would carry out the will of parents, families and community members.

  4. I had the privilege of being part of the Community School movement at the Terrace Guild in Winton Hills and North Fairmount. We were not only in the community but part of the community. These days community based organizations seem to be an endangered species but definitely worth preserving.

    1. In the last year reported Kentucky’s number of GED graduates fell by 70%. I suspect there is a similar decline in Ohio. Tightening GED requirements is an effort to protect
      public schools and teachers’ salaries at the expense of people who need opportunity.
      There is a need for advocacy to revers this restriction of opportunity.

      1. Mike, in KY there is a new school law that is or will prohibit kids from leaving secondary schools until they are 18, which means fewer will be able to take GED preparation and exams as an alternative to in-class instruction – which has been the case before. Not sure this is good or bad; schools will likely have to do a better job focusing on what the kids need and how to teach in future. I do not think the teacher union, which is pretty weak here, is behind a movement to make them work harder to teach those kids who want to leave early but cannot. Teachers would more likely be happy to see “difficult” kids drop out and do GED, actually.

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