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Columbus School District Copes With Effects of Poverty

As the school year draws to a close, the future of the Columbus City School district is being shaped in part by federal and state education policies, and by the economic and social well-being of the city's neighborhoods, WOSU's Mandie Trimble and Tom Borgerding conclude the series, Fewer Students, Higher Stakes.

Here at the entrance of the Upper Albany West sub-division in the far northeast corner of the city, off Central College Road, 400 new homes, ranging in price from $180,000 to $215,000 dollars are built by M-I development. The development is situated in the Columbus City School District so homeowners pay lower taxes than they would if this was in Westerville or in New Albany. But, the nearest public school is miles away. Spokeswoman April Kimsey says a new school is planned in the area to make it more convenient for students. "Its being proposed, we don't know anymore its definitely something that's in the air right now."

While Upper Albany awaits a new school, the new homes will add few students to the Columbus School District. M-I spokeswoman April Kimsey says most of the homes are owned by what she calls "busy professionals and empty-nesters." Few families with children live in the development. By contrast, in the Weinland Park neighborhood, with its century old rowhouses, sandwiched between the Short north and O-S-U's campus the neighborhood school enrollment is among the highest among elementary schools. Yet, U-S Census bureau figures show only about ten percent of the residents own their homes. The contrast is indicative of trends identified by Ohio State University professor John Powell when he studied Columbus and other urban school district in Ohio. "We'll have inner cities being cored out. And so you'll have a city where either declining population or certainly declining family population. Its just not healthy. And, you'll have a society where people will grow up not having experience or having had any real contact with anyone from a a different racial, ethnic or even economic background than their own." Says Powell.

Columbus School Superintendent Gene Harris, speaking on W-O-S-U's Openline program, confirms that 30 years after court-ordered desegregation, current enrollment figures show the district is becoming more racially isolated. "Well over 60 percent of our students are students of color, and about 31 percent of our students are white. And then we have about 6 percent of our students whose first language is not English and that overlaps both of those race categories that I just described and so our school district is becoming, increasingly more racially isolated." Says Harris.

Harris adds that as the top district administrator, she wants to make sure that every child has the chance for the highest quality educaiton. Its a sentiment shared by other longtime educators with ties to the city school district. Former Columbus Public Schools superintendent Joe Davis played a role in public schools in some fashion for 57 years. And Davis has seen a lot. It was during his tenure that Columbus Public Schools finally integrated. Davis later witnessed the land fight between Columbus city and the surrounding suburban schools. And he has seen school violence increase and enrollment decline. Davis was asked if the public school system is fixable or merely broken. "I have to live with hope. I think it's indigenous to the American spirit where we have to live with hope. Will public schools ever, will any kind of educational institution ever be able to reach every single child in an age group and I'm certainly, I'm not that optimistic." Says Davis.

Among the most intense current pressures on traditional public schools is the growth of charter schools. They're part of a school choice initiative that has gained steam in the wake of the federal education policy known as "No Child Left Behind." The policy imposes standard academic measurement on all schools and then allows parents of students in under-performing schools to change schools. The effect is often a loss of enrollment in traditional public schools and a gain for newly-sanctioned charters. But, Charter school lobbyist Dan McCarthy, says charter schools are good for traditional public schools. "In the case of charter schools, they are having a positive impact on public schools because public schools are changing and I think those changes are good. Is it painful? Yes. Is there a matter of disagreement about what that change should be and how its being pushed? Yes. But you can't say there isn't being change and for Ohio's kids I think thats a good thing." Says McCarthy.

Shirley Rogers, who has two children in Columbus Public Schools and another in a private Christian school, says she is not sure what the district needs to do to reach an educational ideal. But Rogers says she is certain some kind of change is needed to secure the nation's future. "These are children that we're looking to, to be doctors and lawyers and we're looking for them to be productive in society. But if we can't provide them with standard education then what are we producing? We're not producing children that are going to produce and be the citizens that are socially successful." Says Rogers.

Former Columbus Superintendent and O-S-U Researcher John Powell both say too the stakes are huge as the tension between tradtional public schools and privately operated charters is played out. " Public Education is really the crucible of our democracy. If we're going to have a really pluralistic democracy we have to have some public space where we learn about each other. And so, in a sense what we're seeing happen in the country is abandoning our public institutions. We're trying to solve public issues through private means." Says Powell. Davis adds. "Philosophically, if the public schools go out of existence, there'll be two people sitting here maybe 200 years from now lamenting the fact that what we lack in this society is glue to hold us together. Despite our deep divisions of today there's a lot, there's more that holds us together. And what we might say is you know, what we really need is to provide some common experience. And we might just have to say why don't we try a common school system. For me that's a very significant argument in maintaining and strengthening public schools." Says Davis.

For Mandie Trimble, I'm Tom Borgerding WOSU News.