Learning to Read, Reading to Learn

Photography by Daniel Smyth

There are few gifts better than the ability to read, and the teachers at Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) are working tirelessly to make sure every student in their care is given that gift. Together with community organizations in a respected partnership model, CPS is making sure students can learn to read and read to learn.

“We have a district-wide emphasis on early literacy,” says Dawn Grady, manager of marketing and community relations at CPS. “We work to meet Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which ensures that students who need extra help in reading are identified and on track by the end of third grade. In addition to our classroom curriculum, many of our schools are home to Community Learning Centers, where community partners provide extensive tutoring and other programs for students to make sure there are no barriers to learning.”

The Community Learning Centers (CLCs) are a nationally-respected model where community partners team up with the school to provide services to students.

“The concept of Community Learning Centers began in the early 2000s with the redesign of our school buildings,” says Julie Doppler, CLC coordinator for CPS. “CLCs turned schools into neighborhood hubs where students, families and community members could participate in programs and the building would be a shared-use facility with room for co-located partners such as health services, after-school programs, family support, art, gardening and more. Whatever the community chose to enhance their neighborhood and enrich the lives of children.”

However, there is guidance behind the programming. “We are intentional about bringing into school buildings what is needed to make students succeed in school and in life,” adds Doppler. “We use data from the school, families and community to understand those needs and to align our partners to specific measurable goals.”

One of these goals is the reading initiative, supported by tutoring and other services. “We explore opportunities beyond the school day for students to read and be read to,” says Doppler. “The program aligns with the classroom work so we are moving not only academically but also personally for the students. For example, many of our tutors who come in during the day provide additional academic support, but also engage in supportive and encouraging relationships that build confidence in our students. This supports their success in school.”

The results speak for themselves. For instance, John P. Parker Elementary achieved a 100 percent success rate among third graders on the state reading test. And of all 3,000 CPS third-graders, there was only a 3 percent failure ration. These are outstanding figures.

“The Community Learning Centers have made a big difference,” says John P. Parker Elementary School principal Kimberly Mack. “Prior to the development of these partnerships, we were within the school house trying to solve problems and now we are able to bring in more resources to help us remove any barriers that there may be to the students developing to their full potential.”

Mack says sometimes such basic needs as having enough to eat can make a huge difference on a scholar’s ability to learn. “We have a partnership with the Freestore Foodbank where we can give students what we call a Power Pack, a weekend’s food supply,” says Mack. “If we have children in need of a uniform, we have a partnership with the Assistance League and they’ll outfit our students who don’t have uniforms. If you aren’t dressed properly for school, what might that do to your self-esteem and your confidence?”

She explains that it would have been much more difficult to reach a 100 percent pass rate for the Third Grade Guarantee without the CLC model. “Students have to be able to read proficiently at the third grade level to meet that expectation, or they are returned to the third grade,” she says. “It would have been a major struggle to reach that 100 percent without the literacy specialist. My teachers work with the students during the day but she is able to provide them with an extended day program. They stay after school and work with her. Without the partner- ships, we wouldn’t to be able to do that for the students. Starting in preschool, they are instructed in literacy in the after-school program.”

Another great example of a partnership to support literacy is with “The Children’s Home of Cincinnati,” says Mack. “They provide a home visitation program for families within the community and begin working with children at ages three and four to prepare them for kindergarten so they have basic literacy skills coming in to school. We are very proud of our 100 percent pass rate, but we acknowledge that this work doesn’t happen in isolation. Parents are supporting what we are trying to do, we are utilizing community resources in innovative ways such as these partnerships to accomplish these goals.”

The success has received praise across the board. “Our partnership model is recognized nationally,” says Doppler. “We have received the National Coalition for Community Schools’ District of the Year Award for the work we are doing to engage families, the school and the community to work together in a partnership model. We have 600 partners and school-based health clinics in 21 schools. Districts across the country are contacting us to see how we do it, and we’re helping other districts build a model similar to what we have.”

Some of the partners include YMCA, FamiliesFORWARD, Beech Acres, Activities Beyond the Classroom, GRAD Cincinnati, Talbert House and more. CPS blends Title I funds with grant dollars from organizations such as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, United Way and Haile/ US Bank Foundation to help extend the opportunities for students further. “In addition, our non-profit partner Community Learning Center Institute provides six resource coordinators at no cost to CPS,” says Doppler.

She explains that CPS not only partners with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to show measurable data that the programming is benefiting students overall, but also observes students to make sure they are progressing on an individual level.

“For instance, we’ve helped students get eyeglasses, and have seen reading levels improve and not only did scores go up, but student attitudes change and parents comment on the change,” says Doppler. “We see a lot of improvement. Getting supportive adults to interface with the students makes a huge difference.”

The program, essentially, aims to eliminate any barriers to students succeeding in school and helps to enrich students’ lives.

Principal Mack encourages businesses, organizations and volunteers to reach out to schools to become involved. “This is a concept we as a community need to embrace,” she says. “I’m passionate about this concept. I’ve seen how it can work. I’ve worked in schools without it and I’ve worked in schools with it. I’ve seen how this pushes a school above and beyond. We talk about test scores, and those are important, but to prepare our children for life, we need to go beyond those scores. We need to help them become critical thinkers, to take the boundaries down and help them prepare for life.”


For more information about the Community Learning Centers and CPS schools, check out the district website at www.cps-k12.org