Still Segregated After 50 Years: A Visit to Cincinnati's West End
Two schools illustrate benefits, pitfalls of anti-poverty efforts
Sitting on a stretch of the Ohio River that divides the North from the South, this city historically has been one of the nation's most racially and economically segregated metropolises, both at the time President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his 1964 War on Poverty and today.
More than half the children here live in poverty, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, but the poverty rates for black children are more than double those for white children, 46.4 percent versus 23 percent in 2012. The Mixed Metro Project, which tracks neighborhood segregation, ranks Cincinnati as one of the 10 most segregated cities in the country. And, within this city, the West End neighborhood is historically one of the poorest and most racially isolated.
This sort of persistent and isolated poverty is exactly what policymakers intended to eradicate with the range of education, housing, and social-services programs introduced during the War on Poverty.
The experiences of two public schools rooted in the West End illustrate both the potential and the limitations of school efforts to break decades of intergenerational poverty in communities like this.
"When you call a school impoverished, expectations are really low," said Julie Doppler, the Cincinnati school district's coordinator of community learning centers, "and for social-service agencies called in to 'fix it,' one of the really 'aha' moments was understanding that there were a lot of phenomenal things already going on in the community."
Magnet for Achievement
On Poplar Street at the north end of the neighborhood, just on the outskirts of downtown Cincinnati, sits the historic George F. Sands School, surrounded by public housing and derelict buildings. The 1912 building, with its terra cotta adornments and marble steps, is now an abandoned monument to turn-of-the-20th-century boom times.
In the 1950s, construction of an expressway which became Interstate 75 slashed through what had been a vibrant, middle-class black community and it became an enclave of mostly poor black families migrating from the South. In 1964, filmmakers from the federal office of economic opportunity portrayed the school as a "ray of hope" amidst deep poverty, with Sands 3rd grade teacher Sandra Lewis pressing her students to be civically engaged.
"We do live in a slum, but everything is not slop in our neighborhood," wrote one student, Willie Grimes, in an essay Ms. Lewis read in the public-service film, "Poverty." "It is not bad to be poor, but it is bad not to try. ... Everybody in the West End is not a slum person."
In response to school desegregation lawsuits in the late 1960s and 1970s, the district combined three Montessori schools into the Sands Montessori magnet program at the Poplar Street building in 1975.
"I remember it being a very popular school; lots of people were interested in Montessori and trying to get their children into the school," recalled Amber C. Simpson, now an assistant principal at the Rees E. Price Academy in East Price Hill on the other side of Interstate 75, who attended Sands Montessori as a magnet student in the 1980s.
Sands' reputation and program drew families from higher-income neighborhoods that otherwise would not have considered sending their children to school in the West End.
Sarah Fullen, a Sands Montessori teacher and the historian of the school, said it also enrolled neighborhood students, though former 1990s-era Principal Rita Swegman noted that, while the population was about 50-50 black and white, most of the black students did not come from the West End.
The other neighborhood public school, on Cutter Street, is the bright, modern Hays-Porter Elementary School, the last K-8 district school in a neighborhood once packed with them.
Though its population has shrunk in recent years—down to 280 from more than 430 in 2007—Hays-Porter is one of the successes of Cincinnati Superintendent Mary Ronan's "elementary initiative" to turn around chronically struggling, high-poverty schools.
In the past five years, the school has finally moved out of "academic emergency," the lowest state designation, to "effective," with above-expected achievement growth for its students, most of whom are poor and black.
Principal Nedria N. McClain credits the recent turnaround in part to the district's academic initiatives—90-minute reading and mathematics blocks, student "data folders" used to track students' work and academic growth, and extra tutoring, among them—and in part to Hays-Porter's engagement with its community. It partners with local community groups to provide health and social services, adult education and career support for parents, college planning, and field trips.
"The strengths in this community were obvious: Generations of families were tied to this school, and it was the heart and center of their community," said Ms. Doppler, the learning-centers coordinator.
Yet city attempts to ease concentrated poverty repeatedly clashed with the schools' efforts to stabilize the communities they served.
For example, in the 1993 book Race and the City, historian Henry Louis Taylor Jr. found that, of the more than 19,000 housing units demolished here in the early- to mid-1960s for highway construction and "slum clearance," two-thirds belonged to nonwhite families. The majority could not afford the new housing. A state fair-housing law passed in 1965, inspired by the federal Civil Rights Act and resulting housing-related litigation, allowed some wealthier black families to leave the West End. But it did little to encourage families of other races to move in, leaving the neighborhood just as racially isolated but considerably poorer. By 1970, Mr. Taylor wrote, the West End was the "densest ghetto" in one of the most segregated cities in the country, 97 percent black and almost entirely poor.
Sands Montessori kept a strong academic reputation through the 1990s—though district resources became scarce.
Several blocks away, the then-separate George W. Hays Elementary and Jennie D. Porter Junior High schools, which were starting to implement community services, stabilized and began to improve academically after years of problems. Hays even won a state award for academic progress.
At the turn of this century, just as it had in the early 1960s, the city used federal urban-development grants to tear down dense high-poverty housing. In the early 2000s, it replaced two 1940s-era high-rise public-housing projects—which Hays, Porter, and other neighborhood schools had been built to serve—with mixed-income properties.
"Many of the families who had been here for generations were dispersed," said Ms. Doppler. "Kids were walking through construction and seeing their homes being torn down."
In the end, some of the amenities promised with what was dubbed the Hope VI urban-renewal plan in the 2000s, such as the West End's first real supermarket, never materialized. Some families who wanted to stay in the community were able to buy or rent subsidized units in the new development, but, "we had a number of families we thought would come back, and who wanted to come back, but who couldn't," Ms. Doppler said.
Yet neither came a big influx of wealthier students. Most of those moving into the new condominiums and town houses were retired or young professionals without children. Four neighborhood schools were consolidated into the Hays-Porter campus, and its attendance zone spread to cover the entire West End. But Principal McClain said none of the students attending Hays-Porter today lives in the $130,000 to $300,000 town houses and condominiums along its adjacent streets. They live in the older buildings behind and farther north, close to the empty Sands building.
War on Poverty: Progress & Persistent Inequity
This story is one of the first in a series of articles in Education Week during the next 18 months to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and its impact on the lives of children, especially those living in poverty. Read more.
As Hays-Porter was condensing and digging in, Sands Montessori, the high-achieving magnet school intended to lure middle-income families, was moving out.
The district decided it would be too expensive to update the 1912 building. Instead, the district moved the magnet school in 2002 to the Mount Washington neighborhood 25 minutes away, switching Sands' magnet attendance zone to the wealthier east side. Then-Principal Gary Browning told The Cincinnati Enquirer before the move, "We don't intend to lose a single family."
Wealth and Reputation
For several years, West End families did stay with the school, but today Sands Montessori enrolls about 90 percent of its students from the middle-class neighborhoods near the school. Its academic reputation has improved with the dramatic change in student demographics: now 68 percent white, 18 percent black, and 8 percent Asian-American, with 27 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Sands Principal Julie E. Ayers said no Poplar Street families—and in fact, no West End students at all—are enrolled there. Even if they did, the school no longer would pay to bus them across town to the new campus.
"I think a lot has changed, not just in the location but in the popularity of the school," Sands teacher Ms. Fullen said. "Now, parents camp outside for weeks to attend" the mostly first-come, first-served school.
Hays-Porter, too, has progressed academically, but "we continue to work on the reputation piece," said Principal McClain. "People couldn't believe how far we came up in test scores, so they thought we'd cheated. You make a couple of steps forward, but it's so easy for people to slip back into thinking, 'Oh, it's Hays, it's high poverty.' "
Thirty-year veteran Hays-Porter teacher Terry A. Armstrong is nearing retirement, but said she is invigorated by the school's improvement.
"I've seen a great change, a wonderful change in the last few years," she said. "I'm the only Hays left [from the original campus]. I just think, somebody has to believe in them; these are wonderful kids, wonderful families."
Vol. 33, Issue 18, Pages 16-17Published in Print: January 22, 2014, as Still Segregated After 50 Years: A Visit to Cincinnati's West End