Cincinnati learning centers becoming a model for New York, other cities


CINCINNATI  — When a steady stream of out-of-town teachers, school leaders, nonprofits and education groups began visiting Cincinnati two years ago, they weren't going for the chili or the sports teams.

They were going to visit schools. Specifically, a network of Cincinnati Public Schools known as community learning centers.

The schools — 34 so far and counting — have full-service health clinics, mental-health counselors, tutoring programs and after-school programs for everything from ballroom dancing to construction classes. The services are available to students and their families and are aimed at improving academic achievement in the poorest, lowest-achieving schools by creating “hubs” for a given community.

With more than 5,000 such schools nationwide, the learning centers aren't unique to Cincinnati. But the city's model, devised in 2001 and improved in the years since, has garnered the attention of visitors as far away as Hawaii and Australia.

Most recently, officials in the nearly 1 million-student New York City school district announced in September that they would pilot their own Community Learning Centers based primarily on what they saw in Cincinnati.

And in January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced replication of the models statewide as part of his education agenda.

“Children need to be ready to learn. Cincinnati got it,” Cuomo said during a recent education reform hearing.

Knoxville, Tenn., and Toledo also are looking at the Cincinnati model to craft similar programs in their schools.

“It's a business model that works,” said Superintendent Mary Ronan, who added that she's delighted but not surprised about Cincinnati's success.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Cincinnati's hallmark is its self-sustaining funding model, meaning that the school district or its taxpayers don't contribute any levy dollars.

Big funding partners like the United Way pay the salaries of a resource coordinator for each school to oversee the programs. Each school then partners with nonprofit agencies like the YMCA or Central Clinic to operate the programs at no cost to the district. The school-based health centers eventually become self-sustaining because they have enough patients that federal Medicaid reimbursements fund staff salaries.

A dozen years later, the model is working well.

A 2011 study by Innovations in Community Research, an evaluation office housed in Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, found that students with Community Learning Center tutors made 2 1/2 to three times the gains on state math and reading tests than kids without tutors.

The study also found increases in math scores and a decrease in disciplinary referrals and absences among students at the learning centers.

That success hasn't gone unnoticed.

At Oyler school alone, Principal Craig Hockenberry said he and his staff have hosted schools officials from districts in Toledo, Louisville and Knoxville, Ky., Denver, Alabama and the national Coalition for Community Schools. And the New York effort brought several tour groups to a handful of schools in Cincinnati.

“They want know how it's funded,” he said. “Then they ask about roadblocks and challenges.”

Local organizers say Cincinnati's model is finally catching on now, 12 years after its inception, because it's considered “tested.”

“As in so many things, when you have reform, people typically expect it's the ‘reform of the day,’ so the idea that this has really had longevity shows you this really is successful,” said Darlene Kamine, head of the local Community Learning Institute, which pioneered the work in Cincinnati.

“When you have something that steady and strong and sustainable ... it really begins to have sufficient credibility that earns this kind of response and respect.”

She said the tours help communities visualize how it could work.