An Elementary School Closing Takes Toll on Linden Area.

In the past generation, enrollment in the Columbus Public Schools has been cut in half. The steep drop in student numbers has prompted the school board to close 18 school buildings during the last 4 years. Two more elementaries will close in two weeks when the current school year ends.

Multiple factors are considered when a school is closed, enrollment, building condition, available alternatives for students, but for the students, parents and neighbors directly involved the decision unleashes emotions and sometimes fear. “Linden McKinley will be systematically destroyed.” Linden resident Sharon Boyer expressed that fear during a public hearing in January. At the time the Columbus board was considering closing Linmoor Middle School…a feeder school to Linden McKinley. Linmoor was spared but a nearby elementary was closed.

This is Tom Borgerding at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Kenmore. South Linden. The Linden neighborhood is more than a century old and Cleveland Avenue is its economic and social lifeblood. But, construction of Interstate 71, just to the west, changed the dynamic of the area. Linden’s booster organization says when the freeway was built, whole neighborhoods were uprooted but collusion between real estate agents and financial institutions kept African American families housed south of Hudson Street.

Today, Linden leaders are working to stave off the effects of poverty and boost home ownership. An influx of immigrants has helped build commercial activity. But, the fate of the area’s schools remains an emotional flashpoint.

This is Mandie Trimble. In the book, Getting Around Brown, author Gregory Jacobs writes that after desegregation in Columbus “the words Linden McKinley came to connote the unspoken fear and disdain with which whites viewed the burgeoning black presence in the schools.” Against the backdrop of past racial tension and efforts to recover Linden’s economic vitality, members of the Columbus school board and administration came to Linden McKinley High School in January for a public hearing. At stake, the proposed closing of an elementary and a middle school that feeds students to Linden McKinley. Longtime Linden resident Sharon Boyer spoke for many at the hearing. “Closing schools seems to be only effecting the Linden Area. I’m beginning to think you’re not even looking anyplace else. And its not our fault that we’re in this situation. It started way back with school desgregation and sending our kids to other schools to keep them open. Brookhaven, Beechcroft and Northland are open today due of Linden-McKinley.” Said Boyer.

With school closings pending more than 100 parents, teachers, and supporters of Linden schools turned out for the January hearing. Among the crowd, Sieta Coleman, and her three children. Two of the children attend Linden Park Alternative Elementary School. The School will close in early June and Mrs. Coleman’s first and third grader are now preparing to change schools next fall. Coleman and her family moved to Columbus from Indiana six years ago. They visited and researched nine Columbus elementary schools before deciding to move to Linden. “Because we grew up on public schools and we got a fine education from it so we thought we’d give it a try. We’re pleased with Linden Park so we didn’t have any reason to look beyond that.” Said Coleman.

Coleman says she and her husband bought a house near Linden Park Alternative so their children could walk to school. She compliments the staff and curriculum at the school where her daughter has thrived. “We got a letter in the mail that said her third grade achievement scores, academic achievement scores, were of the top ten percent in the state. That’s good to know.” But, when the Columbus school board decided to close Linden Park Alternative Coleman says she felt only anger. “You don’t pull a child out of that school and turn them upside down and sit them back down in a desk somewhere else with that going on. The whole thing’s been a mess. I’m sure we’ll get over it sooner or later.” Said Coleman.

Sieta Coleman says right now she and her husband are looking at different schools and she’s unsure whether the family will remain in the city school district.

The Coleman family dilemma helps shed light and frame bigger district-wide woes. Unlike most of the parents in the Linden area, Sieta Coleman sends her children to the local public schools. Even though Linden Park Alternative was an open enrollment school, meaning it can draw students from all over the district, it is operating at less than half its building capacity. Superintendent Gene Harris says most other Linden parents, 53 percent of those with school age children, choose to send them to charter, private, or community schools.

As more Columbus district students opt out of the public schools, the Board of Education contiually faces decisions on school buildings. Some are mothballed, some are renovated, others are demolished and rebuilt. The school board has voted to close 18 schools in four years.

Ohio State University professor and Director of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, John Powell says both district administrators and parents will continue to face tough choices. “The Columbus schools are in a hard place.The tax base, the students they get, declining enrollment, what are they supposed to do, they can’t fix it by themselves.They have to be part of a larger region. The state has to be involved. And if they’re not then you will get the situation where you’re not solving my needs, I’m leaving. And the people who don’t leave are the people who can’t leave. I talked to a mother the other day. She talked about everytime her son goes out she’s nervous because there have been shootings. She doesn’t have any options. Its not that she doesn’t care about her son. She says I don’t have any options I can’t send my kid to Upper Arlington, Bexley, or Westerville. I have to go the local school.” Said Powell.

Powell adds that if nothing changes, he fears central cities will be “cored out.” He says people living in the cities won’t use the public schools, they’ll use either private schools or there’ll be empty-nesters.

Tomorrow on Fewer Students, Higher Stakes, a closer look at school choice and the effects of violence and unruliness. For Tom Borgerding, I’m Mandie Trimble WOSU News.

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