An Eye on the Buckeyes

by Cassie Schwerner, Senior Vice President of National Partnerships

I grew up near Cincinnati and had been surprised to learn that it is one of the nation’s leaders in adopting whole-child practices.  Schott has been examining the adoption of whole-child supports in schools and communities across the country as part of our newly launched Healthy Living and Learning Initiative.  I was recently speaking about Schott’s vision and goals for this work with a small group of sector leaders, and was invited by Cincinnati philanthropist, Lee Carter, to come see the work unfolding in Cincinnati.

Over the last five to ten years, there has been a growing movement in local communities across the country to centralize a wide range of services that students and families need in their local public schools. In communities where these whole-child approaches have been adopted, students can receive physical and mental health services, healthy, nutritious meals, and family financial and legal support, among other things in their schools.

The Healthy Living and Learning Initiative aims to learn what is working and accelerate the adoption of those practices in a greater number of communities across the country so significantly more students receive the supports they need to graduate high school and attain a post-secondary degree.  After all, it is Schott’s contention that if we had been supporting students and their families for the last 30 years rather than focusing solely on teaching standards and standardized testing, we would surpass countries like Finland for academic excellence. We see bright spots of communities that have taken this approach and as a result low income students and students of color are thriving, such as Great Neck, Scarsdale and suburban Chicago. We want to spread those learnings across the country so all students can thrive regardless of race or zip code.

Lee’s invitation to experience the great work and development in Cincinnati gave me the opportunity to see my childhood community in a whole new light. Lee arranged a two-day visit, giving me ample opportunity to learn about the vast amounts of inter-related work happening in the city to meet student’s needs. While there’s an incredible amount of public and private programs and initiatives taking shape in the city, there were three programs that really stood out to me as the epitome of healthy living and learning:

  1. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Support for Child Literacy
    Lee is on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and from him I learned that the number one child healthcare need in the city is mental health services and early brain development. Dr. Robert Kahn, who co-directs the hospital’s community health efforts, explained that the hospital’s strategic plan includes target metrics around reducing disparities in health and education outcomes. This has led the hospital to adopt the goal of improving childhood literacy and has driven them to build partnerships in the neighborhood with primary care, school-based health centers, the health department and with Cincinnati public schools, among many others. 

    These partnerships have been made possible by local philanthropic support. Greg Landsman, a City Council member  and former Executive Director of Strive, described that “local philanthropic leaders pulled together to form a new fund to invest in early literacy efforts that have real impact and can secure sustainable, public funding.”

    This Every Child Capital fund has supported the hospital and community partners in adopting two national child literacy programs: Imagination Library and Reach Out and Read. These programs encourage pediatric healthcare providers to talk to parents about the importance of early brain development and engaging their children in reading and help families build a library of books. If the family agrees to participate in the program, they receive one book every month, so by the time the child is five they will have a 60 book library. This has been a pilot in Cincinnati, and if it proves successful there are plans for the Cincinnati Public Schools to partner and assume the expense of the program. The hospital supports data and quality improvement, and has enabled several pilot schools to make significantly greater progress on their reading proficiency goals than peer schools. Cheryl Broadnax, Assistant Superintendent, remarked that the collaboration has given the teachers the tools to continuously improve their teaching through data, reflective practice, teacher huddles and even student feedback.

    While it might be surprising for a healthcare organization to be focused on literacy, the doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital recognize the inextricable link between health, education and family stability, and are reaching across issue area to promote solutions in early childhood education that ultimately will help them better meet the community’s health needs. Dr. Kotagal, the Executive Lead for Community Health explained, “We know that the communities that children live in are a much bigger contributor to their health than the healthcare we can provide. And if a child is not on the right trajectory by age 9, the work to get them on the right trajectory is much harder.”
  2. City Wide, Community Learning Centers
    My visit to Olyer Community Learning Center gave me a chance to see an example of a Cincinnati community school. Over the last ten years, Cincinnati Public School system has transitioned EVERY public school to be a Community Learning Center. These Community Learning Centers reimagine schools as an integral link between education and community. These centers serve as hubs for community services, providing a system of integrated partnerships that promote academic excellence and offer recreational, educational, social, health, civic and cultural opportunities for students, families and the community. Each center has a full-time Resource Coordinator who knows the specific needs of the school, its families and the community, and recruits partners to meet the individual needs of students, impact school success and reflect community interests.

    The Community School model in Cincinnati and beyond have proven to be an effective model, especially in neighborhoods where poverty and racism erect barriers to learning, and where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide. Oyler is a premier site, serving as an example of what a full-service community center looks like. The school serves close to 700 kids and 4000 neighborhood residents, and offers clinical services for eye and dental care as well as physical and mental health services.

  3. City-wide Commitment to Pre-K

While the hospital’s literacy program focuses on birth – five years old, the city’s Preschool Promise program aims to fill the gap in access to pre-K to ensure more students are prepared for success in Kindergarten and beyond. Half of the 9,200 three and four-year-old children in Cincinnati live at or below the federal poverty level, and 40% are not prepared for Kindergarten. The funding for preschool tuition assistance has not sufficiently met the demand, so the Cincinnati Preschool Promise commits to increased funding to make quality preschool more affordable for families who need it most. (For more information  go to: 

Ultimately, practitioners seeking education and health equity have long understood that moving the needle will require systemic changes to how our public and private sectors meet the needs of local community members. While there aren’t cities in our country that have completed the process of fully overhauling their systems to achieve healthy living and learning conditions, we see bright spots in communities like Cincinnati where public officials and private citizens are reshaping the structures for resourcing and supporting the needs of all community members in a way that is driven by and for Black, Hispanic and low-income community members. This type of systems change does take time, given that communities are essentially redesigning the racist, inequitable systems that we inherited from past decades of our history, all while continuing to serve the students and families needing support here and now.


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