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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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Urban Renewal

By Skip Tate

Sharon Johnson was a sixth-grade teacher who wanted to be a principal. She was also a single parent, though. And finding the funds to go back to school to earn a principal’s certificate would have required putting a death squeeze on an already tight budget.

About the only thing she had going for her was timing. It was 1997 and the Procter & Gamble Co. had just given the University a $1.5 million grant to establish an education program known as the Urban Initiative. Part of that grant was for scholarships, and the University was looking for students wanting to teach in urban areas, or teachers in urban schools looking to earn a master’s degree or advanced certification.

Johnson was an ideal candidate

“They knew my struggle,” she says, “but they also knew my goal. They got me from point A to point B.”

A year later, Johnson earned her principal’s certification and was hired as the principal at Parham Elementary in Cincinnati, a school she categorized at the time as negative and fearful. Less than 15 percent of its students could write at grade level. None of the fourth- or sixth-graders passed the math section of the Ohio Proficiency Test. Parents were even afraid to enter the school.

The school district slated it for a redesign, however, and handed Johnson the keys. Two years later, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley was inside the school, hailing it as a model of turnaround for the nation. Fourth-grade writing scores were up 24 percent. Partnerships with local businesses and universities were formed. Johnson even started a literacy class to help parents learn to read so they could help their children with their homework.

It’s a classic example, says James Boothe, chair of the education department, of the kind of success the Urban Initiative generated. In the last five years, the program gave 72 students scholarships—some as much as $50,000.

“When you look at the number of students we’ve been able to bring on board—some of whom we’ve paid for their full master’s degree—it’s amazing,” says Boothe. “We got a lot of mileage out of that $500,000.” The program is nearing an end. The scholarship budget has just $16,000 left, which will be spent after the summer semester.

“One of Father Graham’s charges to the University is to serve the community,” says Gary Massa, vice president for university relations. “This fits in perfect with that ideal; we are actively participating in making the community better. So, yes, this is something we would like to continue, and we are talking with several people now about a possible donation to make this happen.”

The whole program began six years ago, when University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., oversaw university relations. He called a meeting with Boothe and asked what they needed to improve. Boothe and others in the department dreamed—and dreamed and dreamed and dreamed—and came up with a wish list that could be fulfilled with $7.1 million.

That was a bit much, but P&G agreed to fund one segment of that. The University’s research showed that many urban teachers were very interested in additional schooling, but in many cases couldn’t further their education without financial assistance. So the focus became assisting teachers in urban areas, where pay is less, resources fewer and challenges greater.

Of the initial grant, $500,000 went toward scholarships, $500,000 toward personnel and program expenses, and $500,000 toward building two high-tech classrooms in the Cohen Center. Johnson’s seen those classrooms. She returned again last year and—with a scholarship—earned her assistant superintendent certification. This fall she becomes the principal of a new college preparatory high school within the Cincinnati Public Schools District.

“This is an example of the kind of partnerships we want to attract and are pursuing,” says Graham. “These programs are important to the University and important to the community. Procter & Gamble provided us with a great foundation, and we’d like to build on that.”

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