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Despite a glow of positive news for the city — new companies moving in and adding jobs and downtown development continuing — city officials say one key piece of attracting new residents to the city needs attention: the perceptions of the Hamilton City School District.
According to an informal survey the city conducted with area real-estate agents, one of the biggest factors that keep families from buying homes in the city is the schools, said Brandon Saurber, the city’s director of strategy and information. The other is crime, he said.
The two biggest factors that make Hamilton attractive to families are the city’s architecture and low taxes, he said.
“The public schools, without a doubt, from what I’ve heard over and over and over again, is really the biggest hurdle we can get over,” City Manager Joshua Smith said.
The district’s 2013-2014 Report Card from the state contained mostly C’s, D’s and F’s, with a B in kindergarten through third-grade literacy improvement. Among those grades, the district received a C and D in the achievement category; a D and C based on graduation rates; and two F’s, a D and a C in the area of how much progress the district is making.
In a win for the district, Hamilton this month was awarded an A grade for kindergarten through third grade literacy improvement. Only 10 of Ohio’s 613 school districts scored that well, Hamilton Schools Superintendent Tony Orr said.
Orr said he believes Hamilton does a good job educating its students, particularly given the socioeconomic challenges he said the district faces.
“Here in Hamilton, we educate almost 10,000 students,” Orr said. “And if you look at our demographics, we do have a higher poverty rate. And there is a correlation between student performance and certainly socioeconomics.”
Orr said the district has been adding about 100 students per year the past several years.
“Do I think a school system attracts or detracts from people moving in?” Orr asked. “I suspect potentially. But I would also hope, though, that we are certainly more than a report card.”
The district’s potential valedictorian for this school year has already been accepted into Yale University, he said.
“And I think stories like that let us know that I would put our top students against any top students in the state of Ohio, simply put,” Orr said.
Smith said he plans to invite Orr and Badin High School Principal Brian Pendergast to participate in regular Thursday meetings that are held among the city, the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Community Foundation, the CORE Fund and others to discuss moving the city forward.
“We’ve been remiss in not having the public schools at the table,” Smith said. “But if that is a long-term strategy … we need something short-term in place, because we can’t wait 10 years to see a change on the report card. We need some immediate traction.”
One immediate idea discussed during the city’s recent strategy-setting retreat was to focus on attracting those without children to the city.
The district’s report cards and other issues will not improve dramatically in the short term, said Tom Meyer, one of the the consultants working with the city on its strategies for improvement.
“You’re not going to turn that around in six months, right?” he said. “So maybe your laser focus has to go to a type of consumer who doesn’t care about the schools.”
Meyer noted empty-nesters and young adults both fit that category.
Another possibility, the consultants offered, is to focus on drawing families to areas around the city’s parochial schools. That has been successful in areas like Cincinnati’s high-priced Hyde Park and Mount Lookout neighborhoods, where families avoid the public high schools by sending students to private schools.
Tom Hasselbeck, a Realtor with Sibcy Cline in Fairfield, and a member of the Butler-Warren Association of Realtors, noted Hyde Park is one of the hottest real-estate areas in the region, and it is located within the Cincinnati Public Schools district.
“People that are buying homes in Hyde Park, you would assume have higher incomes. Perhaps they may have been students of a private school, versus public schools, and are accustomed to that,” he said.
“When I have a buyer looking at any given area of Greater Cincinnati, I’ll ask what are their needs? And I get that loaded question: ‘What’s the best school system?’ And I’ll say, ‘It depends on what your needs are. Do you have a gifted child? Do you have a special needs child? Do you have a child who’s into the band and extra-curricular things?’”
“And a lot of it depends on the economics of the buyer — what’s the price range?” Hasselbeck said.
Orr said Hamilton schools have some advantages more affluent districts in the area do not.
“Hamilton City Schools is a wonderful place to have your students attend, also because of the diversity. I think that’s one of the things that should attract people. We have wealthy students, we have poor students. We have certainly a mixed range of ethnic cultures that enrich a student’s experience here, because it’s really reflective of the real world,” Orr said.