20 years ago ago today: Presidential bill signing at Hamilton High School put district in spotlight

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‘From the time we were notified it was pretty much a whirlwind,’ past superintendent says

On this date, two decades ago, the nation’s eyes turned to Hamilton High School for a presidential signing of one of America’s most historic and sweeping school reform laws.

The reverberations of that day Jan. 8, 2002 — and the signing of the sweeping No Child Left Behind act — echoed throughout every public school across the country for years.

And the once-in-a-lifetime memories still resonate with those who helped put Hamilton Schools centerstage.

They remember the arrival of President George W. Bush’s helicopter as it landed on the high school’s campus. And the excited audience including thrilled high school students, some whom performed musically at the event.

Prominent Congressional leaders — including then U.S. House Chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee John Boehner, Senator Ted Kennedy, future Ohio Governor — then state senator — Mike DeWine and many others — joined Bush as he signed the NCLB act in the school’s old gymnasium in front of thousands of students, residents and local dignitaries.

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“It was a surreal moment for everyone,” former Hamilton Schools Superintendent Janet Baker recently told the Journal-News.

Baker was then in the early part of her 24 years as leader of the 10,000-student school system.

And it was an event commemorated a few years later with sculptures that still stand in front of Hamilton High School depicting President Bush, Baker and students participating and watching the bill’s signing.

The NCLB act greatly increased the level of public schools’ performance accountability through a series of school reforms with more mandatory student testing being its most prominent — and years later — one of its most criticized features.

Earlier in January 2002, Hamilton school officials were shocked by a directive from Bush’s White House team telling them to prepare for the national event just four days later.

“It was crazy,” recalls Baker. “From the time we were notified it was pretty much a whirlwind.”

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The choice of Hamilton High School among the more than 94,000 public school buildings nationwide in 2002 wasn’t random.

A few weeks earlier, Baker and other Hamilton Schools officials had hosted a business and political roundtable meeting on school reforms in the city district.

Butler County’s U.S. Representative John Boehner was among the roundtable’s attendees and Baker said the influential House member was impressed by Hamilton’s successes as an urban school system with a growing racial diversity of students from a variety of demographic and income groups.

One of the impetuses of “No Child Left Behind” was to try and reduce the historical academic achievement gaps between white students and minorities through greater school district accountability via standardized testing.

The school reform was “looking at how to better meet the needs of diverse learners,” Baker said.

“Of all the places they (White House staff) could have chosen in America, they chose us,” said Baker, who added Hamilton Schools was enjoying some significant academic success in the years leading up to 2002, especially for a large city school system.

“It really was an honor and tribute to all the people who worked in the district,” she said.

“And we were given lots of leeway in the ceremony,” which saw hundreds of adults waiting in the bitter cold outside the high school to make their way through the U.S. Secret Service agents in charge of event security.

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During one of the delays prior the signing ceremony, Baker found herself in an adjacent holding room to the school gym with a few people, including President Bush, who greeted her with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek.

Also in the room were dozens of school items — basketballs, footballs, caps, programs, etc. — left there by students and teachers in hopes Bush would sign them.

“What struck me was how gracious he was in understanding what a historic moment this was for our community. He was very generous with his time and enthusiasm in terms of signing that memorabilia.”

Current Hamilton Board of Education President Laurin Sprague said he recalls his extra role that historic day — he was already the district’s fine arts director.

Sprague’s task, he said, was to be the “cheerleader” of the event to get the crowd even more hyped.

“It was an incredible opportunity for our city … to have a sitting president come to our high school,” Sprague said.

“We had a packed gymnasium for the event and with all the news media coverage, we made international news that day. It was a real big spotlight for our city and our school district.”

Joni Copas, long-time spokeswoman for Hamilton Schools who retired in 2020, recalls having to scramble in just a few days to accommodate “news crews from all over the world.”

The memories of the day outlasted the NCLB act itself, which was ended in 2015 and was replaced by a new national reform law – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA — though the NCLB’s emphasis on student testing remains.

Regardless, Baker said signing ceremony was one of the top highlights of her long-running superintendent career.

“It was a magic moment when we all came together.”


Relive it through the photos at journal-news.com

Go back in time: Two decades ago today — Jan. 8, 2002 — Hamilton High School was the center of America’s news media universe as then U.S. President George W. Bush flew in a helicopter to the school’s campus to sign the historic and sweeping No Child Left Behind Act. The Journal-News was there to capture this photo gallery of one of the most important days in the history of not only Hamilton and Butler County — but also in the history of American school reform.

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