Friday, July 24, 2015

Coming Soon To Glendale: The Eckstein Cultural Center

The good old days weren't really that good.
Separate school for African American students in Glendale, Ohio.

RECENTLY, I SAT DOWN WITH BILL PARRISH, a local artist and businessman, to discuss plans for the old Eckstein School, here in Glendale, Ohio. His plan can be boiled down to a single sentence: “What are we willing to do to inspire the next young artist, singer or actor?”

For those who live in Glendale, the Eckstein School is a reminder that the “good old days” weren’t nearly as good as we sometimes like to believe. Starting in 1915, Eckstein was where “the Negro children” of Glendale, grades K-8, went to school. Bill’s two older sisters, Stephanie and Cheryl, attended Eckstein briefly, until the Princeton City School District closed it in 1958.

By the time Bill was old enough to head off to school, Eckstein was shuttered. He attended Glendale Elementary and says there he “thrived.” As early as kindergarten he was already showing an artistic bent, although, at age six, he had no definitive plans to become an artist when he grew up. He does remember his kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ertel, encouraging him to draw. “My teachers were always amazed I drew people that looked like people,” he laughs, “with real squirrels leaping out of trees.”

(Black squirrels—even dead ones—are another focal point of Glendale history.)

He laughs again and admits that he and Shane, his best friend, fell in love with Mrs. Lisle, their second grade teacher. The boys cried at the end of the year, knowing they’d be leaving her class forever.

(Bill admits they let a love note or two on her desk during recess when they were in third grade.)

Mr. Parrish, right.

Mr. Parrish was always a good student and mentions various teachers who inspired him during his school career. Mr. Barrett, his eighth grade math teacher, stands out. In Barrett’s class, Bill went “beyond what I thought I could do.” Barrett had faith in kids, including smart kids who “didn’t necessarily test well.” So Parrish took a greater interest in math. Still, art was “his passion,” and he realized even as a young man that it was important to “use the gifts he was given.”

“He gave kids permission to learn,” Bill explains. As a former educator, I nod agreement.

He calls Larry Knarr, who handled eighth grade American history, “the very best teacher I ever had. Today I know the Gettysburg Address by heart because of him. He made learning fun. He created the atmosphere were you really wanted to know as much as you could.”

(I don’t think any student, fifty years from now, will ever say that about standardized testing. That concerns me, deeply. I’ll say more on that in a moment.)

Even when he went on to Princeton High School, Mr. Parrish thought of art class as a place where he “enjoyed a break.” He still didn’t see art as a career. In Ms. Miracle’s sophomore expository writing class, however, he illustrated all the stories he wrote, filling margins with pictures. Art, he says, “helped me understand what I couldn’t put into words.” Ms. Miracle might have complained—might have warned him not to clutter up his manuscripts—but instead she encouraged the young man. “Her words of support gave me confidence,” Bill remembers today.

(Today, schools across the United States have been forced to cut art to make time for test preparation.)

He mentions other educators who inspired him. Then he asks the kind of question that nags at me these days, in what I call the Age of the Standardized Test: “How do we measure inspiration?”

I find myself wondering: “How do we evaluate education with tests involving only answers A, B, C and D?”

I retired in 2008, after a long career with the Loveland City Schools, but much of what Mr. Parrish has to say troubles me even now. I’m not worried because he’s wrong. I’m almost sure he’s right. “The beauty of my learning experience,” he explains, “was that I had teachers I loved, I loved wanting to learn under them.”

He too doubts that standardized testing is the right model in education. “I’m not sure getting back to that landscape of learning…I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to that, but I want to do my best to create that atmosphere.”

That’s where his plans for the old Eckstein building—to be renamed the “Eckstein Cultural Arts Center”—should interest the community and anyone who cares about learning in all its permutations and disguises.

Mr. Parrish went on to earn his college degree at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In the end, he followed his passion to become an artist, only later branching out to business and consulting. A year ago he said goodbye to Chicago and returned to Glendale, where he began putting together a business plan for the old school. Financial matters are now well in hand, he says. Important art organizations stand ready to help, including the Art Academy, the Fitton Center and Greenacres Art Center in Indian Hill. Now it’s a matter of waiting for the Glendale Village Council to attend to legal details and turn over the building in order for renovations to commence.

The opening of a new Eckstein will be an opportunity for “generations still to come.” The Center will offer a wide variety of classes in writing, painting, acting and more. Unlike the Eckstein of old, the new facility will be open to all. Mr. Parrish has already talked with people from the Cincinnati Autism Center, for example, and autistic children and adults will be welcome.

Listening to his story, you can’t help but be encouraged by what he plans to do. Bill has faith in the young. He has talked with kids at Glendale Elementary, at Saint Gabriel’s Catholic School, and Bethany School. “The kids are telling us they don’t have issues working with kids with special needs,” he says with a smile. During one meeting he noticed that two children who had been in attendance earlier were missing. But he couldn’t remember who they were.

A helpful second grader tried to jog his memory: “They’re the two who are gray.”

It took Mr. Parrish a moment before he realized the missing children were mixed race. “They weren’t ‘black’ or ‘white’ in the minds of kids today. You mix black and white, you get gray. They could have said ‘bi-racial,’” Bill laughed, “but it was just the natural way they see others today.”

I mentioned that I had witnessed the same trend during my three decades in a Loveland classroom.

There’s nothing wrong with “kids today,” Bill and I agree. In fact, they’re less likely to be racist or homophobic than their parents were, far less likely than members of more distant generations. Gender is no issue at all. They accept that boys and girls can do—equally—whatever they want. And, as Bill has noticed, they’re far more accepting of classmates with special needs.

No. Kids today are fine.

In any case, Mr. Parrish envisions the Eckstein Cultural Arts Center as a gathering place for kids, ages 5-18, also open to adults. It will be a place where children from all local schools, all economic strata, kids with learning disabilities, kids labeled “gifted,” kids in the middle, can meet and develop creative talents. He sees the new Eckstein as a place where the young can develop a sense of “belonging” and adds that Princeton City and Wyoming City Schools are both on board.

Something he says stirs me up and we talk about what I see as the curse of standardized tests, which I believe have done serious harm in education in recent years. Mr. Parrish and I are in accord. Focusing on testing means “kids are losing interest,” he warns. “At Eckstein creativity will be welcomed.”

“We’re not going to change that monster,” he adds, referring to all the mandated tests, “but we will provide an option.”

Now it’s my turn to smile.

Planning is now in the final stages. The Art Academy has agreed to provide 70% of staffing needs to run a wide variety of arts-based programs. One, Smart Art, will bring in artists to teach math and science—the planets, for example—from an art perspective. There will be room for adult artists to set up studios. The basketball court will be renovated. Art camps will run through the summer and during winter and spring breaks. So there will “never be a break from learning.” There will be classes in painting, drawing, sculpting, and computer graphics and writers’ camps, too, with students developing and then performing in their own plays.

How will Mr. Parrish and other adults know when their plans are working?

“We’ll tell you when it isn’t good,” he says the children he has talked with have promised him.

Naturally, Mr. Parrish is excited about prospects for the old school and listening to his stories, I get excited, too. I know you can’t “measure” the value of one artist. One singer. One musician. I know we can never predict what today’s young persons will choose to do with their lives.

So we don’t want to narrow our scope, which is exactly what a focus on standardized testing has done.

I explain to Mr. Parrish that I have asked every educator I have met in the last seven years what they think of standardized tests. After all, layers of A, B, C and D tests are the antithesis of what he hopes to do. At a birthday party this spring I met a kindergarten teacher who told me testing had been “terrible for children.” Her husband, a high school band director, said the testing focus had “completely stunted music education.” When I spoke recently with Jane Barre, my old principal at Loveland Middle School, she referred to the growing fetish for high stakes tests as a form of “lunacy.” I’ve written elsewhere about the damage done in subjects like American history. So I will spare you. But the negative effects seem to clearly outweigh the minimal gains that have been made. In 2013, for example, 44% of principals admitted cutting time for physical education focus could be placed on prepping for tests.

Who needs music anyway! Or physical education! Just let kids take more and more fill-in-the bubble tests!

(Despite the focus on testing over the last decade standardized test scores have barely risen at all.)

In the end, I doubt we’ll ever be able to “measure” what Mr. Parrish intends to do. Bill dreams of producing kids who write the next Broadway play, who go on to play cello for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He wants to insure that the next generation of boys and girls who draw in the margins of their compositions have a chance to go on to a fulfilling life as cartoonists, sculptors and painters. He wants to make sure that we challenge young people to develop all their talents—to go beyond what they might initially feel they can do.

 “When you give kids a chance to express themselves,” he says finally, “they’re off the charts.”

The Eckstein Cultural Arts Center is coming soon.

The bones of the old building are still good.

Tower over front door.

Many architecural details are impressive.

Clearly, floors are worth saving.

The drainage system may need work.

Painters needed.

Window sill needing a little work.

There's work to be done.

The cupola over the main entrance will look great when refurbished.

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