How Private Schools Adapt to Vouchers: Eden Grove Academy

Emanuel Marshall’s eighth-grade daughter is one of just thirty students at tiny Eden Grove Academy in Cincinnati who isn’t receiving a voucher under Ohio’s EdChoice Program.

Margie Helton, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher of Eden Grove.
Margie Helton, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher of Eden Grove.

Marshall has sent all three of his children to the K–8 school, which enrolls 107 pupils, up from ninety-eight in 2012–13.

Though Marshall lives in Cincinnati and his children have been assigned to a so-called “failing” public school under Ohio’s voucher law, he’s not eligible for EdChoice tuition assistance.

That’s because he and his wife enrolled their children in the private Eden Grove Academy before the EdChoice program began. The vouchers, worth $4,250 per elementary student annually, are available only to new private school enrollees.

“I’ve been blessed, and we don’t need it,” Marshall, an investment adviser, said of Ohio’s voucher program.

Marshall understands that if he wanted to qualify, he could have withdrawn his children from Eden Grove and enrolled them in Cincinnati Public Schools for a year. Then his family would have been eligible for tuition assistance.

“I thought about it once,” he said, but “I didn’t want to take the chance” that the kids would fall behind.

Nestled on the north side of Cincinnati, the financially strapped Eden Grove is owned by Pillar of Fire International, a six-congregation evangelical church organization based in Zarephath, New Jersey.

Founded in 1901 by Alma White, Pillar of Fire believers were followers of the Methodist Church who thought it had lost its way. A feminist who advocated white supremacy and anti-Semitism, White opened a string of churches, radio stations, and schools across the country. Pillar of Fire has since renounced her racist views and publications.

Eden Grove, whose student body today is 90 percent African American, began as an orphanage and school in 1921. In addition to the school and a 50,000-watt Christian radio station, the organization also has a 150-member church near the Tri-County Mall in the Cincinnati suburb of Springdale.

Asked about the church’s racist past, Marshall, who is African American, said, “I don’t think many people know about it….I have to have a point of demarcation of what was in the past and what they’re doing now.”

Marshall, who has had at least one child attending Eden Grove for sixteen years, said that since the school started taking vouchers, its culture and mission have indisputably changed.

“When I first got there, every parent was fully engaged,” he said. Now, maybe fifteen to twenty families attend Parent Teacher Fellowship meetings.

Ed Myers, who retired from the school in 2012, decided to introduce vouchers to Eden Grove in 2006, the year that the program began in Ohio. The former thirty-year veteran of public schools said Eden Grove had just seventy-six students when he became principal in 1999.

“Eden Grove was a hands-on ministry,” said Myers, who doubled as the physical-education teacher. “We did a lot of painting, a lot of roof repair.”

Myers has no doubt that without vouchers, Eden Grove would have closed. Though for a while Pillar of Fire’s central office sent the school $6,000 a month, that subsidy ceased in September 2011 when headquarters ran into its own financial problems.

Other than a one-time $25,000 donation from Carl Lindner Jr., a sometimes-controversial Cincinnati billionaire who died in 2011, the school hasn’t raised any philanthropic money to supplement the tuition it receives from its thirty paying students and the EdChoice money.

Myers, who is not a member of Pillar of Fire, said Eden Grove, which once had a mainly white student body, draws children almost exclusively from the nearby neighborhood—in part, because the transportation schedule that Cincinnati Public Schools offers isn’t convenient for students living farther away.

He raved about the school’s teachers, but said he had concerns about the A Beka curriculum that was used.

“It has a lot of fluff and redundancy,” he said of the popular program favored by evangelical schools. The reading instruction, Myers said, was particularly weak.

Administrators and teachers also give A Beka mixed reviews. The materials are heavily workbook driven, resulting in students spending large chunks of time filling in blanks and glued to their chairs.

Christie Evans, who teachessecond grade and was energetically drilling her eight mostly-rapt students on long and short vowel sounds, consonant blends, and “sneaky” silent e’s, said she doesn’t like using all of A Beka’s worksheets. The curriculum “has a lot of busy work,” she said.

Though the school has always been short on money—the budget is $482,000 this year—Myers said that when he retired, all teachers had SMART boards and the school had “almost a computer per student.”

The former principal said he supports the state’s requirement that as a condition for receiving vouchers, private schools must administer the state’s proficiency tests to their voucher students and report the results.

“It made sense to me,” Myers said, echoing all private-school administrators who were interviewed for this report.

Larry Dinkins, a bishop in Pillar of Fire and a former pastor of the Cincinnati church, said Eden Grove Academy is a “ministry” for the church as well as for the staff who work there. The retired truck driver said Myers, when principal, would “forego his salary” for months when money was tight.

“He has put his own blood, sweat and tears—and his own money—into the school,” Dinkins said. “It was nothing for him to take $5,000 and put windows in the building.”

Chad Harville, who is married to Dinkins’s daughter, followed Myers as principal. The thirty-seven-year-old former production engineer for the Ohio Department of Transportation went back to college for his education degree, took a teaching job at the school for three years, and became principal in the Fall 2011.

“You have to be called to be here,” said the soft-spoken Harville, whose four children also attend Eden Grove. He pointed out that teachers are with their students all day, except for two periods twice a week when they go to art or computer class. There are no planning periods, and children eat lunch in their classroom.

Teachers received a raise this year of $100 for the first time since Harville has been principal. “It was basically nothing,” he said, noting that few teachers are paid more than $30,000 annually.

Harville believes that the Ohio Department of Education does a good job administering EdChoice, and he’s found that complying with the state’s rules has become easier since students’ paperwork is now filed online.

He is frustrated, however, that proving residency can be complicated in ways that only low-income parents would experience. One Eden Grove family living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, for instance, has its mail sent to a relative’s home. That decision raised questions about whether their children are genuinely assigned to a “failing” Cincinnati public school and thus eligible for a voucher.

Marshall, the parent who has sent three children to Eden Grove, said his only concern about the state’s administration is that parents can leave a school too easily, inevitably putting their child behind.

* * *

Eden Grove’s test scores, which last year lagged behind those of the Cincinnati Public Schools across the board, are “all over the place,” conceded Harville. Though unhappy with the average scores, he said that two or three struggling students could significantly drag down a small school’s overall results. He said individual test scores show that children are making important progress.

fordham_2014_cs5_img02Because Eden Grove’s curriculum doesn’t align with Ohio’s standards, in some grades students are being tested on material they haven’t learned yet. “We still think our curriculum is better.”

That problem is likely to continue under the new Common Core standards that Ohio has adopted, which Eden Grove is not following, either.

Margie Helton, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade classes, said she and her fellow teachers agonize about how to help students catch up. One of her new seventh graders this year is reading on a third-grade level, she said. Children are not asked to leave the school for academic difficulties, Helton said, but “obsessive disrespect will get you kicked out.”

Audrey Turner-Berry, a Kindergarten teacher who formerly worked in Cincinnati Public Schools, has been teaching at Eden Grove for more than a decade. She said one of her most important jobs is building trust with families. “We’re re-educating parents who didn’t have a wonderful experience (in school)….Here, there’s no confrontation.”

Turner-Berry, who is rearing two great nieces and a great nephew, said she is conscious of helping parents learn how to discuss disagreements about matters like how a child is disciplined at school or the importance of attendance.

She said a common complaint from former Cincinnati Public School parents is that they don’t want their child on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which they see as a stigma.

“We take our time and slow it down,” she said, noting that a child who starts school on an IEP may not always be on one.

Vanessa Nelson-Paunescu’s daughter Nina came to Eden Grove in 2011–12 from Cincinnati’s Pleasant Hill Academy and was a year behind academically.

“By mid-year, she was right up there with the rest of the students,” said Nelson-Paunescu, who receives a voucher and is president of the Parent Teacher Fellowship. She credits smaller class sizes with making the difference for her now fifth grader.

Lynda Archer’s two children attend Eden Grove for free, because her husband is the building and groundskeeper at the complex. The family once lived in Colerain Township, but they moved into Cincinnati so her children would be eligible for vouchers at Eden Grove. After Archer’s husband got a job at the church, the family moved back outside of the city.

Rodney Dukes’s second-grade son has been attending Eden Grove since Kindergarten.

“I like the teachers,” Dukes said in September when he was visiting the school during chapel services, which are held once a week. Concerned that the school doesn’t have strong music, art, or physical education classes, Dukes said he is not sure his son will remain at Eden Grove through eighth grade.

“There’s a lot the school can’t offer,” he said.

Harville agrees that Eden Grove falls short on multiple fronts. He knows that he needs to raise more money, increase enrollment, improve students’ test scores, and upgrade the facilities. He believes that families stick with the school despite these shortcomings because of its emphasis on discipline, its safe and welcoming environment, and its focus on Biblical values.

“I was always really proud, and still am” of the school, said Myers, the former principal. “If we could clear away the clutter (in the children’s lives), it was amazing the progress they would make….There is just something about that place.”

This case study is drawn from Pluck and Tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio have adapted to vouchers, by Ellen Belcher, published by the Fordham Institute in February.  The book’s introduction is available here. Additional case studies are available hereherehere and here.

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