understand the problems threatening Oberlin's community,
you need to replace the wide-angle lens with a telephoto.
Zoom in, and festering problems come into focus: A persistent
25 percent poverty rate, dismal standardized test scores,
substantial job losses, and a rising crime rate. The future
of the town's only hospital is uncertain. Census figures
show a 5 percent drop in population in ten years. The reasons
for the latter decline are complex, but have a lot to do
with the schools, a housing crunch, and dwindling job opportunities.
All this makes Oberlin seem more like a big city than a
pastoral college town.
the town struggles to manage these problems, so does the College.
Recognizing that what's good for the city is also good for the
College, Trustees recently earmarked $350,000 to establish the
Oberlin Partnership and work with town leaders to resolve some
of the more pressing crises. This goes beyond altruism -- although
the College's long history of social responsibility surely plays
a part. Mainly it's about self-preservation. Unresolved, town
problems can quickly become College problems: A community in distress
makes a poor
magnet for top faculty and prospective students. So when push
came to shove, the Trustees didn't have much of a choice. Oberlin's
academic reputation was on the line.
health of the College is absolutely, unavoidably tied to
the well-being of the community in which the College is
located," says Trustee Lee Fisher '73, former Ohio attorney
general and now executive director of the Cleveland-based
Center for Families and Children.
in the Schools
of the school system's successes, the Ohio Department of
Education grades Oberlin among the worst-performing districts
in the state, based on mandatory proficiency tests that
began three years ago. The last report card, for the 1998/1999
school year, gave Oberlin the equivalent of a big, red "F."
The district met only seven of 27 state standards, ranking
it with larger, more urban districts, like Lorain and Cleveland,
among Ohio's worst performers. In fact, Oberlin students
did so poorly that the the district was declared to be in
a state of academic emergency, the lowest classification.
proficiency tests to measure the overall effectiveness
of a school system is still hotly debated. Critics argue
that a district could "teach to the tests," enabling its
students to test well, while cheating them of a well-rounded
education. But even Oberlin school administrators, who
initially dismissed the test results, now acknowledge
that all the college-bound graduates and the merit scholars
don't outweigh low test scores.
tried for a little while to say [to the state], 'You're
barking up the wrong tree, we haven't got time to do that,'"
says a frustrated Francine Toss MA '71, director of pupil
services for the school district and a liaison to the
College. "But state officials had a different opinion,
and it becomes a very high-stakes opinion when it hits
the headlines. If you look at the paper, you'd think we
don't prepare anybody for anything. But," she adds with
determination, "we will meet the challenge."
beyond the obvious value of providing a stellar education
to Oberlin youth, the health of a school district can
make or break a community. "Strong schools make it easier
to attract residents and businesses. Weak schools repel
them," contends Oberlin City Manager Rob DiSpirito. "It
is a fact that a lot of parents have taken their kids
out of the school system."
or wrong, we're losing out," agrees Larry Funk, president
of the Oberlin Chamber of Commerce and one of the town's
developers. "Just this week, two people with kids in elementary
school told me they are leaving town because they don't
want them going to middle school and high school here."
no formal surveys have been done, College President Nancy
Schrom Dye suspects that Oberlin's disappointing school
district performance affects choices that professors make
about where they send their children to school. "It used
to be that virtually everybody sent their kids to public
school here, but we've seen that change in recent years,''
she says. A weak school system, she notes, could produce
a domino effect, dissuading top-notch faculty, particularly
those with school-age children, from teaching at the College,
and, in turn, making the institution less appealing to prospective