The Tartans: The story of an Appalachian charter school in Ohio

Fordham has served as an authorizer of charter schools in Ohio since mid-2005. Our schools have been mainly in Ohio’s urban core—including Dayton, Cincinnati, and Columbus—and the vast majority of their students are poor and minority.

This year, we added two more schools to our sponsorship portfolio, both located in Scioto County near Ohio’s southern tip on the shores of the Ohio River, i.e. what most would term the Appalachian region of the Buckeye State. Families and children there face challenges as daunting as those in Ohio’s toughest urban neighborhoods. Scioto is one of the state’s poorest counties with an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent (the state average is 8.5 percent). It has also been ground zero for the state’s opiate epidemic: It has the third-highest overdose death rate of all 88 counties in Ohio.

Together the Sciotoville Elementary School (grades K-4) and Sciotoville Community School (grades 5-12) serve about 440 students. This represents about 1 in 5 children who attend a K-12 school in the local Portsmouth City School District (the home district for most Sciotoville students). The percentage of kids attending charters in that district matches the rate in Cincinnati.  

Sciotoville Community School became a charter in September 2001 when the district decided to close East High School. The master plan called for busing Sciotoville students to other buildings in Portsmouth, some of them more than an hour away. Rather than watch their school close and their kids be shuttled off to distant neighborhoods, however, community leaders rallied around the school and decided to secede from the Portsmouth City School District and turn it into a charter.

Alumni, friends, students, and staff came together to purchase the building and fix it up to serve 300 students in grades 5-12. In 2008, a K-4 elementary feeder school was added to provide a seamless K-12 experience for the community’s children.

As we learned more about Sciotoville, its schools, its families and children, its history, and its challenges over the past year, we felt compelled to share the story of the Tartans (the schools’ nickname). So Fordham’s talented “new media” manager, Joe Portnoy, and Kathryn Mullen Upton, Fordham’s director of sponsorship, spent several days there in the fall, interviewing students, parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, community leaders, and alums—literally the entire school community—to understand this story.

The resulting video documentary, “The Tartans: The story of the Sciotoville community schools,” has just been released. It documents life in the schools and out. Joe and Kathryn interviewed alumni (of the pre-existing district school) going back as far as the 1940s. Some of Sciotoville’s current teachers had been students who returned after college. Joe filmed local business owners and community leaders who support both schools with time and money even though their kids have long since grown up. As one person says in the film, “the schools are the heart of the community and without them we’d not have a community.”

Despite tight budgets and multiple challenges, the two Sciotoville charters have steadily maintained a Continuous Improvement (a “C”) rating by the Ohio Department of Education. Their elected governing boards (an arrangement which is virtually unheard of for Ohio charters) have committed to improving student achievement.

State law in Ohio uses the term “community schools” for what others call charters. In Sciotoville, that turns out to make sense, for these schools are owned and operated by local citizens and parents. Their story is compelling and says much about how important schools and children are to sustaining a community even in the toughest of times. We invite you to view it.

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