New Private School Aiming to Help Low-Income Children Succeed in Adulthood

Fourth-grade student Jeiona Odon places the food tray on a lunch table at The Greater Dayton School while her classmate Jacyn Diamond sets bowls on a rotating tray in the center.

The school serves Caesar salad, spaghetti, and chicken piccata, all prepared with fresh ingredients. Each bowl includes tongs for the six students and a teacher seated at each table to serve themselves as the tray spins.

At the Ohio school, two students take the lead in presenting what the school’s founding principal A.J. Stich refers to as the school’s “grace” – its objectives for each student as they grow into adults.

One of the students reads each line aloud, then pauses for the 102 kindergarten through fourth-grade students in the cafeteria to repeat it:

“Each day, I will work to achieve our Age 27 goals:”

“Being physically and mentally healthy,”

“Demonstrating character and integrity,”

“Preparing for a career and for financial independence,”

“And living my own definition of success.”

“May this food help our bodies;

We are thankful for the hands that made it and for the friends we share it with.”

Encouraging family-style meals and the regular restating of goals for their adult lives are some of the ways in which The Greater Dayton School distinguishes itself from a typical educational institution.

A unique private school catering exclusively to low-income students, Greater Dayton aims to support its students beyond academic achievement. The school’s mission is to empower students to chart their own paths to financial independence and optimal health as adults, not solely focused on high school graduation or college enrollment.

Established in the autumn of 2022, The Greater Dayton School imposes income restrictions on all students, with the exception of faculty children who are also eligible for enrollment. The school boasts a student health clinic, extended school days extending until 5 p.m., a two-teacher model in every classroom, personalized learning plans, and even schoolwide toothbrushing sessions.

Initially located in a former Salvation Army administrative building, the school aspires to expand to approximately 400 students spanning preschool through eighth grade. While still in its early stages, the school has generated considerable buzz within the city and captured the attention of Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor during the unveiling of its new $50 million facility this spring.

“It’s more than just academics; it’s about nurturing the whole child,” stated Larry Connor, a Dayton real estate developer whose company and foundation are the primary financial backers of the school. “Academics are crucial, but physical and mental well-being play a pivotal role in achieving positive academic outcomes.”

The Greater Dayton School’s newly inaugurated building following an investment of nearly $50 million in land acquisition and construction. (Patrick O’Donnell)

While the school benefits from partial funding through state tuition vouchers of $6,165 per student, Greater Dayton expends $30,000 or more annually per student, with Connor’s foundation bridging the financial gap.

“Our vision is to establish a model that can be replicated in cities across the United States,” outlined Connor. “We’re adopting a long-term perspective to address the prevalent needs in every American community.”

Stich and other school administrators sought counsel from successful educational institutions nationwide such as Meeting Street Academy in Charleston, S.C., Christina Seix Academy in Trenton, N.J., and Waterside School in Stamford, Conn. in formulating their comprehensive plan to address the diverse support systems essential for low-income children.

The expansive open staircase and the school cafeteria serve as focal points in The Greater Dayton School’s state-of-the-art facility. (Patrick O’Donnell)

The school tailors personalized educational plans for each student, allowing them substantial autonomy in structuring their daily activities – known as their “playlist” – to instill a sense of ownership in their learning experience.

The class size is limited to 20 students, with two dedicated teachers per class. Students engage in online coursework at their own pace, utilizing programs such as Zearn or Lexia while receiving individualized attention or instruction in small groups from their teachers.

Students are incorporated into mixed-grade classrooms to foster intentional age diversity. As the school expands its grade levels, students will eventually be grouped into Prek, K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 classroom settings.

Greater Dayton teacher Alyssa Stang, in collaboration with Brittany Wylie, assists a student with lesson comprehension while the rest of the class engages in independent work. (Patrick O’Donnell)

“From an academic perspective, it’s truly remarkable,” commented Brittany Wylie, who instructs students in grades 2-4 as the school expands. “It’s effective. Previously, if I had a fifth-grade class, the academic proficiency of those students could range from kindergarten to sixth grade. However, I was tasked with instructing them all at a fifth-grade level, regardless of their actual readiness. Here, I witness students comprehending, digesting, and progressing to the next level.”

The school also offers post-school activities until 5 p.m. to assist working parents in meeting childcare requirements while narrowing the gap between the enrichment opportunities affluent students receive and what lower-income families can access.

While some students construct Lego models of rockets or the Taj Mahal, others operate a store where students make purchases using “earnings” acquired by meeting school targets. Mark Kreider, the school’s financial literacy instructor, oversees the store after imparting fundamental business and saving concepts to even the youngest students during the school day.

Students shop at the school’s post-school store, designed to teach business operations to some while enhancing financial management skills for others. (Patrick O’Donnell)

“It’s never too early,” emphasized Kreider. “The concept of generating wealth rather than just subsisting is crucial for our students. We emphasize financial independence because being caught in a cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck living with mountainous debt severely limits your options.”

“I can’t predict our students’ future endeavors,” he continued. “But I aim to provide them with choices. Will all of them establish small businesses? Probably not. However, they should possess the knowledge and acumen to consider it. It’s beyond just a skill; it’s a perspective, a worldview. That’s the aspiration.”

Mark Kreider engages first graders and kindergarteners in a discussion on commencing a business venture at Greater Dayton School. (Patrick O’Donnell)

Students earn privileges through positive behavior, affording them the opportunity to work beyond the classroom, often on the expansive open staircase and terrace featuring couches overlooking the cafeteria.

Student well-being remains a cornerstone of the school’s mission. Students participate in over an hour of physical education daily, while meals consist primarily of whole foods comprising at least 80% of the menu, with minimal processing and sugar, except for allowable treats exclusively served on Fridays.

Students Jeiona Odon and Jacyn Diamond prepare the dining area before fellow students arrive. (Patrick O’Donnell)

The school has established an on-site medical and dental clinic operated by Dayton Children’s Hospital, enabling students to receive healthcare without disrupting their school day. Given that Medicaid eligibility is a prerequisite for student enrollment, medical services are already included within the program.

“When children need medical or dental attention, they simply descend to the clinic, then return to class,” emphasized Stitch.

The school incorporates daily tooth brushing into the routine, with all students visiting the restrooms at designated intervals to brush their teeth under the supervision of teachers to ensure proper hygiene practices.

Mental health support is also prioritized, especially due to students’ potential exposure to financial and familial obstacles. Presently, the school provides a mental health counselor for its 102 students, with plans to expand the services as the school population grows.

Greater Dayton School students set their learning environment where they can optimize their learning experience without the conventional desk-row setup. (Patrick O’Donnell)

The school’s overall impact remains ambiguous. Unlike other private Ohio schools, The Greater Dayton School does not administer Ohio’s state tests. By leveraging NWEA diagnostic test results and NWEA’s evaluation framework, the school estimates that students are making accelerated academic progress compared to statewide averages, with 72% achieving proficiency, exceeding the 45% proficiency rate among low-income students in Dayton’s vicinity.

Wylie, who previously taught in the economically disadvantaged Youngstown schools, believes that setting high standards and rewarding students for meeting them creates an environment of responsibility and trust, guiding students towards success.

“We firmly believe that they can achieve anything they set their minds to, that they will excel, and that they are invaluable,” she remarked. “I’m convinced that students from any background, when they lack role models, need the opportunity to witness it firsthand.”

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