Dayton: a tale of two cities

As someone who has been working and living in Dayton for the past seven years, I am constantly reminded of the fact that there are, in fact, two Daytons.

One Dayton-the Dayton where my family is fortunate enough to live and be educated-is defined by opportunity, innovation, and excitement about the future. This Dayton is reflected in the efforts of the Dayton Development Coalition, which is dedicated to creating high-paying jobs, new wealth for communities, and new business opportunities for the region.

This Dayton is giving birth to one of the country's leading science, technology, engineering, and math-STEM, for short-initiatives. Edvention, as the STEM effort is known here, is a high-powered coalition of universities, businesses, school districts, individual schools, and government agencies dedicated to accelerating the development of the region's math and science talent pool.

An important component of this effort is a proposed STEM high school based at Wright State University that would ultimately serve 600 students in grades 6 through 12.

This Dayton is working to be a magnet for talent and investment and it understands that the keys to success are high levels of education and the ability to constantly learn, create, and innovate.

The other Dayton, the urban core where I work and try to help educators make a difference, is defined by job loss, despair, poverty, boarded-up houses and businesses, and deeply troubled schools. This Dayton long ago saw its best and brightest flee and is more worried about defending the status quo, as bad as it may be, than building something new.

This Dayton is defined by grim statistics:

  • 18 percent of families live in poverty;
  • 40 percent of children live in poverty;
  • Public schools that have seen their enrollment decline from 35,000 in 1980 to 17,000 today;
  • Half of the city's children aren't proficient in basic math and reading skills; and
  • 80 percent of children in a public school- district and charter schools- attend a school rated by the state as in "academic emergency" (an F) or "academic watch" (a D).

The two Daytons are only miles apart, but they oftentimes feel like separate worlds. Yet, connected they are. Dayton is the "brand name" for the region and efforts to recruit talent, investment, and businesses to the region are influenced by how "Dayton" is perceived elsewhere.

The challenge for the region's leadership is to figure out how to inject the innovation, passion, talent, and excitement of the growing Dayton into the school-reform efforts of the declining Dayton.

This is not simply a matter of pumping more money into urban schools. Dayton Public Schools, for example, already receive more per-pupil funding than any district in Montgomery County and fully 70 percent of its funding comes from state and federal sources.

Nor, is it simply a matter of hoping charter schools will come to the rescue, as charter-school student performance in Dayton is generally as weak as that of their peers in district schools.

Conversations between the two Daytons are taking place. And there are exceptional people who have committed themselves to improving education for those students at most risk of being left behind. But for these conversations to have tangible results in the lives of the children and families most in need, they will need to spur new coalitions of partners who haven't worked together in the past.

And, it will certainly require upsetting the status quo and changing dramatically what people have grown used to doing. The time when a few tweaks and a little more cash could make a real difference are long since past and the question for Dayton is whether a city divided can actually stand strong.

This editorial was published February 8 as an op-ed column in the Dayton Daily News (see here).

More By Author