How To Make Cleveland Schools Great Again

The city has a plan. Will it work?
Eric Gordon, the CEO of Cleveland Metropolitan School District, talks to aspiring principals about the history of the Cleveland Plan, a massive effort to reform the city’s schools.
Eric Gordon, the CEO of Cleveland Metropolitan School District, talks to aspiring principals about the history of the Cleveland Plan, a massive effort to reform the city’s schools.
Sarah Butrymowicz

During the Republican and Democratic conventions, The Hechinger Report will publish a new story each day, examining what the party proposals might mean for the future of education. Our staff reporters will provide education coverage from Cleveland and Philadelphia.

CLEVELAND— Cleveland Metropolitan School District has a countdown clock to Election Day on its website. When city residents head to the polls that day, they’ll be doing more than picking a president. They’ll be voting on whether the city should keep working on its ambitious overhaul of the school system.

In 2012, Cleveland embarked on a plan to improve education by making high-quality early education available and affordable for all families; creating a selection of high-performing schools in each neighborhood; and developing systems to help high school graduates succeed in college or careers.

That year, voters passed a levy that raised school taxes by nearly 40 percent to pay for this plan, ultimately adding about $60 million a year to the school district’s budget of about $725 million. Officials gave themselves till 2016 to show progress. There have been some improvements, such as new schools and higher graduation rates, but there is still a long way to go. Now, officials are hoping that the gains they’ve made will persuade voters to renew the levy and buy them four more years of increased funding and time to fix the schools.

“It’s a do-or-die thing,” said Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. “If we fail, public education becomes a shell of itself.”

Cleveland, a Rust Belt city on the shores of Lake Erie, is one of the poorest big cities in the country. Roughly 36 percent of its residents and more than half its children live below the federal poverty line. About half of Clevelanders are black, but black residents make up nearly two-thirds of those living in poverty.

This week, 35,000 delegates and visitors have descended on Cleveland for the nomination of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has run on a pledge to “Make America Great Again.” The city has been working to rebuild itself for years. Although there are signs of growth throughout the city, particularly downtown, and some businesses are thriving, many community members say that lasting revitalization depends on having good schools.

“The future health and welfare and quality of life in the city is inextricably tied up in the schools,” said Helen Williams, program director for education for the Cleveland Foundation, one of two major foundations in the city that has helped financially back the plan. “If we don’t educate young people, we’re not going to have a competitive workforce.”

In 2010, the school district was running on a bare bones budget. The vast majority of students were stuck in failing or low-performing schools and barely half of them graduated. Most of the graduates didn’t go on to earn a college degree.

Enter “The Cleveland Plan” — a 114-page document developed by city officials, public-interest foundations, the business community and charter school leaders to “reinvent public education,” as Williams puts it. Some of the ideas, like reducing the role of seniority during teacher layoffs, though controversial, were in vogue at the time. Others, such as increasing principals’ authority over school budgets, were less popular but had shown promise in other communities.

Four years after the plan was put in motion by the state legislature, there are positive signs. This year, district enrollment went up for the first time in roughly 20 years. Nearly three-quarters of residents said Cleveland schools were moving in the right direction in a 2015 poll. Students’ growth scores, which show how much a student has progressed from year to year, on state tests were rated a C in 2014-2015, after two years of being an F. The graduation rate is up to 66 percent and the percentage of those graduates who are not ready for college level work has dipped from 76 to 66.

“The future health and welfare and quality of life in the city is inextricably tied up in the schools.”

Last year, the city also made some of the largest gains nationwide on a federal assessment that was given to urban districts. But the scores were still low: only 11 percent of fourth and eighth-graders were proficient in reading, for instance. A 2015 report on the Cleveland Plan’s progress found that 79 percent of children were still enrolled in failing or low-performing district or charter schools.

The CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Eric Gordon, and many more involved in the Cleveland Plan, readily admits that improvement has been too slow. “There’s a lot more work to be done,” he said. “We have really, really struggled to move some of our lowest performing schools forward as quickly as we’d like.”

There has also been friction with the teachers’ union, which is in contract negotiations this summer. In March, more than 3,000 of its members voted nearly unanimously that they had no confidence in Gordon. Tracy Radich, the union’s vice president, criticized the plan embracing the use of student test scores to account for 50 percent of a teacher’s rating for some teachers and changing procedures to determine which teachers should be let go during layoffs.

Radich agrees that the district has made strides in recent years. But, she says, it has more to do with the fact that funding is better than it has been for decades thanks to the levy, rather than the changes made under the Cleveland Plan. The funding has allowed for class sizes to be reduced and more resources for classrooms. “Those are the things that have made the most impact,” she said.

Pledges, signed by parents promising to do their part to help get their children ready for kindergarten, hang in Bingham Early Learning Center in Cleveland.
Pledges, signed by parents promising to do their part to help get their children ready for kindergarten, hang in Bingham Early Learning Center in Cleveland.
Sarah Butrymowicz

One feature of the plan that she said she supported, however, is the endeavor to send better-prepared students into schools in the first place. In 2013, only 16 percent of entering kindergarteners scored in the top tier on Ohio’s kindergarten readiness exam, meaning they were fully ready to start school.

“Where we are with education attainment, we cannot catch these kids up,” said Katie Kelly, the executive director of Pre4Cle. That nonprofit organization was born out of the Cleveland Plan, to expand the number of high-quality preschool seats in the city. Pre4Cle is trying to help the best centers grow, while helping the lower-quality centers improve. Last year, they added 1,200 seats and they expect to hit 2,000 by the end of 2016. The group also has a huge parent outreach effort to help families look for good preschools.

The goal is to get every child into a preschool as good as the Bingham Early Learning Center. It’s located in a housing project in Central, a poor, majority-black neighborhood in Cleveland, and has five stars from the state’s quality rating system. (Pre4Cle defines high quality as having a rating of three stars or higher.)

Eva Peeples, whose four-year-old son attends the center agrees that it’s very good. She praised the staff for giving parents a voice, taking the kids on trips and helping her son, who was once too shy to talk to his classmates, build his confidence.

“He’s opened up to where he goes into the classroom every day, he runs over to give his friends a high-five,” Peeples said.

The center is focused on creating a safe, welcoming environment for the children, while helping them develop the social and emotional skills they’ll need in kindergarten and beyond. The walls are plastered with children’s artwork and pictures of the kids playing or working on projects.

Throughout the day, toddlers and preschoolers will pick their own activities, like building with blocks or playing at a water table, and will then talk as a group about the choices they made. They’ll have story time where the teacher will ask them questions about what they read, and opportunities to learn through play. All the teachers have bachelor’s degrees and assistant teachers have at least an associate’s degree.

But a center like this, where families cannot afford to pay much, requires substantial investment of public or private money. In Cleveland, it’s taking both. Many parents at Bingham, for instance, are eligible for a scholarship from the countywide universal pre-K program, which helps families whose incomes fall below 400 percent of the federal poverty level pay a portion of preschool tuition. The county set aside $10 million for the program last year and asked the business community to match it. They ended up raising $12 million in three months.

“This is a group of private investors, of corporations or wealthy families, who … understand high-quality is not inexpensive,” said Paul Clark, the regional vice president of PNC Bank, who led the fundraising effort. But “it’s not expensive when you consider the alternatives. It’s actually an incredible investment.”

Evidence of the business community’s commitment to the education reforms is everywhere. The city has revamped its five career academies. In addition to teaching core academic subjects, these schools also give students a head start in different careers, such as welding, law enforcement or health services, often with hands-on-training. Educators at these five schools are partnering with businesses to provide students with experiences out in the field.

A new high school is opening this week that will have a campus at a large city hospital to expose students to health care careers. An International Baccalaureate k-8 school is on Cleveland State University’s campus and works closely with the higher education institution.

(Disclaimer: Development of the new high school was paid for, in part, by a grant by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which is among the numerous funders of the Hechinger Report.)

These are all examples of the city’s “portfolio” approach to building its school system. As Gordon explains it, Cleveland doesn’t need 100 unique schools. It needs a few different types of schools for families to choose from and it needs them all to be high quality. That includes traditional neighborhood schools, charter schools, career academies and themed schools such as MC2 STEM High School. This school has multiple campuses, including one at the General Electric Lighting Institute, where students work with GE engineers in a yearlong mentorship program.

“This is a group of private investors, of corporations or wealthy families, who … understand high-quality is not inexpensive.”

As the name implies, the school specializes in science, math and engineering. Students are given large long-term projects that they then work on in all their classes over the course of a semester. The juniors this year had to write lyrics to and record rap songs about social ills such as gender inequality and poverty. In their government class, students talked about these issues and how they relate to the 2016 election. In English, they studied rhyme schemes. In science class, they learned about sound, and built recording booths in engineering class.

Other Cleveland students who are in schools that stimulate them say their experience helped prepare them for higher education. When he was in elementary school, Justin Alvis’ parents used to give him homework because his teachers didn’t. “There weren’t a lot of students there who were on track,” he said.

So his family leapt at the chance to try a new charter school, Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, a place with “very rigorous” academics that not only gave homework every night, but required that his parents sign it once completed, Alvis said. From there he went to a prestigious private high school and is now a senior at the historically black university in Virginia, Hampton University.

E Prep, as it is called, is now part of a network, Breakthrough Schools, which is working with the city to expand to 20 schools by 2020. They’ll have 12 this fall and are spending the summer recruiting 1,350 new students.

But hundreds of local kids remain stuck in traditional neighborhood schools, which more often than not, remain stubbornly low-performing.

“We know from the national work that turning around low performing schools is much more difficult than shuttering and starting over,” Gordon said. “It is much more difficult work to transform from within.”

The district has designated 23 badly-performing schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods as “investment schools” to overhaul. In some cases, this meant replacing entire staffs. In all the schools, the district is partnering with local groups to provide medical, mental health and social services to students there in an effort to turn them around.

It’s hard to know how well that program is working, though. This spring, the state will give students its third new standardized test in three years, meaning accurately comparing results from year to year is basically impossible.

The testing whiplash creates a big problem for measuring the impact of the entire plan and is on the minds of educators throughout the city. At a summer meeting of a group of 10 principals new to the profession, Gordon presented the plan and then fielded questions. The first was about how schools would be held accountable for improvement going forward. Gordon spoke about going beyond the state report card data and developing other district-specific tools.

Then came the second question: “What will happen if the levy doesn’t pass?”

Although Gordon and Mayor Jackson expect the levy to be renewed without a problem, he answered the question without hesitation. “The Cleveland Plan is over.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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