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Transforming Cleveland schools

Why the Cleveland plan might be the district's saving grace

Editor-In-Cheif

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:02

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Data provided by Ohio Department of Education

Based on 2010-11 data collection by the state, students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District consistently scored below the state percentage on reading and mathematics tests. This trend continued through 12th grade and was the same for other school subjects, including science, writing and social studies.


It is no secret that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) is headed in a downward spiral. Declining neighborhoods, a poor economy and high crime rates are a recipe for disaster, and have slowly led to the demise of Cleveland's schools. After 16 reforms and little change to the district, the people of Cleveland were ready to give up hope. But even with these less than desirable conditions, one man held on to hope.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has long been an advocate for the Cleveland school district and placed education at the top of his agenda.

"I often say that education is the key to our success," Jackson said in a forum held last Monday, Feb. 11 at the Idea Center. "It's education that will provide the connectivity and provide the substance that will allow people in our communities to be successful.”

Working alongside district Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon, the two have crafted a piece of legislation designed to change the landscape of Cleveland schools for good. Referred to simply as the "Cleveland Plan," the reform contains lofty goals, but has slowly gained support in the community.

CMSD is a massive district, with 121 schools and approximately 45,000 students circulating throughout the school system. The substantial size of the district has put it in a state of decline. According to the 2010-11 state report card, the district was designated a rating of academic watch, an equivalent to a “D” grade. Districts are also graded on the number of state indicators that they meet. The indicators are based on state assessments, attendance and graduation rates, and must be at a 75 percent or higher to pass. Out of 26 indicators, CMSD only met one.

The plan to reform the district first came to fruition in February 2012 when Jackson and Gordon set forth their ideas for changing how Cleveland schools operate. Unlike past reforms, this time Jackson and Gordon made sure to seek input from stakeholders, parents and general members of the community. Gordon explained that his office received 215 pages of feedback from the community during the initial stages of the plan, which were used to revise the draft legislation.

After creating the legislation, the next battle was to receive approval from the state government. Jackson spent weeks of tense negotiations in Columbus, but after much debate the Ohio General Assembly finally passed the Cleveland Plan in June 2012.

Jackson and Gordon now had the support of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but they were missing one important constituent vital to the success of the plan — the taxpayers.

Cleveland is not known for its favorable attitude toward school levies, especially during harsh economic times. But voters surprised everyone on Nov. 7, 2012 when 57 percent voted to pass the Cleveland school levy.

The $15 million tax is the first to pass in Northeast Ohio in 16 years. The levy is estimated to bring in a maximum of $85 million annually, with approximately $5.7 million shared with high-performing charter schools that partner with the district.

There is one caveat to the levy — it expires in four years. This calls for swift action and quick improvements to Cleveland schools.

"We want the community to hold Cleveland government accountable for our progress," Gordon said. "The single derailer in this would be that if people said 'OK, they've got this levy passed. Good luck to you now,' instead of thinking as a collective 'us' and investing in our community."

The Cleveland Plan has gained support across the state, but after 16 reforms have failed to change the city’s schools, some people may wonder why this reform is any different.

"This is a very sound plan," stated Helen Williams, program director at The Cleveland Foundation. "It recognizes that we have to rethink education and restructure education in a very different way than we currently see it."

Gordon explained that this reform is different from past attempts because it is rooted in legislative change that gives Cleveland workforce stability, it received taxpayer support and it created a broad coalition of people across communities that came together around this common cause.

The reform includes some major changes to the Cleveland school district. The district will be evaluated at higher standards that go beyond the state's report cards released each year. Teachers will now be paid on a differentiated salary schedule based on performance and special skills, and seniority will no longer be the sole deciding factor for teacher layoffs and promotions. The district CEO now has greater power to intervene in the school system, including letting go of staff, introducing new programs, creating action plans and developing new curriculum.

A major component of the reform is the creation of a local panel called the Transformation Alliance. This panel, composed of stakeholders and community members, will monitor the progress being made. The panel will also help set standards for new charter schools to open in the city and review the sponsors of these charter schools. Williams referred to this panel as part of the "mayor's brilliance" when drafting the Cleveland Plan.

The most important focus of this reform is increasing the number of high-performing schools in the district and creating the best learning environment for students. Students themselves have much to say about the teaching methods used inside their classrooms.

Ida Lieszkovszky, a broadcast reporter for StateImpact Ohio, recently interviewed students from John Adams High School in Cleveland about what changes they would like to see inside their school. Among the responses, students wanted increased engagement with their teachers, more hands-on projects and experiments, and a mix of both visual and audio learning techniques in the classroom.

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