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Transforming Cleveland schools

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

By Kristen Mott
On February 20, 2013

  • 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. 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. Data provided by Ohio Department of Education

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.
Williams stressed the importance of making sure schools are meeting the needs of its students.
"If we interview those students two years from now and we don't have different responses from them, we have failed," she said.
Carol Lockhart, principal of Cleveland Early College at John Hay, has worked diligently since stepping into her position to ensure her teachers are meeting the needs of students. Lockhart said that she meets with her teachers every day for 20 minutes, which gives them time to reflect on 21st century teaching practices.
"I need to have my teachers reflect on their own teaching and teaching in a way that will enliven the young people, so that they can graduate from our schools and become productive citizens," Lockhart said.
She explained that each school must have a vision for reform, and that what works in one setting might not work elsewhere.
The Cleveland Plan also places an emphasis on parents, requiring that parents of district students attend at least one parent-teacher conference or meeting at the school by Dec. 15 of each year. Lockhart explained that it is always a challenge to get parents to come to the school for meetings, so she has turned to technology. Her school has started using Remind101, a text message-based system that sends out reminders to parents about upcoming meetings. Lockhart said this form of technology opens up communication between teachers and parents.
With such a short time frame for the levy, Jackson and Gordon are starting on the reform immediately. Gordon explained that the city will soon be choosing six to 10 low-performing schools in the district, and will work on transforming them into high-performing schools from now until August.
"At the end of the day, we all know that this piece of legislation is not going to be remembered by what's in the legislation," said David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. "It's going to be remembered by whether or not our schools start to succeed."
There is no clear-cut measurement for the Cleveland Plan's level of success. For Gordon, success will be measured by a significantly higher number of well-performing schools in the district and increasing graduation rates. Williams, on the other hand, believes success will depend on increases in enrollment and a greater number of high school students at a college-readiness level.
The Cleveland Plan has had a long journey so far, and has much farther to go. Jackson noted that the plan is now in stage four - accountability. He explained that he needs everyone in the community to stick together and follow through with their commitments to reform.
"We all recognize that this is going to be really hard work," Williams stated. "It isn't going to happen overnight. But we have to measure progress every quarter, every year, and be honest about what's working and what isn't, and quickly change what isn't working."

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