Staff cuts at Cleveland schools could gut its top performers

It's been a good four years for the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine. One of three high schools on the campus of John Hay, it's also one of the Cleveland Municipal School District's ten "innovation schools," part of a five-year-old program dedicated to developing schools focused on a particular discipline or educational approach. And so far they're working.

Based on the most recent state report cards available, at least four of the innovation schools received top ratings — a monumental feat for a district forever mired in academic watch.

But teachers and administrators at the innovation schools know their success may be fleeting: In April, the Cleveland school board announced plans to lay off 545 teachers in June in response to mounting budget deficits. According to a longstanding state law, the chopping block starts with those of lowest seniority. For the School of Science and Medicine, that means 2 out of every 5 teachers stand to lose their jobs by next month — not exactly the textbook way to sustain a streak of excellence. 

"We specifically hired teachers to teach specialty courses and add to the veteran teaching core," says principal Edward Weber, noting that advanced coursework is the school's stock-in-trade.  "We would lose almost all of them. It's going to be hard to keep progress running." 

Fueling the school's success are partnerships with nine local institutions — including Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic — that helped stock the highly trained teacher pool. Physics is taught by a recent physics grad, bioethics by a teacher with extensive training in the field at Case. Both will be laid off. And they'll have plenty of company. 

The innovation schools, all started with funding from the Gund and Cleveland Foundations, have a wide range of focuses. There are single-sex elementary schools like Valley View for boys and Warner for girls, a school at John Hay devoted to architecture and design, and the year-round school for science, technology, engineering, and math (known as MC2STEM). Unlike the rest of the district, the innovation schools were allowed to hire outside the district and without regard to seniority. Principals interviewed candidates until they found the perfect fit — teachers motivated, talented, and highly trained for the school's specialty. And the teachers chosen generally earn higher salaries than their peers at other Cleveland public schools. 

But since seniority rules when it comes to layoffs, the innovation schools may face the darkest days ahead. According to estimates from a source close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity, Ginn Academy stands to lose 70 percent of its teachers, the single-sex elementaries could see a 40 to 70 percent loss, and the Design Lab Early College could lose 100 percent of its current teachers.

The ten innovation schools overall expect to lose 50 percent of their existing staff. To those who create the lesson plans, it all sounds like an ill-conceived step in the wrong direction. 

"Part of the progress was the principals made these choices with the staffs, picking people who could handle the workload," says Sarah Dalrymple, an English teacher at the School of Architecture and Design. "When they start over next year, it won't necessarily be with the same type of staff or caliber — and not just caliber, but ability. It takes a special teacher to put in the extra time these schools require, and a lot of those teachers are on that list." 

Dalrymple is among those slated to be laid off, along with everyone else in her English department. 

Though the innovation schools vary, they are unique for their longer school years, longer days, weekend and summer workshops, and intense curriculums. The success achieved through the selective hiring process that brought in the best and brightest will now hinge on finding replacements from within the district pool, which might include good teachers, but ones perhaps not equipped for such rigorous settings. 

"It's hard to talk about this stuff in the room with veteran teachers," says Dalrymple. "I know it sounds like we're accusing people with a certain amount of years of experience of not being qualified, but this shouldn't be about years, it should be about quality.

"There's a fear now that the people who transfer in will just see the extra compensation and a nicer building. We hope for the sake of the kids [that] the desire for extra money is equaled by the desire for the extra work involved. We're aware of how it sounds: Darn you old teachers, get out! But it's not what we're saying."

Principals at the innovation schools vocalize their concerns more vaguely, but each one who spoke to Scene emphasizes concerns over retraining, lack of specialty training, and undoing years of progress.

"It's unimaginable the training that we'll have to take new teachers through," says Raymon Spottsville, principal at the Design Lab, which faces a complete turnover in staff. "It's certainly doable. It's not the preferred next phase though. We're going to take a step back." 

Perhaps nobody faces a stiffer challenge than MC2STEM, whose schedule of year-round schooling means that teachers let go on June 11 will need to be replaced and trained by the start of classes on July 5. Those losing their jobs have an average of 468 hours of training.

Principal Jeffrey McClellan recalls the luxury of staffing MC2STEM with teachers from within the district and beyond. "We had a theory in our first year that's in practice now," he says. "The new people need to continue that vision. They have some pretty huge shoes to fill."

Meanwhile, representatives of the key foundations that fund the innovation schools also were taken off guard by news of the layoffs. 

"My reaction is that of absolute dismay at both the layoff news generally, but in particular at the devastation that will cause at schools that are working," Ann Mullin, who oversees education programs at the Gund Foundation, told The Plain Dealer in April. Mullin declined to speak with Scene while the foundation continues its lobbying for alternatives.

Despite the retrenching, innovation schools remain very much a part of the rehabilitation plan led by Superintendent Eugene Sanders. With funding from the Gund and Cleveland Foundations, five more innovation schools are slated to open in the next year. Last week, the district announced the creation of Campus International, a K-12 innovation school that will be housed on the campus of Cleveland State University and staffed partly with students from CSU. (Multiple attempts to interview Sanders for this story were unsuccessful.)

Since Sanders' announcement of the staff cuts, the teachers union and the district have batted around proposals and counterproposals in hopes of minimizing the damage. But most involved cling to minimal optimism that the outlook will improve dramatically before June.

The question now for innovation schools — and one that worries teachers, principals, and parents alike — is whether their success was driven more by their curriculum or by the teachers who delivered it each day. 

"We've spent four years building this house," says Dalrymple. "And we're getting evicted."

Send feedback to vgrzegorek@clevescene.com.

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