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Are New Policies at Cleveland's Most Diverse High School Helping Hispanic Students or Leaving them Further Behind? 

The struggle at school

click to enlarge lincolnwest1.jpg

When Catalina saw her cousin take a right hook to his eye in the cafeteria, it should have seemed out of the ordinary. It didn't. Falling into routine, she jumped into the scuffle and soon landed a suspension from Lincoln West High School. That wasn't unusual, either.

[Read this article in Spanish here - Lee el artículo en Español aquí]

She wrapped up 10th grade last month, but this particular fight broke in her freshman year, the spring of 2014. Catalina was one of 461 students suspended during the 2013-2014 year at Lincoln West (all told for 3,118 days, or seven days of missed school per student). Like most times she was sent home, she says she got very little work done. Classes passed her by.

Catalina didn't even want to fight that day, but family -- blood and otherwise -- is paramount in Puerto Rican culture. You back your family up.

"He had his eye swollen, his lip busted and everything," she says of the fight. Part of another gang dustup.

Catalina volleys between English and Spanish as she talks, sliding a pues... or a lo que into her conversations. Most of her friends straddle linguistic lines as well, though home life on Cleveland's westside is, for these students, more often than not conducted in Spanish.

As teachers surrounded the scuffle, Catalina and her cousin worked through a frantic blend of languages to explain what happened. Her cousin had been jumped, she told them.

No teacher really listened, or could, except for Elizabeth Ramos-Torres.

She was there, watching the fight. She'd find out soon enough that this was how things worked.

Ramos-Torres had been hired by Esperanza Inc. in March 2014 as the "bilingual site coordinator" for Lincoln West High School, which stands just south of Clark Avenue on West 30th. The hire, at $47,500 annually, was part of Cleveland Metropolitan School District's "Wrap-Around" partnership with United Way -- a grant-funded program that brings community leaders into CMSD schools to help them engage students in and out of the classroom. During her abrupt, six-month stint with the school, she grew angry with how the district was implementing the so-called Cleveland Plan for Transforming Our Schools and how the gap between students and administrators was widening. She says she saw injustices leveled in particular against the already-struggling Hispanic community.

"When I read about what the Wrap-Around program does, I really believed in it," Ramos-Torres told Scene shortly after she had been let go last fall. "We're supposed to go into the school and we're supposed to create programs to meet the needs of the students, the parents and the teachers. But we're more so concentrating on the students than anything else. I believed in that."

Her optimism slipped in short order. For Catalina and her family, the struggle had been a steady drone in their lives forever.


Catalina is not her real name. She tells Scene that the pressures and bullying from CMSD teachers and students are too much; publicizing her troubles would only guarantee more of the same. Seated at her family's kitchen table, her mother to her left and a friendly translator to her right, she says that long-standing problems at Lincoln West have yet to be fully addressed. Frankly, she's worn out from trying.

"My daughter has been through a lot of bullying," her mother, Juana (another pseudonym), says in Spanish. "They're bullying her because there's a language barrier and she can't express herself. There's no one to represent her."

What she means is this: a day-in, day-out routine of dismissal. "In 10th grade, I'm really having trouble," Catalina says. "I'll ask for help, and I'll ask the teacher, and they'll wait and wait and wait. I'll get frustrated and they'll just get mad at me."

That may sound like standard operating procedure for many students in need of tutoring or special attention, but Catalina says that her struggles with English comprehension -- she was taking ESL (English as a second language) this year and enjoying it -- present a disincentive for overworked teachers. With time, she slips further down the grade scale. Her test scores could be called abysmal.

As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Cleveland's Hispanic population was clocking in at 39,000. Anecdotal estimates peg an increase in the ensuing five years, particularly on the near westside -- clustered around the streets that shoot off West 25th south of Clark. Juana says her daughter's experiences in school mirror broader political marginalization outside CMSD's borders. Generally speaking, she's right. Teachers within the district concur privately, saying that the mostly Hispanic poverty decorating Clark-Fulton is an unavoidable factor in their education. The system is stacked against these students, and CMSD, try as it might, isn't ameliorating that. At least not in a comprehensive, public education way.

Lincoln West is a majority minority school. All told, 52 percent of students identify as Hispanic at the school, where 26 spoken languages represent 53 different nationalities, as of the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year. Total enrollment hovers around 850 or so, down from some 1,200 in 2013-2014. Students who are new to the U.S. -- emigrants from countries all over the world -- often take a year of schooling at nearby Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy before funneling into the 45-year-old Lincoln West building as sophomores. Still, students and parents will say that this is an Hispanic school, through and through.

For Catalina, life, of course, revolves around school. With what energy she can summon, her goal is to skid across the destitution of poverty in Cleveland and graduate from high school. She wants to be a SWAT officer when she grows up. She knows she needs some improvement on those math scores.

To facilitate dreams for CMSD's thousands of students, the district began taking aim at its failing schools a few years ago. A central component of the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Our Schools is the identification of 23 "Investment Schools" -- schools that rank among the worst of the worst. The list includes Hispanic-heavy Lincoln West and Walton and Luis Munoz Marin elementary schools (also in Clark-Fulton), where westside Hispanic institution Esperanza Inc. employs site coordinators. These schools "fail to meet even minimum state standards," according to the Cleveland Plan, and they're far from the only ones with that label.

When voters approved the November 2012 $15-million levy, they did so under the promise of fixing the Ds and the Fs of the districtwide report card (Lincoln West being a prime example) to something resembling passing, something that would signal a foothold for, in the most utilitarian sense, the city's future workforce. The levy will likely be up for a renewal in late 2016

On many promised fronts already, though, the district has balked. For the already marginalized Hispanic population, saddled with a mountainous language barrier, teachers say the strategy isn't panning out. The district holds aloft a rising graduation rate -- across the board and for all represented races -- but parents and teachers seem well aware that many the neediest students are falling through widening cracks in the increasingly standardized system.

Back on March 6, 2014, CMSD CEO Eric Gordon announced the second round of Investment Schools, lauding the fledgling program and looking toward the future. He said things were really working this time.

"Investment Schools are a portion of our strategy," he said. "If we can take immediate, explicit corrective action, we can quickly get a changed culture that will lead to changed results...Cleveland as a district has been known for our single-year investments for many years. Start a strategy, stop a strategy. Start another strategy, stop another strategy -- a frenetic set of strategies applied randomly across our district."

Earlier this year, Gordon announced that he and the administration would be rewriting the strategy again. Even for students and teachers well equipped in their English, the turnabout is dizzying.


At CMSD's majority-Hispanic schools, the Wrap-Around program's site coordinator position was advertised with a specific qualifier: "bilingual." Years of race-related strife at Lincoln West -- revolving mostly around gang violence, the sort that demanded flanks of officers stationed on school property each afternoon as recently as 2009 -- had brought the community to the point of demanding those in power be versed in Spanish. The last time the principal position at Lincoln West was open, parents clamored for a Spanish-speaking administrator. They didn't win out.

"Look, we are in need of someone to go in there and help fix the schools," Ramos-Torres says of the site coordinator job. Lincoln West was the last school in the bunch to hire for that position, according to her. There is no policy for the program, no official structure to which administrators can refer. Those who've worked within the program say that CMSD points to Cincinnati Public Schools' community school program as the model.

And so about that fight: Ramos-Torres, new to the job and ready to help fix the schools, organized two public safety meetings. She says now that the Lincoln West administration stymied any attempt to communicate to parents in the predominantly Hispanic Clark-Fulton neighborhood where the meetings were scheduled. "The parents very much care," Ramos-Torres says, herself a parent. "They're just not given the information for when they need to be there."

Ramos-Torres says that she tried to reach out and then some during her six months with the district, which is what got her pushed out of the program prematurely.

It was like when she tried to partner with a suspension intervention program, which would bring a student to City Life during, say, a 10-day suspension, rather than just missing out on education sitting at home. "They didn't like me using the program," Ramos-Torres says. When she tried to get to Hispanic students before they were suspended and removed from the building, she says the administration stopped notifying her of discipline efforts.

The Spanish-speaking site coordinator was pulled from the very students she was tasked with reaching. Catalina says she wasn't even aware what Ramos-Torres' job was in the first place.

According to students and parents, the administration began building a wall between the community and these site coordinators in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Catalina's mother, Juana, says she only gets called when her daughter ends up suspended. Not that it matters much: She says interactions with principals and teachers hit dead ends with dubious translators.

"I felt threatened because I didn't know who to trust," Juana says of the innumerable times she's trekked to her daughter's school, wandering into the bare-bones office past student art along the main hallway. While she can't speak much English, she can often make out words that others are saying.

It's another facet of a long-standing and seemingly unbridgeable gap between the schools and Hispanic students.

As teachers tell it, Spanish-speaking students learn at a different pace than those already well versed in English. They need more time and, more often than not, specialized tutoring. Parents point to federal Title III funds that are meant for English-language-acquisition programs and wonder where the results are. The Wrap-Around program was supposed to play a role in that. It's a more specific part of the long education problem: Some students do well in a standardized setting, other's don't.


Sheila Vasquez, a community organizer and advocate, and a parent of a Lincoln West graduate, sits with us in the kitchen at Catalina's home. She translates for the family, transferring frantic Spanish into yearning English, punctuating each statement with a stern "Why?" It's presumed that she's adding the unanswered inquiry. She adds the question to her own tangents, as well. It's unavoidable for her.

"You're not building up a strong community," she says. "You're building up a strong prisoner system," Vasquez says. "We have more families on a daily basis on the welfare system. So what are trying to do? Are they trying to make this a halfway house to receive more and more federal funding? Why?

"We have leadership, but we have no leadership representing us," Vasquez continues. "This is our district school. This is our Hispanic school. This is where our children need to be graduating.

Catalina says that her tutoring sessions are hit-or-miss, a cookie-cutter method for students of all stripes at the school. Her geometry tutoring comprises 15 minutes of busywork at the end of the school day. "I've got to have more time, because I won't get it," Catalina says. "[My tutor is] so anxious to leave. He teaches it, but he doesn't even teach it. He does the work for me. I don't get it."

It became clear in visits to CMSD school board meetings that teachers weren't going to discuss the Cleveland Plan -- much less the goings-on in their classrooms -- on the record. At one Collinwood High School meeting earlier this year, a retired teacher told Scene that the culture of fear within the district is now "worse than it's ever been," adding that we'd have a tough time getting anyone to talk about the school. She was right.

One teacher who has worked with Spanish-speaking students did share some experiences from the classroom. In short, this teacher explains, the Cleveland Plan's increasing demand on micromanaged accountability puts students on the raw end of the district's relentless top-down structure. The impetus is numbers: rising test scores, a rising graduation rate. That's mandatory. For students who are trying to learn English along the way to learning everything else, they either make the cut or they don't.

"Puerto Ricans: They value their culture and their language," this teacher says of the neighborhood's dominant ethnicity. "And a lot of their parents just do not speak English. They go home and that's all they speak is Spanish. They have to turn their brain off. It's really hard for kids who speak a second language. It's really hard."

Ramos-Torres engaged her students in Spanish -- the students whose home lives were absolute wrecks at times, the students who didn't have homes. She intimates that it was her drive to speak Spanish that led to her dismissal. She wasn't the only hire who ran into trouble with how the district and its Wrap-Around program was implementing its transformation.

At Walton Elementary -- another predominantly Hispanic student body in Clark-Fulton, one that inevitably graduates eighth-graders who then attend Lincoln West -- site coordinator Daniel Valentin outright quit over frustrations with the process.

"In general Esperanza is doing a remarkable job because they tackle a lot of the issues...[like] programs in the schools and mentoring," Valentin, a supporter of the Wrap-Around program, said. "As a site coordinator at times I didn't feel like I was supported -- but onlyat times. In general they supported me and gave me a shot.

"In my opinion the routine was a bit different than advertised because my understanding was to make the necessary changes and establish the necessary relationships in the community to spark change -- but change and being proactive or taking initiative simply took too long."

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Ruiz and other Esperanza Inc. administrators declined to speak with Scene.

Last fall, Ruiz told Crain's Cleveland that CMSD had seen an increase in the districtwide Hispanic graduation rate from 30 percent to 61 percent. According to the district, since Gordon took over the schools in 2011, the Hispanic graduation rate has increased by 18 percent.

Still, an increase is an increase. Not in so many words, at least, but that's the goal of CMSD's operations. Exiting this current school year, Gordon is championing an all-time high graduate rate -- up 12 percent since he took over four years ago when the district hovered at 56.1 percent.

"If we want to grow Cleveland, if we want to have those 21st-century jobs, the population we're going to turn to in 15 to 20 years is the Hispanic community," Ruiz, a CMSD graduate, told Crain's. "We weren't going to be ready [with the earlier graduation rate]."

Catalina's older sister never graduated from CMSD. A three-month suspension for a tussle at school sidelined her education. She moved to Florida to earn a diploma. "She was scared," Catalina says.

Now, the soon-to-be junior at Lincoln West is scared of her own future -- upticks in statistics notwithstanding.


Within Lincoln West High School, near the cafeteria where Catalina's cousin was beat up, the bilingual resource room buzzes with busy students. It's almost the end of the school year, and the feverish excitement -- the magnetic pull of summer -- is clear. But there's still work to do. Miguel Nieves, a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional tutor, holds court as students of all ethnic stripes dash in and out of the room, clocking time on the computers and working through translations at one of the many tables.

"The medium of instruction is English," he says of Lincoln West's curriculum. "That's the nature of our programming as an ESL school. We're bilingual by nature in terms of we speak two languages. But the instructions are in English." (Nearby Buhrer Elementary is CMSD's literal bilingual school.)

Nieves helps translate materials — say, a biology lesson — out of English and into one of the school's 52 spoken languages. On most days, that means a lot of Spanish.

"The students who don't speak any English I bring here and I try to translate everything into Spanish, but at the same time I make sure that they know the meaning in English," he says. "They need to know English in America. They need to learn English. I combine them. That's my method to teach the students."

It's the same intersection that Ramos-Torres ran into again and again as the site coordinator here, and the same debate that Valentin considered as his frustrations with the process mounted: At what point does the bilingual student check their native tongue at the door?

It's a longstanding debate that's played out in cities and states around the U.S. (California, Arizona and Massachusetts, for instance, have passed controversial "English-only" public school laws.)

Nieves walks through the granular difficulties of high school lesson plans with students from around the world. He says he's become prouder of how his students do in class with each passing day. He sees successes, and he sees failures, but he says that an education rooted in English instills hope.

The teacher we spoke with earlier, one who wished to remain anonymous, says that there will always be good teachers and bad teachers, much like the student body. She says that it takes a certain kind of professional to engage students who aren't yet well versed in English -- regardless of whether the ultimate goal is to educate or to graduate. While poverty, standardized testing, access to resources and individual will are important factors in Hispanic students' education, this teacher contends that too many of her colleagues either don't give a hoot about the true grit of the profession or they're too overtasked to care about the student's real experience.

She laments another longstanding debate in America: How should teachers be doing their jobs?

Catalina says anecdotally that she has teachers who expect her more English-fluent friends to help impart the day's lessons -- fellow students who themselves are buried in work each day. In a Pavlovian sense, she's familiar with how her own language barrier and her sometimes-botched attempts to communicate will only land her in trouble.

"Sometimes the teachers hear wrong, and they'll kick us out," Catalina says, referring to her Spanish. "They will write us up and kick us out." Even when it's not a bloody fight in the cafeteria, Catalina knows that, sooner or later, she'll be sent packing.

Briefly, an excerpt from Hispanic Alliance Inc.'s 45-page Hispanic Education Case Statement, published in 2008, well before the Cleveland Plan took hold: "Poor Latino families are often labeled as uncaring about education. Their children are stigmatized as quitters or intellectually inferior when they don't achieve in school. The fact is parents cannot give their children what they do not have, namely the tools (financial or knowledge of the education system) that will help their children achieve in school. They can't provide an extensive vocabulary, reading habits and discussions at the dinner table to add value to what they are learning in school.

"The legacy that poor Hispanic parents pass on to their children can best be described as deficits in their educational journey. Adding salt to the wound, teachers assume there is someone at home who will help Hispanic students with their homework. Think again, there may not be. Creating and rewarding 'study buddy' partnerships can help. Collaborating with community leaders and faith-based organizations to establish community homework centers is another viable strategy."

Between CMSD and the numerous community organizations seemingly working in concert, the goal remains to tackle those particular challenges.

Lincoln West is a nexus for the Hispanic youth of the near westside. But with the school's 49.8-percent graduation rate, rising yet as it were, attendance for many serves as a formality with no guarantee of success after enrollment. It's the old narrative, polished anew as the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Our Schools: Some students will pass with flying colors, some students will fail. The numbers can mean whatever they mean.

According to the most recent public reports, 76 percent of Lincoln West students report feeling "safe" at school. The administration has not stated what solutions are on the table for the remaining and unsettled 24 percent (or some 210 students). Ramos-Torres says that promoting a safe and helpful environment was packed into her job description. She says she tried.

"I saw a lot of injustices, a lot of things going on," Ramos-Torres says. "When there's a rule and a policy it wasn't being enforced across, it was being enforced only to a certain ethnic group."

The stories are strewn about the halls -- on one hand very much like any other high school in the country, and on another hand wrapped in Lincoln West's own unique makeup. Around each tale, though, alarmingly, is how afraid families seem when asked to share their experiences, to tell their stories. More than anything, the culture of fear is settling in as a defining feature of the city's school district.

It's nothing new for Catalina and her friends, though. Summer's here, and with warm weather comes the inevitability of minimum-wage work. At 15, 16, 17, that's fine. Years from now? Not so much.

Vasquez, opting to editorialize for a moment between translations, says, "She wants a future, she has a vision. We all do."

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