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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

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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.

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