Academic Emergency

The election promises either a brighter future or state control for Cleveland's schools

Joseph Gallagher School on Cleveland's west side has been in Academic Emergency — the equivalent of receiving an 'F' on the State of Ohio report card — for over 10 years. Yet beneath the simple, all-too-easy label of "failing school" is a tough, caring place that refuses to give up on its kids or accept poverty as an excuse for poor performance.

Given all the challenges facing Gallagher, a K-8 school with about 650 students, its teachers and principal might be forgiven for harboring doubts. It serves refugees from war-torn countries in Africa, special education and medically fragile students from across the city, and youngsters from a few blocks away. It is one of the most diverse schools in the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD), yet hardly exceptional.

Nearly 75 percent of Cleveland schools are currently rated as being in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency, the lowest scores on the state report card. The district also has 14 "new and innovative" schools created within the past five years that are ranked Continuous Improvement or higher, as well as other high-performing schools. Despite slow, steady gains made in recent years, however, most of the schools are failing.

CEO Eric Gordon's efforts to improve the schools have so far been hampered by excruciating budget cuts. In the past two years, CMSD has suffered massive budget shortfalls because of state funding cuts under Governor John Kasich, lower enrollment numbers, declining tax revenues and rising labor costs. As a result, it has cut over 500 teaching positions (nearly 10 percent of its workforce), chopped electives like art, music and gym, pared 50 minutes from the school day and trimmed back budgets for basic things like art supplies and paper.

Still, it hasn't been enough. Next year, without a new school levy, CMSD will confront a budget shortfall of about $50 million — forcing it to cut another 700-800 staff positions, close schools, eliminate preschool and busing, and likely face state control as well.

To make matters worse, CMSD has received a failing grade on this year's report card, slipping from Academic Watch to Academic Emergency once again. Gordon, who is "devastated" by the rating, says that it is partially the result of two years of cuts that caused class sizes to balloon to 30-45 kids in many schools.

If it passes, Issue 107, the levy on the Nov. 6 ballot, would go a long way toward solving these problems, raising an estimated $77 million annually. But it asks a lot from city residents: 15 mills, the largest millage in recent Northeast Ohio history. The number is high because property values have fallen and collection rates are low. And CMSD officials want to do more than just restore the cuts — they want to move the district forward. Still, the levy would cost the average Cleveland homeowner $300 per year, assuming an average home price of about $64,000.

"It has to pass," says Gordon, who cites the fact that CMSD made slow, steady gains between 2006 and 2011 and is poised to do so again as reasons why voters should support it. A new school levy has not passed in the City of Cleveland since 1996.

"We are seeing a community-wide effort to address learning across the city," Gordon adds optimistically. "I am very confident in the people of the City of Cleveland. In the long term, they know the city's strength will be driven by the quality of our schools."

Gordon's campaign-mode optimism may be a ray of sunshine, but is it real? The stark reality is that many city residents have little personal knowledge of the schools; those who do often have long memories of past failures. CMSD has lost 30,000 students in the past decade, and only 14 percent of residents have kids in the schools. As a result, the district faces a major challenge in communicating its potential for success.

There are currently 38,000 students in 102 CMSD schools, a drop of nearly 2,500 students in the last year alone, with many of those going to new charter schools. The declining population is mirrored in the state report card, which rates schools in six categories ranging from Academic Emergency to Excellent with Distinction. CMSD was in Academic Emergency in 2004-05, climbed to Continuous Improvement by 2009-10, then slipped into Academic Watch the following year.

Along with those ratings, what most residents see is the problems of a school like Gallagher, which is in many ways a microcosm of the challenges facing the Cleveland school district. A blizzard of acronyms paints a disheartening picture:

Some 36 percent of Gallagher students have an IEP, or Individual Education Plan, which is required for special education students with problems ranging from autism to attention deficit disorders. A total of 52 percent are LEP, limited in their English-language proficiency. A number of students are also ED (Emotionally Disturbed) or OHI (Other Health-Impaired). The health problems are so severe that Gallagher is one of only two schools in the district with two full-time nurses on staff.

Yet the acronyms Principal Jennifer Rhone prefers to cite are AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and PI (Performance Index), the numbers that the state uses to determine how well individual schools are doing. During the 2011-2012 school year, Gallagher achieved a score of 69.9 on the PI. That's up from 62.3 five years ago and 69.1 during the previous school year. Yet it's still shy of 70, the magic number that would move the school up to an Academic Watch rating.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking," Rhone says of the score. "We've seen slow, steady growth, but it hasn't been fast enough."

Nor is it a complete picture of the school system. CMSD also has success stories to brag about, particularly its "new and innovative" schools like MC2, which sent graduates of its 2012 class to Harvard, Stanford and Case Western Reserve Universities, and John Hay High School, whose 2011-2012 PI score was number one in the state.

"These schools are not drill and kill — they offer an authentic learning experience where the students are highly engaged," says Gordon. "The climate of the school is not some rigid little prison where the kids are marched down the halls. They're warm and friendly."

How to replicate these learning environments? If the levy passes, Gordon is ready to implement the Cleveland Plan, a blueprint for reform that he forged in Columbus with the help of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Kasich, and state legislators.

According to Gordon, the plan's biggest change is in reforming teacher tenure rules to allow more flexibility in hiring and firing. "At Tremont Montessori, we laid off most of the Montessori teachers," he explains, noting that such layoffs tend to sweep away young, newer teachers, who are always laid off first. Tremont Montessori is rated "Effective" and often has a waiting list for new students. But as Gordon notes, "It's hard to maintain a good Montessori model if you don't have trained teachers."

The Cleveland Plan allows the district to retain high-performing and specialized teachers during layoffs, and make tenure and seniority only secondary factors in decisions. It also lets CMSD pay teachers a differentiated salary based on performance, special skills and duties (often called merit pay, something that has long been controversial with unions). Finally, it allows CMSD to create a longer school day and school year, mandates parent involvement, and creates new partnerships with high-performing charter schools.

MC2 already incorporates elements of the plan, like an extended school day. It operates year-round, and offers internships and mentoring programs with General Electric employees at Nela Park, where its main campus is located. Another campus is at the Great Lakes Science Center, a natural fit with the school's emphasis on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

"We integrate science and math by applying them to real-world problems," says Principal Jeffrey McClellan, noting that MC2 students designed and created the star that will top the Christmas tree on Public Square this year.

Still, McClellan admits that the school offers a special environment for students who want to be there. Though they come from diverse, often low-income backgrounds, they have made deliberate choices. "There are no qualifications to get in, but there is a lottery system, and they must say they want to come," McClellan explains. "They are committing to a different kind of education."

So are students at John Hay, which offers another example of the kind of model that Gordon hopes to spread across the district. Students there must apply and have a GPA of 3.0 to be admitted.

"We've formed instructional teams with the student at the center of them," says Carol Lockhart, principal of John Hay's Early College program. "Imagine a bull's-eye. The student is the target and everything else is on the outside."

It helps that John Hay administrators have a waiver from the Cleveland Teachers Union allowing them to hire teachers based on skills and experience, not just seniority. So the school attracts not only the best and brightest students, but also the best teachers. Nonetheless, Gordon says that both John Hay and MC2 offer examples of what CMSD can do if the levy passes and district officials have more resources.

"We can learn things from our portfolio and successful schools across the country," he says. "When you create more autonomy for schools, when they're able to do more hiring at the local level instead of the district level, you achieve better results."

Convincing residents — in particular, parents — that Issue 107 and the Cleveland Plan will provide a comprehensive fix for Cleveland schools may prove to be Gordon's toughest challenge. Some feel that CMSD's approach does not include their voices, and could deepen the divide between "haves" and "have-nots" in the school district.

Jill Fout-Gregory, a resident of the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood whose 9-year-old daughter attends Louisa May Alcott, worries there may not be enough high-performing schools for every child, and that parents may not know how to find them. Fout-Gregory sent her daughter to Gallagher for kindergarten and first grade, then transferred her to Alcott for a higher-quality education. Even under the best conditions, not all parents have those options.

"I want to see the same educational opportunities for every child," she says. "It shouldn't be based on whether you have a car to drive to a school, or time to find a school for your child. Some people work two or three jobs and can't do that."

Gordon counters that without high-performing schools, many parents will continue to leave CMSD. "Even without offering choices, parents who know how to advocate for their children get better results," he says. Yet he agrees that the district needs to do a better job of engaging parents at every level. If the levy passes, he says CMSD will hold a series of citywide community meetings to give residents a chance to shape how the money is allocated.

Gordon also promises that CMSD's successes at schools like MC2 and John Hay will trickle down to struggling neighborhood schools like Gallagher. Rhone, while supportive of the new schools, says that replicating their success won't be easy, given the challenges local schools face.

"They're totally different worlds," she says. "Those types of schools typically have the ability to do things others can't. For example, when a school is new and fresh, they can choose their own staff. Sometimes they set criteria for students who come there, and oftentimes there are many resources dedicated to them. That's how it should be."

Heather Grant, who has been principal at Tremont Montessori for the last five years, disagrees. "We went from Academic Watch to Excellent in three years," she says, noting that the school is majority low-income, yet its students are high achievers. "Developing your teachers is your key. When I first got here, the kids wouldn't take library books home. I'd literally hold up buses and make kids open their book bags."

But Tremont Montessori has a special education population of 20 percent – much less than Gallagher's 36 percent. And Tremont also has very few LEP students.

The gaping disconnect between many Cleveland residents and the schools is perhaps nowhere as profound as the southwest side of the city, where the remaining parents who haven't fled to the suburbs often send their kids to charter or parochial schools.

So on a recent blustery day in the West Park neighborhood, three Cleveland teachers hit the pavement, canvassing the cookie cutter, vinyl-sided bungalows on West 162nd St. Although they found few people at home or willing to open their doors, Kristina Inzana, for one, was feeling encouraged by the positive responses from her neighbors.

"My neighbor lives right by Ben Franklin, but was completely unaware of the successes there until I told her," says Inzana, who teaches at Mary Bethune School in Glenville. Franklin, which is located in Old Brooklyn, was rated Effective on the 2011-2012 report card. "Now she supports it, because she knows people won't want to move into the community unless there are good schools. She wants her property value to go up."

In the end, this is the core issue for many Cleveland voters: If they don't have kids in the schools, what's in it for them? And in a time of stagnant wages and falling home prices, can they afford to pay for it? Levy walkers report hearing story after story from Cleveland seniors on Social Security who are literally counting every penny to pay their bills.

The campaigners' response is always the same: It's an investment in our kids. That empty house down the street? No one will want to buy it and fix it up unless we have good schools.

Mark Baumgartner, a seventh-grade English teacher at Luis Munoz Marin in Tremont and Director of Professional Issues with the Cleveland Teachers Union, has a simpler message that he delivers: "It's been 16 years. People need a raise after 16 years."

For Jennifer Rhone, the Cleveland Plan and passage of the levy represent an opportunity to perhaps finally get over the hump into Academic Watch. If Gallagher achieves that, it's within spitting distance of genuine achievement. "Nothing's successful until we reach Effective," she says. "That's where we need to go."

In the meantime, she is always trying new things. This year, Rhone is focused on using student data to drive up individual achievement. Gallagher also formed a partnership with a local block club whose members are volunteering at the school.

If Gallagher stays in Academic Emergency, it could eventually be shut down or reorganized. Its fate hangs in the balance, and the only certainty is the need to improve.

Despite these challenges, Rhone is happy going to work each day knowing she can make a small difference in her kids' lives. "It's kind of cool knowing that in those six to seven hours in their worlds, which are so unstable, you can say or do something that's positive for them," she says. "These kids may remember me for the rest of their lives."

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