Academic Emergency

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

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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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