Proficiency Test

Barbara Byrd-Bennett deserves high marks for effort, but Cleveland schools still teeter on the brink.

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Teacher: "There are some great kids, with good parents, and they find a way -- but you can't really even teach the right way, because every class has three or four kids that are out of control. You tell them to do something or just tell them to sit down, and they say 'Fuck you, bitch,' and you can't do anything about it."

Administrator: "The violent kids are running the schools. They take up so much time and effort; it's a total diversion from teaching. It can't be done."

School Psychologist: "There are not enough personnel to deal with the behavior problems. We talk to the parents, but there's no follow-through, no discipline in the homes . . . They do stop the other kids from learning."

Teacher: "I've been here 20 years, and I hate to say this, but there is no hope for the Cleveland schools. None."

Happy Anniversary
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Federal Judge Frank Battisti's order to desegregate the Cleveland schools. Evidence brought by the NAACP had proved that racism in the district resulted not only from the city's historic pattern of segregated housing, but from a concerted effort by the school board and administrators to keep individual schools virtually all white or all black.

Battisti's mandated corrections were righteous, severe, and ultimately disastrous. In a series of rulings that reflected a mounting frustration with his inability to reshape the schools by sheer force of will and federal power, Battisti resorted to an ill-conceived philosophy best defined by the infamous Vietnam War-era statement: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Over the next two decades, the system was reduced to rubble -- carpet-bombed by draconian judges, inept administrators, squabbling school boards, drooling bus-company owners, and happy lawyers.

The cost was staggering: hundreds of millions to ship children back and forth; tens of millions in legal fees; countless millions in revenues lost, as parents expressed their rage at the polls, voting down school levies at every opportunity. Sixteen superintendents in 21 years paid with their jobs. And the highest price was paid by Cleveland kids -- an entire generation denied the chance for a decent education.

Finally, in the mid-'90s, a consortium of city leaders and activists resolved to rescue the schools. After successfully campaigning in 1996 for a levy to bail the system out of what State Auditor Jim Petro described as "a financial crisis that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of American education," Mayor Mike White won direct control over the schools. With absolute authority in hand, and a compliant school board of his own choosing, White began a nationwide search for a superintendent to lead the Cleveland Municipal School District out of the wilderness.

Enter Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

She flew into town in 1998, on the wings of the finest résumé and most charismatic presence to be found among the admittedly thin ranks of successful urban-school administrators. She had graduated high school at 16 and earned a college diploma at 19, then a master's degree in English at NYU, and another in education administration at Pace. Over 22 years, she advanced through the ranks of the New York City School District.

She became superintendent of the Chancellor's District, a 10-school subset composed of Manhattan's worst-performing schools. There were dramatic improvements, and she was subsequently named superintendent for the deeply troubled Crown Heights District in Brooklyn. There, she made less classroom progress, but was nonetheless applauded for restoring order and discipline.

In mid-1998, White's staff asked her to help the mayor with the superintendent-selection process. After a few meetings, something clicked. He asked her to stop advising and submit an application. Weeks later, Barbara Byrd-Bennett was named the first CEO in CMSD history.

In short order, Byrd-Bennett became the most revered public official in the region -- and the highest-paid government employee in Ohio. Champion of academia and media darling, she has basked in the warmth of an extended honeymoon with City Hall, school-board members, teachers, parents, taxpayers, and the press. She has been showered with praise, honors, and awards by everyone from Oberlin to Oprah.

But is she any good?

In the fifth year of BBB's reign, after nine full semesters and $4 billion spent, it's time for the CEO's proficiency test and report card.

It is no coincidence that the district chose Success Tech for the site of an interview with Byrd-Bennett. It's the day ninth-graders face the Grim Reaper of public education, the Ohio Proficiency Tests. For years, the test has rendered a harsh verdict on the district: guilty of inadequate education. Guilty of insufficient learning. Guilty of systemwide failure.

But not here. This will be the inaugural proficiency test at Success Tech, and administrators welcome the chance. Here the halls are clean and bright, splashed with the art of talented kids. Here it is tranquil, with panoramic views of blue water and blue skies. Here every student sits at a personal workstation with a new Dell PC, fingers flying over keyboards, eyes riveted on screens, eager to learn. Here there is no fear of proficiencies.

Success Tech is the newest and smallest of 120 schools, with 80 ninth-graders hand-selected from across the city, children clamoring to attend the elite downtown showcase. If all goes as planned, they will be joined by hundreds more in coming years, as these young pioneers become the first graduating class of a full-sized high school, where the academics rival those of the best suburban schools.

Success Tech will serve as a template for others. It won't be long before the whole thing turns into the Cleveland Success School District. At least that's how Byrd-Bennett sees it playing out.

Success Tech may have a future, but progressive downtown schools have a history, too. Just down the Shoreway is Aviation High School, another CMSD innovation. Located adjacent to Burke Airport, this school-ahead-of-its-time offered valuable training in aeronautics and aircraft maintenance.

It was the favorite school of Dr. Frederick Holliday, a respected educator who was appointed superintendent with great fanfare in 1983. But the pressures and frustration of watching helplessly as the Good Ship Public Education went down on his watch took a mortal toll on the good doctor. Holliday entered the building alone on a bleak night in 1985, lingered for an hour, wrote a cryptic note accusing "critics and enemies" on the federal desegregation team of ruining his life, and then shot himself in the heart with a .357 Magnum.

Holliday's death was the symbol of total despair. Reform efforts were abandoned. Community support dissipated. Aviation High School was closed a few years later. The schools hit rock bottom and stayed there for 13 more years.

But Aviation High School and Dr. Holliday are ancient history now. As the CEO takes a seat in a small conference room, she makes that clear, waving off the past 25 years with a single comment: "It's too bad we spent all that money on busing. I know if white people would say that then, they were called racist, and black people, they were called something else, but you can't solve cultural and societal problems by shipping kids around the city every day . . . We could have taken those millions -- 40, then 80, then 100 million and more -- and made the schools equitable."

Financing the Stone
The total annual CMSD budget is a financial hologram that varies according to angles and light. There's the general fund, at $667 million, which is widely understood to be the school budget. It's not. There are six other primary funds that add more than $125 million annually, plus a share of the capital improvement fund, which should tack on another $106 million or more this year alone. The actual grand total is not publicized, but it appears to be in the vicinity of $912 million -- almost as much as the budget for the entire city government.

In a shambles for more than a generation, the district's financial recovery has been spectacular. A $200 million deficit in 1996 has been transformed into an operating surplus of $33 million for fiscal 2002. Chief Financial Officer Erbert Johnson has replaced perennial patronage and incompetence with professionalism and sound accounting principles. State auditors have proclaimed the books as "clean as a whistle."

But trouble is only a semester away.

State money -- the lifeblood of public education -- is fast becoming an oxymoron, as Ohio legislators, faced with hard choices, pick roads and pork over schools. The state has already slashed $7.5 million from the CMSD's annual allowance, with more cuts to come. Last month, the district eliminated 52 assistant principal and 172 teaching positions to close an $11.4 million gap in the budget for the next school year.

The other main artery is local property taxes. Again, the prognosis is not good. There has not been an operating levy for seven years. Most districts hit up residents every two years or less. Without fresh cash, the schools will fall back into the red next year.

Byrd-Bennett spends little time crowing about her financial accomplishments and a lot more fretting about the future. "I'm going to have a shortfall of $25 million in fiscal year 2004," she says with certainty. "And that was before the state started cutting our money . . . You know, these politicians, when they're campaigning, they say, 'Put the schools first,' and after they're elected, they do. When the budget has to be cut, it's the schools first."

A new levy won't be easy. The county's Health and Human Services boost turned into a struggle on the May ballot. The state's $500 million Third Frontier request will be on the November ballot -- and may be accompanied by levies for a new convention center and the arts.

Undaunted, Byrd-Bennett has already begun to bang the drums slowly. "Yes, we are thinking about going back to the voters for more money; we'll have to," she says, then tosses the hot potato to Jane Campbell. "But that's a decision for the mayor to make. I'll make my recommendations, but that's her decision."

The mayor doesn't want to commit in The Year of the Levy. "It has to be considered, yes," she says. "But we haven't made any decision about that yet."

Experts like political patriarch Sam Miller see the prospects as grim. "They can use whatever excuse they want, and Barbara is a magician when it comes to campaigning for the schools," says Miller. "But the voters are in no mood to pass another school levy anytime soon -- it's just not going to happen."

The bottom line is bittersweet: Byrd-Bennett, Johnson, and company have balanced the budget and restored fiscal credibility, to the point of earning Moody's highest bond rating for short-term public-issue notes. But economic malaise and a cold front moving in from Columbus leave forecasts gloomy.

Finance grade: C-

A Mammoth day-care center
Forty-three percent of the district's 74,000 students live in poverty. Many don't receive basic nutrition or health care. Kids don't learn when they're sick or undernourished, when they can't see the blackboard or hear the teacher.

Of course, schools were never meant to be food banks, hospitals, or social service centers. But they are now.

The CMSD served 15 million free meals to students in the 2002-03 academic year. The Universal Meals Program, implemented under Byrd-Bennett in conjunction with a federal program, provides meals to all students, regardless of family income.

A city-sponsored program that provides free vaccinations has raised the level of immunized kids to 98 percent -- 60 percent higher than 1998. More than 40,000 students have been screened for vision problems since 1999, courtesy of corporate angel Cole Eye Care Centers. Thousands have received free glasses. Thousands more get free dental care, thanks to the dental school at Case Western Reserve University. Some 600 corporate, civic, community, and religious groups are directly involved with the schools, offering services, advisors, and money.

But treating so many health and social needs diverts resources from the classroom, leaving the schools in danger of becoming mammoth day-care centers. "In the postmodern era, we have assumed a lot of the responsibility of the parents and the community," notes Associate Superintendent Thandiwe Peeples.

Byrd-Bennett says they have no choice: "If we didn't, many of these kids would be out on the street, looking to take what they feel is their share of America from people in business, workers, people walking by . . . When you judge our schools, keep that in mind."

Health and social services grade: A

Casualties on the front line
"Some of the unsung heroes of Cleveland are the teachers who stayed in that system when it was terrible, just because they loved those kids," says Campbell. "They're still there, and now there are more qualified teachers in every area."

The stats back her up. The number of classroom instructors with certified qualifications has increased to 98 percent of all teachers. They are assisted by 1,000 volunteer tutors, twice as many as in 1998.

Truth is, the teachers were never high on the list of critical problems. They held the fort through the dreary years, often digging into their own pockets to pay for necessities the district didn't provide -- such as chalk. Today, with finances in better shape, the pipeline is open. "They are getting the resources now," says Chief of Academics Myrna Eliott-Lewis.

Part of Byrd-Bennett's strategy has been to avoid union strife. Her relations with the CTU have been cordial and crisis-free. A recent contract extension was amicably negotiated and ratified, but not without a price. Although median teacher pay, at $47,000, is just average for the region, benefits and union safeguards are extraordinary. A teacher cannot be fired or even transferred by a principal.

Complaints or bad evaluations can be added to a teacher's personnel file, and there must be three or more, based on specific offenses or failures, before a principal can even forward a transfer request downtown. The teacher gets a hearing. If the facts are deemed sufficient and serious enough, the teacher gets a year of probationary status. If, at the end of that year, the principal still wants the transfer, there is another hearing. And if the teacher's performance is again found to be clearly inadequate, the administration can mandate a transfer. It is a process so weighted on the side of workers that none of the people interviewed could name a single instance of a teacher being involuntarily transferred.

For those who care to take advantage, the system provides plenty of room for incompetents and hangers-on. "You can write them up, if they're not performing," says one principal, "but that's all. After three years, I haven't had one teacher transferred or fired. It hardly ever happens."

It takes an egregious offense to get a pink slip. The most recent example was a Marion Seltzer Elementary kindergarten teacher who had a jumbo bag of marijuana delivered to her classroom. Fatima Sebeiha pleaded guilty, was promptly relieved of duty, and will soon be sentenced to up to five years in prison. "But you watch," one teacher warns. "The union rules are so strong, she could be back teaching after she gets out."

Teachers may be bullet-proof, but principals are in the line of fire. Under Byrd-Bennett's system, there are substantial bonuses for principals who improve their school's performance, but woe to those who don't. Thandiwe Peeples is associate superintendent for the CEO's District, composed of schools with the worst problems and performance records. Her mission is to get them back on track. "When a principal says, 'It's not my fault,' I say, 'Yes it is.' They have to be accountable," she says.

And they are. The attrition rate is brutal. More than 90 of 120 schools have a different principal from the one they had on the day Byrd-Bennett arrived. Four more were relieved of duty in April, after failing to make sufficient progress.

Is Peeples the hit woman for Byrd-Bennett? "Oh no, she's her own hit woman," says Peeples. "She smiles a lot, but those little robot eyes -- she sees everything, she catches everything, she computes everything."

Juliane Fouse Shepard is principal at Newton D. Baker Elementary, one of the highest-achieving schools in the district. She has no problem with the pressure. "I get worried sometimes, sure," she admits. "I get nervous about test results, but that's what we're here for -- results. Barbara Byrd-Bennett makes it real clear."

Other principals aren't as sanguine about life in the crosshairs. Two former principals claim they were scapegoats, punished for not reaching academic goals they considered impossible, given that their schools were among the most troubled in the district. "You can't get blood from a turnip," says one. "And you can't get these kids to meet academic standards that are totally unrealistic, just because Barbara says so."

The second agrees. "If you crack down, you get a call from Sixth Street (CMSD headquarters): 'Hey, not so many suspensions!' You can't fire a teacher, you can't expel a kid, you can't touch Barbara's people -- so who do you blame, when it doesn't work? Principals."

Teachers and principals grade: C

Lucasville calling
Safety and security spending for Cleveland schools has tripled since 1998, exceeding $22 million this year. There are 256 full-time security personnel and 28 patrol cars, as well as closed-circuit TVs, portable x-ray machines, and metal detectors. Fights, assaults, gang-related activity, and all types of crimes on school property have decreased.

But, according to a survey made by CWRU, one of every 13 Cleveland high school students had taken a gun, knife, or other weapon to school in the preceding month -- an average of about two weapons per classroom. In 2002, there were more than 2,000 "safety and security incidents" -- the district's euphemism for violence and other crimes -- and 15,000 suspensions. And here's a nasty one: Teachers and staff were assaulted 211 times, an average of more than once a day.

These tallies may be better, per capita, than those in New York, Miami, and Detroit, but they're worse than in Pittsburgh, Boston, and Houston.

Associate Superintendent Peeples isn't too concerned. "I came from the wild, wild West of school systems [New York City], where they were totally off the hook," says Peeples. "So, I think they're pretty safe here."

Then again, comparing favorably to one of the most violent districts in the country offers little in the way of bragging rights. Nor does it comfort teachers, who must deal with the fear factor daily.

"I was punched in the mouth two weeks ago by a fifth grader," says an East Side elementary teacher. "Big kid, big as me, but I'm all right."

After the attack, her young assailant ran away. There was a police report, but no arrest made. "A 10-day suspension, that's all," she shrugs. "My principal said that's the maximum, the most they can do, and I believe him."

Adds a middle school teacher: "It's hard to teach with your hands tied behind your back. The shouting and the obscenities, throwing things and fighting -- some of the teachers come into the lunch room crying. It's very difficult."

All of which leads to education by triage. "A lot of times teachers just say, 'I give up,' and put a few kids who want to learn in the front row, focus on them, and let all the rest do whatever," says a high school teacher.

In April, a gang-related spat among four girls at South High School provided a grim reminder of how hard it is to keep the peace. Smack talk escalated to shoves and slaps. Before school officials could react, allies jumped in. The clash became a brawl, then a flash fire of violence that engulfed the lunchroom and roared through the halls. In minutes, more than 200 students were involved.

Twenty police cars rushed to the scene, and South High went into lockdown mode. Armed officers swept the school, restoring order and making arrests. No classes resumed.

Dr. Teresa Yeldell, a 33-year veteran of seven major school systems, doesn't sugarcoat the problems. "This is not yesterday's school system," she says. "It's not yesterday's society. There is a lack of discipline in the home environment and in the community environment, and that is reflected in the schools."

But despite the fortune spent on security, the district seems at a loss to remedy the situation. Suspensions and expulsions, perceived as signs of failure, are discouraged. The policies are inclusive, noble, and nonjudgmental, and they don't work.

Most schools have what teachers call an "ice room" -- the in-school suspension room. Instead of real suspensions, which must be recorded and included in annual data, kids who act up are sentenced to in-school suspensions, which do not go into the published records. But these are nothing more than time-out rooms, all-day study halls. It's not much of a punishment and has little effect. Worse, there is no procedure for dealing with chronic offenders, who account for a disproportionate share of the problems.

Safety and security grade: D

The problem with Mom and Dad
Among the 47,000 families in the district, nontraditional structures -- single parents, surrogate parents, guardians -- far outnumber the old Mom, Pop, and the kids model. Parental involvement with the schools has slowly but inexorably declined for 40 years.

Are the parents the real problem? Many teachers say yes:

"If you could see how dysfunctional the families are, how much anger there is."

"At our school, we have Report Card Day, and the parents are supposed to come in, pick them up, talk to the teachers. About a third of them never show. A month later, the cards are still there."

"We have one mother, she's 31; she has 11 kids, none of them have a father around. You think they're hard to handle? We have five of them in our school right now. "

"It's single moms and grandmothers -- the grandmothers are the parents. The whole parent-family thing is broken, it's fractured, and the teachers can't make up for that."

A Cleveland cop assigned to school patrols agrees. "I'll tell you what happens most of the time," he says wearily. "We pick up a kid -- fighting, dope, stealing -- we take him home to have a sit-down with the parents. There's nobody there, except maybe Granny and some little kids."

Administrators rush to the parents' defense. "No, the parents are not a problem," says Chief of Staff Lisa Ruda, the district's second-in-command. "The vast majority of parents are good people; they want their kids to do better; they are involved."

Adds Dr. Yeldell: "There are a lot of things parents can't control. Parents can't teach their kids what they themselves don't know, and the impact of that can be greater in an urban setting. I'm not making excuses for them, but there's a reality out there: The parents' experience was not good in this school system. Their kids' experience has not been good yet."

Byrd-Bennett takes the middle ground. "The parents are part of the problem, and they are part of the solution," she says. "The parents are 30 percent -- no, more -- 40 percent of the education process, at least. We can't do it without them. The kids can't do it without them . . . They have to step up."

But will they? Can they? If so, they'd better start right now: More than 2,000 students are already parents themselves.

Parents grade: D

Testing, testing
When Barbara Byrd-Bennett arrived, the Cleveland school system ranked last in Ohio for academic performance. It still does. More than 6 of every 10 high school students never made it to graduation. They still don't. The average score citywide on the all-important proficiency test was less than 45 percent, not even within shouting distance of the 75 percent minimum prescribed by the state. It still is.

"Last year was a disappointment," the CEO explains. "But you can't keep improving at the pace we had set."

Poor academic performance is not just a problem. In Cleveland, it's a scholastic tradition, entrenched so deep that many doubt whether it can be undone -- including teachers. "They will never rate on the proficiencies," says one. "Never, never, never."

Another teacher says that students are already doomed by the time they reach kindergarten: "When we get them, they're already way off the pace . . . They don't know the alphabet, they don't know numbers, they don't know colors -- we start in a big hole."

While careful not to dismiss the proficiency tests outright, administrators make it clear that they are an unwelcome burden. "I'm just sad that the proficiency tests were made up by non-educators and non-students," says Byrd-Bennett. "They are important, yes, but they should not be the stand-alone judgment of our schools."

Others are a bit more defensive. "It doesn't tell us what kids know; it is a snapshot for somebody else, who thinks it tells them what they want to know," says Dr. Yeldell. "But we are judged . . ." She pauses, then points a finger. "The media coverage is not great. There's a lot of lip service from the media about saving our schools, helping our schools, but when you get down to it, it's always more about 'Let's go make some news,' instead of 'Let's cover what's really happening.' We have to fight so hard to get one story about something good that happens. But if there's one bad test -- 'Cleveland Schools Fail!' That's not the whole story."

She may be right, but it doesn't change the awful scores. The Cleveland schools can never be declared fully recovered until the proficiency test scores and graduation rates are at least competitive with those of other districts in the state.

It is Byrd-Bennett's most daunting task, yet there are signs of life. Preliminary, unverified test scores released in late June by the Ohio Department of Education indicate improvements over last year -- especially in reading skills -- among fourth- and sixth-graders. Median scores, however, appear to remain below 50 percent.

Academics grade: F

Despite improvements, the district remains on the state's "Academic Emergency" list, meeting only 3 of its 22 performance standards.

Still, Chief of Staff Ruda pleads for support. "It is a better district since Barbara came, much better," she says. "Now, we need belief. Belief, belief, belief, belief. People don't believe the kids can do it, don't believe we will fix up the schools."

And that may never change.

After 16 superintendents in 21 years, Cleveland now has a CEO who's seen as both competent and widely popular. She has made clear improvements in areas such as finance and social services. She has also brought a missionary's zeal to a job that quickly chewed up so many others. "The ultimate goal is to turn it around, get it up to where there is a shiny foundation for real learning, a real education system," she says. "I said it would take five to seven years. And I am telling you, it's so close, you can smell it, you can feel it, you can almost put your arms around it."

One hopes that her prophecies are accurate. But the fact remains that, five years into her crusade, Cleveland ranks last in academic performance in Ohio and still possesses one of the lowest graduation rates of any big-city school system in the country. Moreover, so much is out of Byrd-Bennett's control: the city's poverty and violence, the state's dwindling funds, the generations of Cleveland parents raised on a tradition of scholastic neglect and failure.

No matter how earnest she is, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how much money is spent, Cleveland's schools may never be redeemed. As the CEO herself confirms, there is not an urban district in America that can serve as a worthy example of quality public education in the modern age. "Not by my standards," she says. "Not one."

The Cleveland schools have improved, but they must get better yet. And they will be different from the red-brick schoolhouses back in the day. They will dole out an array of benefits that were never part of the traditional curriculum. They will provide a safe environment and access to resources for the kids who are interested.

With even greater effort, perhaps the schools can become legitimate learning centers, providing the foundation for a better future. For now, tiny returns on massive investments will have to do.

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