The Front Line

Burdened by unrealistic expectations and a bad rap, Cleveland teachers face an uphill battle to save a failing school system.

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Andre Williams and the Sadies. Pat's in the Flats, West Third Street and Literary Road. 10 p.m., Tuesday, November 23, $10, 216-641-8044.
The day starts in long single-file lines. One by one, the students flow through the front doors of Anton Grdina Elementary School, adding to the blaring buzz of small voices in the lobby talking, talking, talking. The scene looks deceptively like the morning routine at any other primary school in urban America.

"Excuse me!" yells Principal Sophia Vitakis-Karnavas, towering over her charges in a floppy red hat. The child chatter fades to a low hum. At this moment, she isn't just the principal. She's the gatekeeper to free breakfasts being served in the gym-cafeteria of what is reputedly the toughest elementary school between Philadelphia and Detroit.

"Today is what kind of day?" the principal booms enthusiastically in a voice that could have been honed on an army base. She points to her head.

"Hat day," the mostly hatless children answer, their stomachs rumbling.

"What are we going to do with our hands and feet?"

"Keep them together."

"What are we going to do about directions?"

"Follow them."

"What do we do if we have a problem?"

"Tell the teacher!"

They know that answer by heart. The principal may be in charge of the morning routine, but the half-dozen shushing, lecturing teachers at the school's entrance are the ones who prepare her rowdy young students for it. Even though classes don't start until 8:10, the teachers arrive by 7, so they can greet the children walking to the battered, overcrowded school from overcrowded homes in nearby projects and government-subsidized apartments.

On the way, many children traverse glass- and trash-strewn streets in the Kinsman neighborhood, skirting gang members and drunks passed out in playgrounds, witnessing fights and other acts of violence. Here, school truly is a refuge. And absent a security guard, teachers are charged with keeping it that way. Their task begins by mobilizing hundreds of hungry, cranky, sleepy children into perfect lines for the principal.

Breakfast is a crucial though unofficial part of the curriculum. The way some students eat, teachers suspect the free breakfast and lunch are the only decent meals they get all day. And students need to be well-nourished to keep up with the breathless routine of learning at Grdina. There is no downtime and no coffee breaks. Instead, there are goals here for all 700 children to reach: Daily goals. Weekly goals. Yearly ones.

There will be tests. Students will pass and fail.

So will their teachers.

To administrators downtown and in Columbus, the results are neat and clear. A year's worth of work is boiled down to a single score, derived from the students' performance on the Ohio Proficiency Tests. There are no affirmative-action-like allowances for children who would have learned more if they had had better housing or warm clothes to wear to school in the winter, gotten enough to eat at home, and owned their own books, and if they weren't regularly exposed to violence in their impoverished neighborhoods.

No one sees what it really takes to teach such children to read, to multiply, or to memorize state capitals.

When the test scores come back, some teachers cry. No one sees that either.

Overall, the 77,000 students in Cleveland's public schools have failed miserably on the state tests, which have evolved over time from an early intervention tool to the definitive determiner of student achievement. Private schools have the option of forgoing such tests. But in the public education arena, they are the yardstick by which everyone and everything is measured.

Last spring, the state report card showed that the Cleveland Municipal School District failed to meet all 18 academic performance standards last year. This year, only 18 percent of the district's fourth-graders passed all five of the tests. Less than half that many passed at Grdina. Despite some significant improvement demonstrated by the school's fourth-graders on all five tests, they were still among the worst performers in the district.

Cleveland teachers, in the court of public opinion, have fared far worse. They were called the "lunatics running the asylum" by Mayor Mike White during the contract negotiations of 1996, and they have been pummeled for collecting good salaries while their students failed. The abuse takes its toll. Every year the district must fill between 500 and 700 teaching positions (out of 6,000), according to the Cleveland Teachers Union.

CTU President Richard DeColibus says teachers provide convenient scapegoats for lagging test scores. "For people who want to privatize education, it is very advantageous to portray us as always failing," he says.

In the fall of 1998, Grdina was identified by a district Academic Intervention Team as 1 of 10 schools needing immediate help. This was not surprising to the teachers there. In an article for Critique, the CTU newspaper, union rep Pamela Hummer recounted how Grdina staff members had been trying to improve the academic landscape at the school for 15 years prior to the team's designation. They eagerly embraced any program that would bring in more resources and mobilize new ideas.

But neither the attendance record nor test scores reflected those efforts. So a group of Grdina teachers spent hours outside of school developing a comprehensive strategy on their own. When they presented their plan to district administrators, however, their request for extra resources to implement it was denied. Even after the school was named to the AIT's academic "hit list" in 1998, the promised help never came.

District Media Relations Director Dan Minnich says that new Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett dismantled the AIT, a creation of the prior administration, after she arrived, and is developing other means to bring about the same end. "I hope the teachers understand that we're still trying to prioritize and address the needs of each of the schools," he says. (Neither Byrd-Bennett nor district spokesman Bill Wendling were available to answer questions for this story.)

In the meantime, the problems of a beleaguered school district still loom large in the classrooms at Anton Grdina, where obstacles to learning afflict so many children. Instructors here know what it's like to teach poor children, transient children, children who fight with their classmates, academically deficient children, children with illiterate parents, children without parents, and children of children. More than that, they know what it's like to teach them in crowded classrooms, without enough chalk or pencils or crayons.

Watching Cleveland teachers at work isn't easy. District officials severely limit media access to classrooms, in this case to just two days, and then only with a district escort, who shadowed the reporter much of the time and turned down a request for greater access, ostensibly because it would be an "intrusion." But the teachers didn't seem to feel that way. Several of them took it upon themselves to invite the reporter back, then spent hours of their own time illuminating the challenges of the job, as well as their motivation for working at one of the most difficult schools in the region.

The teachers' individual attempts to save a failing school system are far removed from Byrd-Bennett, just as Vitakis-Karnavas doesn't know everything her teachers do to marshal Grdina's students into orderly lines for her morning announcements. But behind every line of students are teachers on the front lines of learning, where the real battles are being won or lost. If you want to see how Cleveland's children are faring, take a crash course from the experts.

Cleveland Teachers 101 is now in session.

Lesson One: To stop a child from misbehaving, hold his hand.

Sharon Harris is trying to read Arthur Meets the President to 27 first-graders. The children have just finished some math problems and are supposed to be seating themselves on the mat around her chair. But things aren't going well. Two students are fighting over school supplies. And despite Harris's admonishments, a few others continue to talk loudly and jockey for the best spots to sit.

Harris never gets past the book's title.

Instead of reading on, she makes them all return to their metal desks with the lift-up wooden tops, row by row. This is how Harris has earned a reputation for being "mean." And she assigns homework four nights a week.

"Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Harris," beseeches the little boy nearest her chair. She ignores him.

Finally, he raises his hand.

"Oh, you raised your hand," she says sweetly, turning toward him. "What is it?"

Before he can answer her, a rash of hands shoot up.

This is how 20 minutes can pass on a typical afternoon in Grdina's largest first-grade class. Besides being the mean teacher, Harris has earned another distinction in her 16-year tenure at the school: the martyr. She agrees to take the children with discipline problems. As many, in fact, as she is asked to take.

"The parents request me," she says modestly. Other teachers say she volunteers. Harris usually tries to keep the students she holds back from advancing to second grade, so she can have another chance to reach them. Sometimes, if a child exhibits persistent discipline problems, she'll go to the student's home -- either alone or accompanied by the truant officer, if she fears for her safety -- to speak with a parent in person.

Her motivation? "I feel like I owe the school district something," says Harris, a Cleveland city schools graduate. But her dedication goes beyond simple payback. It borders on true devotion to these children, with whom she both identifies and empathizes. And the students sense it.

"When they grow, I get so excited," she says. "They say I'm so mean, but the next year I can't get rid of them . . . I love my job. I take my work home. I stay late. I can't let it go."

This year's class is bright, she says. They're just overly social. She uses the term "rough around the edges" to describe them in early October. By mid-November, she has identified nine as having serious behavioral problems. These are children who hit other children and steal things in the classroom.

Of all the students, one little girl in Harris's class worries her the most. On the day Harris tries unsuccessfully to read about Arthur, the girl fidgets in her desk in the front row. Her pants hang tight and low around her hips, and she wears a stained T-shirt that creeps up over her belly, even on the rare occasion that she keeps her arms at her sides. She bullies other girls, especially in the cafeteria. And she has started so many altercations in the bathroom that Harris no longer lets her go with the rest of the girls. She must go to the girls' bathroom alone, when Harris takes the boys.

Harris knows the girl is one of the youngest in a large family and doesn't get much attention at home. She also suspects that, along with several other students, the girl may have a learning or behavioral disability, or both. She has referred them for testing, which may result in placement in special education classes.

But there is no telling when that will happen. Some students with suspected disabilities stay in regular classrooms for months or even years before they are tested and placed. In the recent past, the district has jammed students with learning and behavioral disabilities into overcrowded classrooms -- a practice the district agreed to end in October to avoid a legal battle with the Cleveland Teachers Union. Still, the shortage of space and teachers continues to result in long delays.

It's a subject CTU representative Pamela Hummer has belabored with administrators for years.

"These are seriously violent, harmful behaviors the kids do, and they do them all the time," she explains. "They punch and kick other kids. They make threats. They're fighting constantly. They throw chairs. They throw desks . . . They're pulling down the rest of the kids in that class." Minnich admits the district has "no clear answer" to the problem.

Harris's attempt to read Arthur is just one of many activities thwarted by bad behavior. Next on the agenda is a trip to the library. One boy refuses to join the single-file line forming at the door. Instead, he hangs back and seethes over something he doesn't want to share. Harris's tone soon changes from patiently stern to irate.

"I'm going to call your grandfather!" she finally threatens, going for the mobile phone she keeps in her classroom for such occasions.

The boy remains motionless, his mouth locked in a scowl.

"Do you want to go to the principal's office?" Harris asks, giving him one more chance.

His stubbornness hangs on a few seconds longer. Although he's still sour-faced and staring at the floor, his feet begin to move reluctantly toward his now-silent, lined-up classmates, as if his legs have declared mutiny over his will.

The class only makes it as far as the door to the parking lot. Unable to control his anger any longer, the boy bolts down the hall. Another teacher sees him running toward her and grabs the back of his collar. He swings around and whacks her with all the strength in his 50-pound frame.

Now he's really going to the principal's office, where his grandfather will be called. By the time Harris returns to the class, the nicely formed line is now frayed and scattered around the parking lot, despite another teacher's best efforts to salvage it. Harris makes all her students go back inside.

"She's so mean!" a little girl whispers as Harris ushers the children back into the classroom. She looks at the students with grave disappointment, still visibly rattled and frustrated by the hitting incident.

"It happens all the time here," she says despairingly, before gearing up for a second attempt to walk to the library.

On the way there, the pint-sized procession snakes through a dilapidated housing development inhabited by idle men lounging on park benches. The children tread carefully over a playground blanketed with discarded liquor bottles, beer cans, and broken glass. Sometimes a student will point to one of the austere apartment buildings nearby and proudly declare it his home.

Meanwhile, some of the more difficult students try to hold Harris's hand, which she obliges. As long as there is that physical connection, Harris knows she can relax a bit. Her students never misbehave when they're holding her hand.

At the library, Harris calls each child individually to sign his or her name on library card forms, while a video of Arthur plays on the television monitor. His escapades are considerably more intriguing to the class in video than book form. Watching the cartoon Arthur, they are better-behaved than they've been all afternoon.

Lesson Two: If a hurricane hits, keep teaching.

Sitting at one of her fourth-graders' desks, because she's had to convert her own into a storage area, Yolanda Nizer tries explaining what she calls "Anton learning."

It is unconventional and proactive. It can involve pictures, stories, movement, music -- almost any tool that will help a child understand words on a page or an equation on the chalkboard. In Nizer's classroom, it is unceasing.

"You teach no matter what," she explains. "If I see a kid misbehaving in the hall, I'll bring him into my room and make him sit here. One time I saw a roach crawling up a girl's leg, and while I was teaching I told her to brush it off and kill it, and she did. I just kept teaching."

Fourth-grade instructors are under more pressure than any other teachers in the school to get their students to pass proficiency tests. According to state order, by 2002, fourth-graders who do not pass the reading test will not advance to the fifth grade. Although, according to Minnich, test scores do not weigh heavily in teacher evaluations, they do affect principal evaluations. And Nizer believes it's just a matter of time before they start influencing teachers' evaluations as well.

The tests have forced fourth-grade teachers into a kind of "educational triage," says Michael Charney, the CTU's professional issues director. "You put your resources into kids who will pass," explains Charney. "If the issue was student improvement, not just passing, it would be better in terms of teaching all the kids."

Contrary to the incredible faith administrators and legislators have in the tests, both Nizer and another fourth-grade teacher at the school, Ellen Harding, do not believe they accurately reflect what their students have learned. Because teachers have to review so much material that their students should have mastered in the lower grades, the teachers can't spend all the time the students need on fourth-grade material.

"The students don't come ready," Nizer says. "They still write small "I's. They don't write in complete sentences. They don't know addition and subtraction. When you get the scores, they say the students don't do well. But you just don't know how far they've come. We are intense in here from day one . . . [The tests] just make me mad, because I know my kids learn."

In addition to remedial instruction, teachers are expected to get through the entire year's worth of fourth-grade material by the first week in March, when proficiency testing is done. The tests are administered over five days, in grueling two-and-a-half-hour sessions each day. Nizer thinks her students always score lowest in science because it's given on the last day. But she is convinced all her students could pass every one of the state proficiency tests.

If only she had fewer students.

One day in October, nearly 30 children are crammed into Nizer's colorful classroom. It's even more crowded than usual, because a third of another teacher's class is occupying the back corner. (When a Grdina teacher is sick or calls off, the other teachers must often split his or her class among them, because so few substitute teachers are willing to teach at the school.)

Nizer's students are working out a story problem that calls for using multiplication to determine the cost of petunias and snapdragons. While they toil away at their desks, Nizer writes out several ways of solving the problem with different-colored markers on large sheets of paper, which she will later hang up around the room. It's a vivid technique for demonstrating different approaches to solving the problem, not just memorizing how it's done.

Once the hands shoot up, she goes around the room asking for answers.

"How did you get $1.59?" she asks one boy incredulously. "How can you add .59 [per petunia] together 10 times and end up with $1.59? I'm going to go to your store."

She doesn't move on to the next problem until she's certain every student understands how they arrived at the correct answer. It takes much longer with an average class size of 22 than it did last year, when she had only 13 students.

That smaller class size accounted for the percentage of fourth-graders who passed the reading test more than doubling. Today the average class size at Grdina is 25, which reflects the average class size of the district as a whole.

District administrators recently singled out Grdina as a test school for trying out smaller class sizes. Minnich says the logistics are still being worked out, but many teachers here are skeptical. Some classes, such as physical education, are sometimes conducted in the hall, because of space problems. Just how the district will decrease the average class size to 15 in the crowded brick building is anybody's guess.

Teachers would be happy if they could just get the basics once in a while.

For the most part, they buy their own supplies. Some teachers spend up to $2,000 a year on staples such as crayons, pencils, and paper. Then they lock them in cabinets to keep them from being stolen. Teachers even cart containers of liquid soap, which is not provided by the school, back and forth with their students to the lavatories.

"I always have enough supplies, because I buy them," says Nizer. "I bought my own copy machine at home. I buy notebooks, ditto paper. I can't worry about what the board is going to provide to me because, no matter what, when these children get out of the fourth grade, they have to know how to write."

It's the same spirit that keeps Nizer motivated to teach the fourth grade at Grdina, despite all its pressures. Laughing, she turns to her colleague, Harding, and asks the question assuredly, preparing to share with the naive public a bit of their unspoken knowledge:

"Can't you teach with a hurricane in your room?"

Lesson Three: Don't let children make guns in school.

It's only the seventh day for Pamela Hummer's preschoolers, and most of the four-year-olds putter through the morning routine dazed and listless. By 9 a.m. the class has already worked on its numbers and recited the days of the week. The child chosen to move the arrow on the "weather wheel" has some trouble projecting the forecast, because almost all the windows in the classroom are boarded up or shaded. With Hummer's help, he finally places it on "cloudy."

The children fidget, and their attention drifts. Hummer has to bring them back with her melodic voice and gentle directives. They beam when she picks them individually to perform certain tasks. But nothing is so much of a hit as the morning song.

Its muffled lyrics blare from an antiquated record player that looks as if it probably weighs twice as much as the average preschooler. Even though the words are garbled, the children smile and sway to the scratchy music, rocking back and forth on the floor mat.

Hummer works with children she classifies as "needing help getting ready for school." To enroll, they need birth certificates, immunization records, and physical exams, and must take a two-part test measuring basic skills and cognitive abilities. Children with the lowest scores get chosen first. In one year, most go from being behind their peers to outperforming them.

"My kids become the student leaders in kindergarten," Hummer boasts. "The kindergarten teachers usually fight to get students from Child Development, because they've already been socialized and adjusted."

Even after 24 years as a teacher, Hummer still loves to watch her preschoolers' progress. It's easy to see it in children so young. At this age, there's still a chance, she says, to interest them in learning, no matter what problems they face at home and in their neighborhoods.

Because the program is optional, Hummer usually enjoys great parental involvement, the lack of which is regularly cited by teachers as one of the most serious detriments to child learning. Even when her students move on to kindergarten and subsequent grades, parents still stop by Hummer's classroom to give her updates, lobby to get another child in her class, or just say hello.

Hummer is also the envy of other teachers because she has a small class of 11 students and an educational aide, Maxine Dean. Teachers of other grades have nearly three times as many children and no aide.

About an hour before lunch, the quiet, well-behaved children of the early morning suddenly become excitable and unruly. Hummer refocuses them with a story about Clifford the dog, which is interrupted by a young, skinny, disheveled woman who enters the classroom with three children in tow. She is more than an hour late dropping off her son, but Hummer welcomes him earnestly, urging the boy -- wearing a raggedy coat with a torn sleeve -- to take a seat on the mat with the other children. The interruption seems to jar the children's attention. One girl, who mentioned earlier that her feet hurt, keeps interrupting Hummer's reading.

Hummer removes the girl's shoes, which she has outgrown. It's been a difficult day for the four-year-old. Dean recalls how the girl carried on earlier when her father dropped her off at school.

"She didn't want him to leave. She doesn't see him much," says Dean, who then adds, "You see so much here it makes you want to cry."

Reading is followed by coloring, to develop small motor skills. Then comes the most challenging time of the day for Hummer and Dean: free time. The children burst like meteors throughout the room. The neatly arranged learning toys and games are removed from their shelves and dumped on tables, chairs, and the floor. The shoeless girl, a deceptively cute tyke wearing overalls that are too big for her and a straining ponytail, seems particularly bent on testing Hummer's patience. She hops around the room, steals a classmate's pumpkin coloring, removes toys from their assigned spots, and refuses to put them away. When she sees Hummer coming toward her, she laughs and runs like lightning. To her, it's all a game. Catch me if you can.

Grabbing a bucket of rubber bands from another child, she stuffs a handful in her mouth, then dumps them on the table.

"You scored!" she yells inexplicably.

"Two older brothers," Hummer explains, slightly out of breath. She recognizes the behavior because she's had both of them in class.

In the corner, two boys attack a set of decades-old wooden blocks. One picks a rectangular shape with a small square attached like a handle. He grasps the square part and aims the rectangular part at his friend.

Dean hustles to the corner like a shot.

"We don't make guns," she insists, prying the block from the boy's hand. "You can play with it, but we never make guns in school."

Hummer sighs. She looks ready for a break. No such luck.

Nap time is still hours away.

The Final Score

Are Cleveland teachers winning the battle for better schools?

The answer isn't obvious in a couple days, nor is it as exact as computing a test score. In fact, one could argue that student achievement in Cleveland should have its own set of standards. Many students at Grdina start far behind their counterparts in suburban schools and are lucky to ever catch up. And a test score doesn't determine a child's future nearly as much as it indicates a demonstrated willingness to learn. For a student who comes to kindergarten not knowing his own last name, a better measure might be the diligence with which he writes his full name next to the "X" on his very first library card.

Still, dedicated professionals like Hummer, Nizer, Harding, and Harris offer an optimistic answer to another big question: Yes, all students can learn in the Cleveland public schools -- provided they're given a fair chance in terms of a proper classroom setting and adequate resources.

They've already got the teachers.

Jacqueline Marino can be reached at [email protected].

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