Eric Gordon doesn't mince words about the district's success in educating its 47,000 students: "We do not believe we've accomplished the goal of educating every child." That acknowledgement is the starting point for the transformation district CEO Eugene Sanders announced on January 5. One radical change would be a larger role for charter schools, known as community schools in Ohio. Currently, almost 16,000 Cleveland kids attend charter schools. — Afi Scruggs
Q: Converting district schools to charters is a main component of the transformation plan. Why the conversion?
A: Our strategy is to ensure that we don't leave any opportunity to make sure our schools are successful for our families off the table. So, if there is a high-quality charter school that can do the work where we are not being successful, it's not the only strategy we would use, but we don't want to say we're the only people that can get this done, when there's evidence that there are highly effective charter schools that also can.
Q: How are you defining highly effective charters?
A: They have strong academic ratings; they're rated Effective or Excellent. We also want to look at the attrition rate. When students enroll in those schools, do they tend to stay? Does the population start large at maybe the third grade, but by the fifth grade there's only a third of the kids left in the program? Do they serve all children; do they serve a socio-economically diverse community; do they serve special-needs children? Those kinds of characteristics that — working with the students we serve — would be likely to get continued success.
Q: In reporting this story, I looked at the test scores for random public and charter schools. I didn't see much difference. Is one of the challenges the student population itself?
A: No. This is an adult problem, not a student problem. It's our responsibility as educators to find the right strategies to effectively teach the children of our district. Clearly, we have not been able to find those strategies for a number of kids using traditional methods. That's why the transformation plan was created. That's why we've been so clear that it is an adult reform plan, and not that we have broken kids who can't be taught. That's not the notion at all.
Q: How much of a debt, if any, does this plan owe to Chicago's Renaissance 2010 plan? I saw several similarities.
A: We didn't actually look at Chicago's plan in any more depth than we did others around the nation. We did try to make sure that our plan was based on best practices across the country. We looked at Chicago. We looked at Denver. We looked at Seattle and at Atlanta, which has showed tremendous growth in the last three years. We looked at Washington, D.C. We looked at Dallas, Pittsburgh. We tried to cast our net wide to see what are the best practices across the nation for really reforming urban school districts. I'm sure there are parts that are similar to the Chicago plan, but not that we looked at them in particular.
Q: If an outside company manages schools, what happens to local governance? How does an educational management organization answer to a school board?
A: [Charter] schools in Ohio are governed by school boards. It would not be governed by our school board. Instead, it is governed by its own school board, just like it was its own school district.
Q: You're going to repurpose several schools and that's going to be a rolling plan. In that case, wouldn't you effectively have two school systems: one that is district-sponsored, but managed by somebody else; and another one where the school board would actually oversee certain buildings?
A: Well, it is two different ways of functioning, but I don't think that it implies two different tiers. As the sponsor, [our board of education] would still maintain the authority to renew the contracts of the [charter] schools. If those schools don't meet our expectations, our board would be able to end those contracts. It doesn't mean that we would have a two-tiered system, which I would say is one of the problems of the Chicago model, frankly. They have a lot of schools that perform very, very well, and another tier of schools that perform very poorly. Our goal is to make sure that every school is performing at Continuous Improvement or higher.
Q: What is it about charter or community schools that the district couldn't do itself if it changed its policies or procedures? Why would you want to give an outside company control of a school?
A: If there's somebody who is getting it done and can do it right now, we need 100 percent of pupils to be at Continuous Improvement or higher. And we have eight, nine, ten years of attempting to do that and have not successfully met those goals. If we can identify partners that are able to meet those goals, then we can't in good conscious ignore those partners and continue to try on our own.
Q: Let me ask a blunt question: In those repurposed schools, when you're bringing in outside partners, are you admitting "The district tried and we failed"?
A: Oh, I think we've been very clear. We do not believe we've accomplished the goal of educating every child. We have failed to make sure that every child in Cleveland has the education they deserved.
Q: In the plan, it said that the district would be looking at "proven national models." What are some of the national models? If you're looking at specific companies, what companies or educational management organizations are you looking at bringing in?
A: At the high-school level, we're looking at the Talent Development Academy, out of Johns Hopkins University. We're looking at a model called New Tech out of California. It's a project-based learning strategy that assures that kids are actively engaged in their work. We're looking at Facing History, a model out of New York City. They have gotten the kinds of achievement gains that we're expecting to see in Cleveland. We also have models we have created that are proven to work. Baltimore City Schools just visited our MC2STEM High School because that school is achieving its goal of at least Continuous Improvement on the rating system.
Q: At the end of the next school year, what do you want to see? Do you have a benchmark?
A: We're working on those at the district level. We've outlined where we want to be in five years, and now we're looking at what are the steps we need to take to ensure we'll get there year by year. We already have detailed planning at each school about their improvement goals for the year, and that wouldn't change. In the past, if schools didn't meet those goals, we revised our planning. Now, if schools consistently don't meet their goals, we need to implement a different strategy.