Why Did Students Stage a Walkout at Cleveland School of the Arts?

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SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
On Wednesday, December 2, students at the Cleveland School of the Arts walked out of class to protest an administration they feel is out of touch, and an academic culture they say has changed for the worse since they moved to a new, state-of-the-art, $36.5 million building on the corner of Carnegie Avenue and Stearns Road.

Between 80 and 100 students, primarily upperclassmen, congregated outside the school in the middle of the morning, where they stayed for roughly 30 minutes. Head of School John LePelley was at a meeting at CMSD's East Professional Center, but when he was summoned back to campus, he invited students inside to discuss their concerns in the gym. Or rather, to give him an opportunity to listen.  

In the following days, students contacted Scene to voice their opinions about the walkout, and what led to it.  

"CSA students have been almost begging the administration to make CSA like it was because it has changed a lot," said a sophomore visual arts major. (The students at CSA concentrate in specific artistic disciplines.) "Last year we had fun, we had that family atmosphere, and we felt like the administrators actually cared about us and wanted us to succeed. This year we don't like the new administration because they are strangers in our opinion and most haven't taken an interest in getting to know us."

What percentage of students, Scene asked, were frustrated with the changes at CSA? 

"Ninety percent," the student wrote. "At least. But it's not 'change' that everyone is mad with. It's the family feeling that they have taken away."

A senior who has been at CSA since 6th grade — the school is currently phasing out its middle school grades — wrote Scene to say that the culture had certainly been affected. 

"It pretty much feels like prison to everybody," she said of the new building. "I fell in love with the school as soon as I walked through those doors at Harry E. Davis (CSA's location for the past six years). In our new building, we have the same talented students, same teachers, but just a different system." 

Creative writing teacher Daniel Gray-Kontar, who wrote a piece about his students in the January, 2015 issue of Cleveland Magazine, told Scene that he felt the Cleveland Metropolitan School District wasn't creating an optimal environment for new administrators to succeed. A completely new governing structure, with a Head of School and an assortment of deans — academics, arts, engagement — who were hired immediately before (or after) the school year began created a rushed and confusing environment.

"The changes the students were responding to are bigger than just CSA," said Gray-Kontar in a phone interview. "They're doing exactly what they're supposed to do — taking ownership of their education. If they think that their education is not being provided in ways that will enhance their way of life, they have the absolute right to express that in the best ways that they deem fit, barring anything physically or emotionally harmful."

(For the record, the student "protest" was calm. The students even filed out and back in through the official security at the front desk). 

"What they knew is that they hadn't been heard and they needed to do something to get the district's attention, to get the school administration's attention," Gray-Kontar said. "Simply walking out of class was a stroke of genius. I'm thankful that we have a Head of School who understands the importance of youth voice and engaged dialogue. He gets what that was all about." 

Gray-Kontar said that, as a result of the walkout, John LePelley is working with students and teachers to develop a "delegation" to work with administration on issues related to the curriculum and arts programming. The plan is to have one student from each artistic discipline per grade level — about 40 students, all told. Gray-Kontar called it a "wonderful end game." 

Scene met John LePelley for an interview at the CSA building last week, along with CMSD Communications Chief Roseann Canfora and CSA Director of Student Success Alyssa Porter. We toured the campus and saw many of the students at work in their arts classes: The student orchestra  powered through what sounded like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve Sarajevo." The chorus and the ballet dancers were engaged in vocal warm-ups and barre exercises, respectively. A small group of painters worked with an artist-in-residence on a still-life. Theater students learned about creating a rehearsal schedule. A brass quartet rehearsed a rendition of "Greensleeves" for an upcoming Christmas concert.  

Back at LePelley's office, the Head of School conceded that there had certainly been challenges during this, his first year at CSA. LePelley is 32, and had most recently been the principal at CMSD's William Cullen Bryant Elementary. Previously, he worked as a teacher and administrator at St. Martin de Porres High School. He said he applied for his current position because he is also an artist, and the national search firm was on the lookout for an artist/administrator hybrid (a rare breed indeed). He also grew up in St. Clair-Superior, a mile-and-a-half away from CSA.  

Regarding the incident last week, LePelley told Scene that the students were somewhat disorganized in terms of their cause and aim. It's not like they presented him a bulleted list of demands.

"They walked out during a class change," LePelley said, "so many of the students walked out just because others were doing it and didn't really know why they were there." 

LePelley said one challenge has been turmoil within the senior class. The class officers (along with roughly 10 percent of the student body) spend a significant portion of their day at High Tech, a CMSD school at Tri-C where students can obtain college credit.

"And because the officers are gone for part of the day, many of our seniors are challenged because they feel their voices aren't being heard through their representatives," LePelley said. "This is a lesson learned for us. We just elected junior class officers and made sure that they weren't High Tech students."

But the students Scene talked to seemed far more concerned about communication with the administration, not with their classmates.

"There was an original group who planned to walk out," said LePelley, "and then there were some peripheral groups who had different ideas about what the walkout was about. I think we've learned that 'administration' doesn't mean everybody. And that my job as Head of School is not Principal. Those are two different things. We have a new Board of Trustees, a fundraising group, and I spend much more of my time with them. Part of it is just that we don't have a person called the Principal anymore. And students want to talk to a principal." 
 
LePelley said that the physical design of the building has complicated the dynamic — "It's taking students awhile to even learn where I am" — and that much of the tension is naturally attributable to being in a new space. 

"We're still unpacking boxes, you know?" LePelley said. "It's like moving to a new home and none of the pictures are up. We have tags on some of these chairs still!"

Alyssa Porter said that the walkout was "phenomenal" in the respect that LePelley could communicate directly to students that this is home now, and students have the power to make it feel like home.  

LePelley told the story of when he started at St. Martin's, when the desks arrived on the same day students did, and students had to carry their own desks up to their classrooms. 

"And [President] Rich Clark had a faculty meeting where he said, 'there were two types of people who came in to the new building today: those who were looking for coffee — we didn't have a coffeepot, we didn't think about a coffeepot — and told me that we didn't have a coffeepot. Then there was somebody who brought me a receipt and said 'I bought a coffeepot.' We need people to bring the coffeepot. And I tell that to students. Think about it: If everybody brought the coffeepot, we'd be laughing about the fact that we had 600 coffeepots. But that's the type of solution-oriented community that we want." 


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