Offering innovative choices to students and families is at the heart of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District's Academic Transformation Plan. Spearheaded by Chief Executive Officer Eugene Sanders, the Whatever it Takes blueprint offers what he calls "a gamechanging opportunity" for improvement through academic and non-academic strategies.
Sanders, formerly the Toledo superintendent, joined the district four years ago and created a four-tier approach to reform, categorizing schools as 'growth' 're-focus,' 're-purpose,' or 'monitor/closed.' Appropriate actions are taken to correspond with how each school is performing. Growth or high-achieving schools, for example, have the bar raised in terms of state and national curricula while those considered re-purpose schools undergo significant overhauls because of lack of improvement. Dramatic changes include teachers and principals reapplying and comprehensive reviews. Buildings in the final category are analyzed to determine whether closure is the best option.
"We've been aggressive in our review to ensure that we're meeting the best needs of each child," Sanders says. Approximately 75 percent of the district's students are African American, 13 percent are Hispanic, and 12 percent are Caucasian or of other nationalities.
Ohio Report Card
After the first year, the changes enabled the district to secure its highest ever academic ranking, continuous improvement, on the Ohio Department of Education Report Card. Although its latest overall designation (2008-2009) is one step lower, academic watch, Sander cites encouraging data as evidence that CMSD is continuing on an evolving pathway to progress.
In the report, the district is recognized for several achievements. Its Innovation Schools are singled out for high performance, earning excellent or effective rankings and nothing below the continuous improvement designation. These schools include four single gender elementary level facilities and one high school for at-risk boys; and four science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-focused schools including MC?STEM, the only public school located on a Fortune 500 company campus.
"Innovation in public schools is the cornerstone to local competitiveness in the 21st century," Sanders says. "MC?STEM is at the General Electric Building in the city. Kids have the unique opportunity to regularly interact with scientists and engineers."
The Report Card also showed that on average, CMSD students significantly exceeded the state's expectations by learning a full year of content. Notably, 53 of the K8 schools achieved this status, 45 more than last year.
Funds to date for the $70 million reform project have been realized through a combination of federal money awarded through the state, private donations and corporate sponsorships.
Sanders has also instituted what he calls "strategies to reframe the landscape," such as a city-wide dress code with 100 percent compliance, a zero tolerance discipline policy and schools of choice designed to boost student interest.
Chief of Staff Pamela Smith has known Sanders for 30 years and joined his team when he accepted the Cleveland job. She describes him as a "risk taker," who has a "hunger" to see students succeed. "His major strength is his vision," she says. "He has the skills to communicate with others and the charisma to galvanize people to share it."
"Our goal is to become a premier district in the U.S.," Sanders says. "I think we've gone one-third of the way so far. Cleveland is in a renaissance—going from an industry-based city to a technology knowledge- based one. We're on a path of major rebirth and recovery for academic excellence and I'm proud to be on the team supporting that effort."
Susan Gonsalves is a freelance writer based in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.