Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cleveland, OH: District-Charter Improvement on a Countdown Clock

This fall, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation named Cleveland as the twenty-first city to participate in its District-Charter Collaboration Compact initiative. Cleveland serves approximately 56,000 students; about 16,000 of them are enrolled in 73 charter schools. While the collaboration between Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and 14 charter partners focuses on similar challenges as other compact cities—low-performing schools, special education services, and facilities use—the city of Cleveland has given the Compact a limited amount of time to make meaningful progress.

CMSD ranks 608th out of 611 Ohio districts in academic performance. Only 13 percent of Cleveland public school students test at proficient level or higher, compared to a national average of 33 percent for other large cities. Less than 65 percent of Cleveland students graduate in four years, 20 percent lower than the Ohio average. Cleveland also struggles to provide support for a large population of public school children living in poverty, as well as a large portion of students (23 percent) requiring special education services. Coupled with steadily declining district enrollment, these statistics have catalyzed a homegrown and collaborative effort to transform all Cleveland public schools.

In 2012, Clevelanders passed HB 525, a four-year property levy to provide millions of dollars in revenue to implement the Cleveland Plan, a portfolio-model initiative that aims to grow high-performing public school choices for families in Cleveland. The newly formed Transformation Alliance is a 29-member body of community, school, and local government representatives tasked with holding schools, regardless of operator, accountable for quality seats. Superintendent Eric Gordon, a coauthor of the Cleveland Plan, has asked the community to hold him accountable for improving Cleveland’s schools by 2016, the end of the levy. As a gesture to this timely accountability, all pages on Cleveland Metropolitan School District's website display a very detailed countdown clock.

In a climate of expedient reform, with a goal for excellence in all schools, Cleveland has embraced district-charter collaboration as a strategy for district improvement. Christine Fowler-Mack, Chief Portfolio Officer, says, “The Cleveland Plan enabled us to have conditions for compact work. The compact goals aligned closely with our broader reform plan which is focused on quality and enhancing conditions for all public school children.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for collaboration work in Cleveland is bringing all vested parties to the negotiating table. With 69 active authorizers in Ohio, including CMSD, education service centers, nonprofits, and a university, it is a challenge for Ohio districts to control charter quality. In addition, Ohio law prevents CMSD from selectively offering district facilities to high-performing charter schools. The district has created a new position within its Portfolio office (executive director of charter schools) to facilitate collaboration work. Stephanie Klupinski has filled this role and is examining the ways 20 other compact cities have engaged in collaboration: “We want to learn from other compact cities and their best practices. While we believe we have been getting intentional and strategic about quality seats, we are eager to learn from these other cities.”