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Switching gears entirely, as I am wont to do, I’m excited to tell you all about a project I’m working on with the teachers at Fairfax. I’m not just sharing this because I find it interesting (and hope you do too), but because I’m hoping for active engagement from people both near and far.

The original Fairfax School, pictured in its historic glory below, opened in the fall of 1915. So this coming school year, our students will dive deeply into 100 years of history, with a special focus on what the school experience was like for young people in each decade.  Each month will be dedicated to one decade, with the first and last months covering fifteen years instead of ten (there’s only so much time our kids are in school, after all). It’ll be somewhat (okay, very) tricky to fit all of this in given the extreme expectations placed on our students and teachers in terms of Common Core content they need to master, but we’ll do our best to align the components of this project with the various learning objectives they’re already required to cover.

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The younger students will focus on concrete things, like what students wore to school, how they got there, how/what/where they ate their lunch and so on. I’m hoping for them to have as many physical artifacts to study as possible, including toys, clothing, and small appliances (cameras, telephones, radios, clocks) from each decade. If you happen to have anything that fits into one of those categories that you’re willing to share, please contact me.

The older students will look at local, national and global issues in each decade, considering how they impacted students’ lives. They’ll also focus on how public education has shifted over time, with desegregation movements both locally and nationally and the inclusion of special needs students. They’ll study technological, scientific and medical advancements, as well as the physical development of our community (hopefully creating a decade-by-decade 3D model of the homes, roads and businesses in the area between Lee, Fairmount, Coventry and Cedar). Any experts on that are welcome!

If you or anyone in your family went to Fairfax School, we’d like to have you come in to be interviewed by students, according to the decades listed below. If you aren’t local, interviews can be conducted via email or phone. For the earliest period (1915 to about 1930), we’ll take anyone willing to share their elementary experience whether they went to Fairfax or not. I already have contact info for two women who graduated from Heights (but not Fairfax) in 1933 and 1936, both willing to participate.

We also want photographs, whether class pictures or candids. We would love to see the inside of the original building as well as pictures of the demolition and construction in the 1970s. (One of my earliest memories is of watching the wrecking ball knock down the original building in 1975 or 76, shortly after we moved to Cleveland from New Hampshire.) We’d also love to hear about the transition from students or staff who attended both buildings. Any other paraphernalia (t-shirts, newsletters, concert programs, yearbooks, school calendars, work samples) that you’re willing to share would be enormously helpful.

Those of you not connected to Fairfax School can participate too. I’m hoping to arrange for a parade of cars from each decade, sometime in the spring (April or May 2016), so if you have a vintage car you’d be willing to drive over, that’d be awesome. If you have any historical expertise, whether focused on Cleveland Heights or on the world, we’d welcome your input, as well as any physical artifacts (or storybooks) that show the ever-shifting face of time.

The community, and especially all alumni, will be invited to a Living Museum celebration at the end of the school year, next June, where students and staff will showcase all they’ve learned over the course of the year. This project should be a meaningful, hands-on way to connect our current students to both history and to the community around them, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to share some of our project with other schools that will reach this milestone in the near future.

Ideas, thoughts, questions, suggestions? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or on Facebook.

September: 1915-29 
October: 1930-39
November: 1940-49
December: 1950-59
January: 1960-69 
February: 1970-79 
March: 1980-89
April: 1990-99
May: 2000-2015
June: Culminating project

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When state report cards get released right in the middle of a school campaign, both sides are bound to seize upon them as proof that their cause is the right one. Well, guess what? State report cards were just released and they prove that our cause is the right one.

Most of the measures on the state report cards have remarkably little to do with what goes on inside a school and much more to do with what goes on outside a school. Study after study has shown that scores on standardized tests (what much of our report card’s grades are based on) do not reflect the quality of a teacher’s teaching or a student’s learning, but instead simply reflect the socioeconomic background of the particular children in that particular district. Look closely at a school’s test scores and you can make an educated guess about how many of those children’s parents went to college and how many of those families are living in poverty. Our local test scores reflect that as well.

The state report card’s only real measure of how much a teacher is teaching in the nine months that he or she has a certain student, and the report card’s only real measure of how much a student is learning in the nine months he or she is enrolled in school, is “Value Added.” (Let me say here that there are many, many other measures of how well a teacher is teaching or a student is learning that aren’t easily quantifiable and therefore not considered on our report cards, but that’s a post for another day.) Value Added means pretty much what it says it means: how much academic value was added to that child’s educational life in the course of that one school year? And the measurement is straightforward: assess a child’s abilities and skills in August or September (how well they can read, what their math skills are, and so on) and then assess again in May or June. This shows one of the few things we can measure that’s actually worth measuring: their academic growth.

Here’s how the Ohio Department of Education describes Value Added: “This is your district’s average progress for its students in math and reading, grades 4-8. It looks at how much each student learns in a year. Did the students get a year’s worth of growth? Did they get more? Did they get less?”

There are four categories on which districts are graded: Overall, Gifted Students, Students Achieving in the Lowest 20th Percentile, and Students with Disabilities. And for the second year in a row, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District earned A’s in every category of value added: A, A, A, A.

This means one thing: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

But how can this be, one might ask, when many of the other test performance measures are low? Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: A 4th grader moves into CH-UH from another district, reading at the first grade level. That child is placed in a small class with a reading specialist to learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years’ worth of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade PARCC test in reading, he will fail (especially because the PARCC uses reading material at one to two grade levels above the grade being tested). And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is also failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s, points out an important truth: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Now, some of the naysayers (we have naysayers, in case you hadn’t noticed) might assume that this Value Added category must not mean much; maybe it’s easy to earn four A’s. I will show you, through comparison with other districts, that it is not. I don’t mean to put these other districts down (I know and love many people whose children go to school in them and they no doubt outperform us in other categories), but such a side-by-side look is necessary to understand that it is not, in fact, easy to earn all A’s in Value Added.

Our neighbors to the south (Shaker) earned D, A, C, C (see the categories listed above to refresh your memory). Someone may say, “Well, their kids are clearly doing too well to begin with to even show that much growth.” But then I would reply, “Look at Solon, who earned B, A, B, A.” Hudson earned A, A, C, A, which is sort of revealing (maybe they don’t have the same kind of experience we do in CH-UH at reaching the lowest achieving kids and helping them grow). Other districts widely believed to be doing a great job educating their community’s children, are (Beachwood earned A, B, B, A — almost as good as Heights). And this is not one of those cases where starting with low scores benefits you (as in, then you have more room to grow); East Cleveland earned F, F, C, C. Two districts that we’re often compared to (Lakewood and Euclid) earned A, D, A, B and A, D, A, A respectively, which shows that CH-UH is doing a noticeably better job meeting the needs of our highest achievers and helping them grow as well.

I don’t honestly believe that levies should become referendums on the performance of school districts, but they very often do. I have seen, time and again, in the comments of the anti-school folks: Where are the results?

Well, here they are. The results show that our teachers are teaching all our students, from the one with disabilities to the one identified as gifted. The results show that all those students are learning, from the one who started at the bottom to the one who started at the top. Now those are what I call results.

Every time a local school issue appears on on the ballot, an army of district parents try to convince the general public that our children are “worth it,” that they “deserve” a publicly funded education. We share all their praise-worthy achievements and announce to everyone who will listen that our local kids placed third out of 37 teams at last weekend’s Robotics competition or that our middle schoolers hold a regional record for victories at the Power of the Pen, or that the Barbershoppers ranked first in the world last year at an a cappella competition. I write blog posts about how “nice” my boys’ peers are and drone on about how much science and math content they’ve learned.

But you know what? This isn’t necessary. Or it shouldn’t be. Of course our kids deserve a publicly funded education. All kids do. Free, appropriate public education is a cornerstone of our modern democracy and we cannot raise productive, engaged citizens without it. We cannot come close to claiming to be a land of opportunity if there is no opportunity.

Here’s the deal: Our local school district is asking for voter approval of a 5.9-mill operating levy in less than a week and I happen to be one of the chairs of that campaign. And I’m sick of trying to convince people that our community’s children, even those who are poor, even those who are black, even those who might seem disengaged or irresponsible, are worth their support and their tax dollars. In my opinion, that support should be automatic.

Let me explain a little about the wonder of House Bill 920. I know, a blog that covers childhood cancer and now the nuances of school funding in Ohio . . . what a way to build a following! But bear with me a bit because it’s actually fascinating, in a hard-to-believe-that-could-possibly-be-true kind of way.

In 1976, at the height of rising inflation, the Ohio General Assembly passed HB920, which froze all tax revenue going to schools (and public libraries, but not city or county governments) at their 1976 levels. Not at a percentage or a rate, but at the actual dollar amount. The only way to increase that incrementally is with voter approval of new operating levies. I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect any district anywhere to provide an education in 2015 with the same amount of money they had in 1976.

But even when levies are passed, the need for additional levies never goes away. The state has cut $2 million in funding to our district in the past few years, not to mention what we lose due to foreclosures or reduced collections on property taxes, or the nearly $1 million going from our district’s budget to charter schools this year (including those that are completely disreputable and only out to make a profit) and more money still to fund vouchers. What all this means is that the district has LESS money with which to operate than it did when our community passed the last operating levy in 2011.

The money this levy would generate wouldn’t lead to raises (aside from agreed-upon step increases for teachers) or anything new; it would simply allow us to maintain. Because districts are legally required to balance their budgets, ours would have to cut $6 million if the levy doesn’t pass. That would undoubtedly impact every aspect of the district, from classroom teachers and programming to administration. That’s not an empty threat as a campaign tactic; it’s our duty and responsibility to tell people honestly what will happen if this fails. Another sad truth is that if this fails, the need for money will not go away and the district will have to come back again and ask for approval of a new levy. Again, not a threat, but a fact.

There has been much talk lately about administrative costs and I truly hope people will read this section carefully because it’s important that we all understand what we’re talking about when we say those words. The Ohio Department of Education requires districts to categorize all certified staff who don’t provide direct classroom instruction to students as “administrators.” This means that the salaries of our social workers, counselors and psychologists all fall under “administrative costs.” Do we spend more than most in this area? Yes, because we are doing an excellent job meeting the varied and complex needs of our largely impoverished student body. In addition to the “typical” social and emotional issues social workers help students with, ours also ensure that our district’s homeless students have daily transportation from their temporary shelters to their home school buildings. Or that the child who can’t see the board but can’t afford glasses gets in touch with the right agency who can provide them. Or that our young mothers access the services they need to stay in school and graduate.

The counselor in my sons’ elementary school hosts a lunchtime book group for students struggling with social issues. She organizes the Girls on the Run program for our 3rd through 5th grade girls who need both extra physical activity and a way to build self-confidence. She manages the Peer Mediators who help find peaceful resolutions to conflicts during recess. She attends every single IEP meeting for the many students in our building with special physical, emotional or learning needs and is constantly working directly with students, either individually or in small groups, all day every day and often well into the evening. Our social workers and counselors work tirelessly to ensure that all students and their families have access to shelter, food, electricity, running water, medical care and clothing so they can come to school ready to learn. This is not what you may envision when you hear the word “administrator.” They’re not sitting in some fancy corner office with their feet up on a desk (not that our actual administrators are doing that either, of course!).

Another piece of the administrative costs puzzle requires just a quick explanation: For the last year for which the ODE published data, our district’s teachers asked that their salaries be spread out over twelve months instead of the usual ten, but those final two months happened to be in the next fiscal year. This was a one-time recording issue, but it makes it look like the district spent one-sixth less on instruction than it actually did.

The other complaint that we frequently hear is that our taxes are too high (even when they’re offset by affordable housing). It helps to understand some of the historic reasons behind our local tax structure. The very things that make our community special also mean that we pay more in property taxes. Years ago, residents fought against the construction of freeway exits both where the Shaker Lakes Nature Center now sits and where the Cedar Lee Theater is. I’m glad to not live near a freeway (except when I need to get to one, of course!) or the industrial parks and chain restaurants that inevitably pop up around them. I’m glad to live in a neighborhood that values its small, independently owned businesses and green spaces. But, without a large commercial or industrial tax base, a heavier burden is placed on the shoulders of individual homeowners. This is unfortunate, but it’s also reality. We must keep our community strong and we can’t do that without strong schools. And strong schools require basic operating funds.

Please join me on Tuesday, May 5th in voting FOR our children, our schools and our community.

There’s something about your own kid growing up that makes it feel unique to you, as if no one else has ever had the surreal experience of watching their child — the one they’d rocked to sleep and pushed on a swing — suddenly morph into a tween or a teen or (horror of horrors) an actual adult.

I’m feeling that way with Braedan right now, as we look ahead to his 5th grade promotion ceremony, a mere six weeks away. From this little critter, so eager to walk to his first day of kindergarten . . .

First day

September 2009

. . . to the mature and confident (and sports and tech-obsessed) eleven-year old he’s become.

I am so glad he’s spent this six-year journey of growth and discovery at Fairfax School. I’m one of those parents who doesn’t actually think you should shop around for schools. Might sounds strange coming from a former teacher, in a world where all good parents search through every possible option to pick the very best for each individual child. I had fleeting moments of guilt, in those early days, for not putting more effort or thought into it. But I tend to think, unless something’s seriously wrong, you just attend your local neighborhood public school and take what comes. That’s what most parents did in my day. All the kids on the block, with the exception of a few Catholic families, simply went to their public school.

Now there are state rankings and test scores and data to pour over, tours and interviews and “educational philosophies” to consider. Like so much of modern parenting, picking a school for a five-year old requires an advanced degree. And causes undue stress, because no option out there is ever going to be perfect and yet our kids will still be okay.

In our case, we signed Braedan up for the one we could walk down the street to and that was that. He hasn’t always been thrilled with school, he had one year in particular that was less than stellar. But it helped him grow, it taught him he could be resilient and thrive in any environment. And taken as a whole, especially from this reminiscent vantage point, Braedan’s elementary experience has been wonderful. He’s had teachers he loves who he knows love him back. He’s learned an extraordinary amount (way more than I learned when I was a student in the same building). He’s had the chance to enroll in after-school activities that range from drama and racquetball to cycling and skiing. He’s done things few elementary kids have the opportunity to do, like sing on the stage at Severance Hall or spend three nights in the Cuyahoga Valley with his classmates exploring the great outdoors.

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And his friends. Well, being that he’s a very social creature (understatement), his friends have been the highlight of it all. And he is friends with everybody. Especially this year, with his grade so deeply connected by their role as building leaders and their shared history, I can think of very very few children he wouldn’t call friends.

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I’ve watched him rally his schoolmates around causes he believes in, like Purple for Becca Day or St. Baldrick’s. In kindergarten he was the lone shavee in that building. By second grade, he had a few friends alongside him. This year. . . take a look.

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More than anything else, I’m so happy that he and Austin both attend school in a building and in a district where there is such a high premium on nice. That’s the biggest difference I see between the Heights schools I attended in the 70s and 80s and the Heights schools of today (I guess Heights has changed, after all). I don’t think we were particularly cruel or anything, but we were much more concerned with being cool than with being nice, even by 5th grade. Kindness and tolerance and acceptance are now celebrated and honored from kindergarten through 12th grade. Of course, this isn’t the case for every single child every single day across the board (they are human). But when I hear from parents who’ve moved their kids from local private and parochial schools into Heights schools (and especially into Heights High), one of the things they rave about the most is how nice their children’s peers are.

I’m so proud of Braedan for all he’s accomplished in his first six years of schooling. And I’m so excited for all the incredible opportunities that lie before him as he moves into Roxboro and eventually Heights.

But I still can’t believe that this little LeBraedan is actually growing up . . .

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If you live in the Heights, you’ve surely heard a lot about Reaching Musical Heights in the past twenty-four hours. And with all good reason. Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of attending this every-four-years event where 500 4th through 12th grade vocal and instrumental musicians from all the CHUH schools performed on the world-renowned Severance Hall stage. Each time I’ve gone to this show, I’ve been blown away by the dedication, passion and talent of our district’s young people and by the commitment, hard work and willingness to collaborate of our district’s teachers. This year was no different.

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There were many highlights, including watching Braedan and his elementary peers sing an adorable rendition of “Jump, Jive and Wail,” complete with a backward-leaning shoulder shimmy. But what really impressed me — and what was different from past RMH events — was the powerful and unanimous message sent from our music teachers. As the various groups moved about the stage between numbers, the teachers and Reaching Heights staff took the microphone to introduce songs and thank guests and ostensibly kill time while chairs and music stands were (noisily) shifted into place and students (quietly) filed in and out of risers. But this year, their speeches weren’t just time-fillers. They were heartfelt messages, poignant pleas to the audience members to 1) Continue to support — nay, to demand— strong arts and music programming for every child at every grade level in our schools (yes, please); 2) Take a firm stand against the excessive over-testing of our youth and the narrowing of the curriculum that inevitably attends such a short-sighted focus (yes, please!); and 3) Keep our community strong by protecting our Heights schools and approving necessary school levies (YES, PLEASE!).

Oh, I suppose there might have been some (a few?, this is the Heights we’re talking about) people in the audience who were there solely to listen to the music and didn’t want to hear anyone’s political agenda. But the reality is, there will be no music to listen to if we don’t do those three things. Our schools and our teachers and our children are under attack by forces so much larger (and so much better funded) than any of us would have dared to imagine just a few years ago. This is a dangerous time for public education, not just here where our schools have been long misunderstood and underestimated, but everywhere.

So, you know what we do? We stand up, together on a stage usually graced by world class musicians, and we sing and we play and we make beautiful music. And we do it together. In a way that says, loud and proud, “This is Tiger Nation.”

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One of my favorite moments was when 2012 graduate Geoffrey Golden, the recent winner of BET’s Sunday’s Best (“the gospel version of American Idol”) joined the current students on stage. He spoke of how meaningful and formative his early years in district music programs were, of overcoming adversity and not quitting after his first failed attempt at making it on the show, and of how necessary and important music and arts programs are to keeping kids fully engaged in school. This is a young man who you might assume would try to turn his obvious musical talent into a lucrative career, but is instead an econ major at Morehouse. Economics? Ha, I love that.

After he spoke, he accompanied the gospel choir on piano and then sang a rousing rendition of, well, let’s be honest here, I don’t know squat about gospel music, but he was damn good. As he backed off the stage to thunderous applause, he shouted something twice into the microphone. People were cheering wildly and I couldn’t hear a word he said, but was told by Dallas sitting behind me: “Your work is not in vain.”

And that, right there, those six little words, meant everything to me. This was a message to parents, who do more for their children than their children will ever realize, and who do it quietly and without seeking recognition. Your work is not in vain.  And a message for teachers, now blamed by conventional wisdom for all of society’s failings, who labor and love and bend over backwards for the students in their care. Your work is not in vain. And for those of us who do the volunteer work, the thankless PTA tasks and the equally thankless and sometimes reviled levy campaigning. Our work is not in vain.

We cannot give up on this, we cannot quit, even when the tide seems to turn dangerously against us. Even when public opinion is hell bent on using illegitimate test scores to measure our collective worth. Test scores that fail to adequately measure the quality of our teachers and the quality of our students. And that certainly — certainly! — don’t measure the quality of our music programs (among the best in the nation — why doesn’t that generate newspaper headlines, why doesn’t that count for getting kids “career ready”?).

I’ve closed out both of the two recent Heights Coalition for Public Education forums with the same words, the last in a list of ten action steps, and I think they bear repeating:

Stay. Stay engaged, stay informed, stay involved. Stay in our communities, stay in our public schools. These institutions are the cornerstones of our democracy. Moving away, pulling out, or otherwise giving up will not make these problems go away. Work with us to overcome the challenges and to celebrate our successes. Stay, stay, stay.

Your work, our work, is not in vain.

My, what a difference four years can make. Last night was the fabulous Fairfax Cabaret, an every other year talent show that takes place on the high school stage. There’s a full stage crew, spotlights, headset microphones and all the accoutrements of a professional production. And it is so much fun, with everything from piano and violin solos to groups of girls singing and swaying to Beyonce. It is, at its essence, classic Cleveland Heights, capturing all that we love about our school and our district.

Because it’s only every other year (just too much darn work for the PTA to do each year), we’ve only been to two prior to this one. And the first, held in January 2010, was quite a different experience for us. Braedan was in kindergarten, Austin was in treatment, and I was understandably absent from all volunteer activities at school. On this rare occasion, we left a severely immuno-compromised Austin home with a sitter so Mark and I could take Braedan to the big event. It was the end of a horrible week, in which Austin’s mediport had failed during our week of in-patient chemo and he’d had a surprise mediport-repair surgery (“Surprise!”) scheduled mere minutes after he consumed two grapes for breakfast (two grapes!), rendering him unable to be anesthesized for a full and excruciating eight hours. That particular surgery, which was supposed to be “quick” and after which we expected to go home, was instead long and unsuccessful and left Little A with a PICC line instead of a mediport and left the two of us in the hospital for yet another night. We were on edge, exhausted and beat down, by the time we arrived at the high school for the next night’s festivities. I don’t remember much about that particular show, aside from multiple tear-filled conversations with people who innocently asked me how Austin was doing.

But all of this is beside the point, or maybe it is exactly the point, because last night, four short (and very, very long) years later, Austin was up on stage doing this. He’s the first one to somersault toward stage left (your right) and is in the far right of your screen for most of the performance (or the front of the right line of dancers). Click the HD button in the bottom of the screen to get a clearer version.

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And of course, we cannot let this review of the night go by without highlighting the brave and confident and funny and super cool Braedan, in his Cabaret jammies:

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And now I can confidently look ahead to Cabaret 2016 and Cabaret 2018 and all the years after that.

I’ve been thanked a lot in the past 48 hours. By my kids’ teachers and the parents of their classmates, by friends, neighbors, fellow Heights grads who’ve since moved many states away, random people I had no idea were in favor of this issue. And while all that feels good, the thanks really go out to you. To every person who dropped lit, toured the high school, made a phone call, forwarded an email, donated money, displayed a yard sign, read our words, listened to our stories and came out to vote yes on Tuesday. I thank you.

This unprecedented victory (truly: I do not remember a time when a school issue has passed in this community with 59% of the vote) has taken the work of many dedicated individuals and groups, and the trust and faith of thousands, and it means so very much. I am proud, I am thrilled and I am exhausted. There’s a part of me that wishes we never had to run this sort of campaign again. That the state legislature would take up an issue they’ve ignored for far too long and finally, once and for all, fix the way we fund our schools. I wish we could take the energy, dollars and endless hours people put into these campaigns and instead direct it to the schools themselves: fund a field trip (or several) with those donations, turn the hours of lit dropping into hours reading with kindergartners, use our passion in productive ways right in our own buildings. But that’s not how this works, unfortunately, and in a find-the-silver-lining sort of way, we’re lucky for it.

We are lucky to spend two months every couple of years pounding the streets in support of our community’s children and they are lucky to see it. We are lucky to engage in meaningful conversations with so many people, friend and foe, and to make new connections and new friendships in the process.  We are lucky to read and hear the words of praise that so many of our peers have to offer our district’s students and teachers. While there is incredible contention around every school bond issue or levy, there are also many moments of unequivocal celebration of our schools. For me personally, it means so much to hear from my neighbors and friends with children in private and parochial schools, to have them ask for yard signs or hear them say that they always believe that public schools should be a strong option. It means so much to meet the parent leaders at other buildings and have us work together toward a common goal.  It means so much to see Facebook friends in Indiana and New Jersey changing their profile pictures and updating their statuses in favor of Tiger Nation. It means so much to connect with elected officials and candidates on a shared vision.

There are many lessons to be taken from this victory, not the least of which is that residents seem to want their leaders to work with their schools, not against them. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the top two vote-getters in the Cleveland Heights City Council race were the two who endorsed and campaigned for Issue 81. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the solitary candidate in University Heights supporting this issue garnered the most votes from that city. The time is now for the two cities to come together and make us all stronger by engaging with and supporting our public schools. The citizens want that. The citizens need that.

There is much work to be done (and I’ll be writing about some of that soon). We have many difficult decisions ahead of us as we guide our leaders and especially our students through the upcoming plans and transitions. But for now, for today, I feel only lucky.

And I thank you.

This will be the final installment in my Why You Should Vote FOR Issue 81 series, followed — I hope! — by tomorrow’s Thank You message. I had a couple other posts drafted in my mind but Halloween and pumpkin carving, muffin baking, costume crafting followed by Mark’s birthday complete with a party got in the way.

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But I do feel like this campaign has covered every base we can think of, and I hope we have no regrets when those ballots are counted tomorrow evening. So, without further ado, my final plea:

In my last post, I wrote so much about the responsibility our school district has in educating poor children that it almost sounded like they are our only audience. Indeed, they are not. Our schools serve many children from highly educated, professional middle and upper middle class families. And they do it well.

The very thing that is our district’s greatest challenge is also its greatest strength: the extremely diverse range of backgrounds, cultures, abilities, needs, values, educational levels, priorities and perspectives of our students and their families. We are not just one thing to one group, pigeon-holed as a poor urban district or an affluent suburban one. We are a little of this and a little of that. And while that is difficult and expensive, it is also incredibly valuable. For every special ed teacher and guidance counselor, social worker, intervention program, or night school for teen moms, there is also an advanced science and math class, foreign languages starting in kindergarten, award-winning vocal and instrumental music programs, Power of the Pen, Model U.N., courses for college credit, and extra enrichment programming. And kids from all backgrounds participate in and benefit from those wide and varying opportunities. And it is this rich diversity, this microcosm of real world problems, challenges and achievements, that make our district so unique.

I am proud to send my children to these schools and I am proud to do it as a choice. I know many others who could afford to send their kids elsewhere but don’t because they know that they’re getting all they need and then some in CH-UH. I know families who have pulled their children out of the area’s most prestigious private schools precisely to access the academic rigor they’ve only found in the Heights Schools. Our district’s graduates go on to the nation’s top tier universities, state schools and community colleges. Some move straight into trades and others join the military. Some become or are already parents. These students represent the broad and varied world in which we live. And our schools are working hard every day to prepare them for it.

I sometimes wish the discussions around this bond issue focused solely on the physical realities of our buildings. But the conversations have veered, as they so often do, into the realm of what our children deserve. “Our” children, “their” children, “those” children. Blame has been placed on the shoulders of kids and especially teens who don’t always behave the way we want them to. I actually saw a comment on someone’s Facebook page that suggested that the district construct new buildings for the kids who “want to learn,” and use a GPA cut-off point to determine who gets to move into them and who has to stay behind. “Let the others earn their way to the nice stuff by improving their GPA in the existing spaces,” this woman said. And, because she just couldn’t help herself, she added, “They’ll only destroy the nice stuff anyway.”

Wow. Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be?

Let me tell you something about my own kids, who happen to be high achieving and well-behaved elementary students. If left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they would sit on the couch and play video games all day. They’re not hard-wired with some “want to learn” gene. They do their homework and practice their instruments because I make them! Because my husband and I model responsible behaviors every single day and have since they were born. Someday, by the time they’re in high school, I imagine they’ll be self-motivated and self-regulated enough to do what’s right without being told. But if and when they get there, it will only be because we laid the foundation here at home.

There are plenty of kids without that. Who are essentially going it alone, without the guidance or role models that are inextricably linked with success. Some of these kids will find something deep inside themselves and will thrive against all odds.  Others will squeak by, doing just the bare minimum. And some will be disruptive and even destructive, fighting back against a world that has always seemed unfair to them.

Leaving those kids in classrooms that are swelteringly hot, with leaky ceilings and moldy locker rooms, while waiting for them to “prove” themselves, is not the answer.

I believe that my two sons deserve physical spaces that are inspiring, comfortable, safe and healthy. I believe that they shouldn’t be subjected to wild swings of temperature or rusted, leaking roofs or over-stretched mechanical and electrical systems that are costing all of us way too much to maintain. I believe they deserve state-of-the-art science labs and modern technology, access to the best athletic, musical and performance spaces, and buildings they can be proud of. And I believe that the kid sitting next to them in class, the one whose mom works three low-wage jobs and may not have time to read to him or ensure his homework is completed, deserves the same kind of spaces. And even the kid next to that one, you know that kid? The one whose mother failed to show up at her scheduled conference — again — because she didn’t bother to read the reminder that came home because she doesn’t bother to read anything that comes home … I believe that kid deserves the best kind of spaces in which to learn. If we’re gonna make this issue about who deserves what, about how we value our children and the children of those around us, then so be it. I value all of them. Even the ones who are failing. Even the ones who screw up. And I believe that they all deserve safe, healthy, inspiring, comfortable and, yes, beautiful school buildings.

That’s why I will vote FOR Issue 81 tomorrow. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me.

You know I’m still here and I’m gonna keep posting on the Patch too. The naysayers (and that’s an awfully benign term to describe some of these people) are hurtful and nasty and not very smart-sounding and I’m trying hard to ignore them. Not that I’m unwilling to engage in conversation with people who have valid questions or concerns about the issue, but I certainly won’t engage with people like “Michael Schwartz” (who I’ve heard doesn’t even exist, but is simply some cold-hearted coward hiding behind an alias hurling insults). I actually haven’t read any of his comments since the first night, as I know it’ll only enrage me and I would much rather save my energy for this campaign than waste it on him.

So, to you, “my dears,” I say thank you for your support, thanks to those of you who’ve been brave enough to venture onto the barren editor-less wasteland that is the Patch and post your own pro-81 comments (although I strongly advise against addressing the usual suspects in any direct dialogue), and thank you for encouraging me to carry on. Carry on, I will. The opposition is loud, but they are few. We have right on our side and I do indeed believe that we will win this thing.

That being said, here is installment number 4 in my why-we-need-to-pass-Issue-81 series:

Section 8. Yup, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today, the latest in a long line of sub-groups blamed for all society’s ills. If poverty is the third rail of school conversations in this community, as Sam Bell said so beautifully in his piece, then Section 8 is the third rail of poverty conversations. Throughout this campaign, I have heard and seen comments time and again like, “If only our city would stop letting in those Section 8 people,” or “The schools’ problems would go away if we got rid of Section 8 housing.”

And it makes me wonder: Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be? Are we really the type of community that says, “We don’t want you here. Go away and take your problems with you”?  Should we build a wall up to keep the poor people out?

It happens to be illegal for a municipality such as Cleveland Heights to limit or prevent those people using Section 8 housing vouchers to move here or to prevent landlords from accepting them. We are required to allow their residence in our city.  Not only legally, but, in my opinion, morally.

We happen to be an inner-ring suburb, first stop on the way up the ladder out of the urban centers. Families move out of East Cleveland and Cleveland into Cleveland Heights precisely because they know our schools are good. Because we are seen as a land of opportunity, a safer place, a chance for them and their kids to have a better life.

I think this is a good thing. It’s not easy, I know that. We all know there’s a higher rate of crime committed by those living in Section 8 housing than by the rest of the general population; the city’s statistics prove it. But this is our role today. This is, I think, our job. And it may be a burden, as our social service agencies have more and more people in need of the help they provide, and as our schools become the receiving ground for hundreds of children with few of the skills they need to succeed. It means we have to work harder. Not to keep them out, but to bring them up. Our schools have to work harder, designing programs and hiring extra intervention specialists, socials workers, special education teachers, and psychologists to meet the many and varied needs of these children. And we all have to work harder, to adjust our expectations and find ways to learn from and with each other.

Now I realize this sounds very noblesse oblige, let-me-in-my-infinite-middle-class-wisdom-teach-you-how-to-be-a-better-member-of-our-so-called-shared-society, but so be it. I believe that Cleveland Heights and University Heights have a unique opportunity to actually make a difference in people’s lives, to provide their kids with an enriching educational experience and open up the world of opportunities that all children deserve. That is what we do. That is who we are.

Of course, this should have very little to do with the facilities discussion at all. The buildings and their needs should be evaluated separately from the children inside them. But some seem to think that because most of those kids are poor, they somehow deserve less.

And I think that’s bullshit.

This is part three of a multi-part series addressing resident concerns about the upcoming bond issue (Issue 81) to fund facilities renovations in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 here. Please feel free to share any and all of these posts with any undecided friends, family, colleagues or neighbors.

The most upsetting argument I’ve seen against Issue 81 is the claim that our schools are failing. This is frustrating because it ignores the obvious physical needs of our buildings, but also because it simply is not true. The schools are, in my opinion, thriving. Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Here is the reality: Our district serves poor children. This is not an excuse, nor a shift of blame. I happen to be proud that we serve poor children and I think we should all celebrate that fact. But, as research shows, children raised in poverty come to school less ready to learn, already significantly behind their peers on the first day of kindergarten. They often have smaller vocabularies, shorter attention spans and few of the pre-literacy or pre-numeracy skills required for learning to read, write and compute. These problems continue throughout their educational careers, which are often disrupted due to frequent moves in and out of schools and districts.

I am not saying that these children are unable to learn. Absolutely not. But they are expensive to teach. And our district is teaching them. As part of an innovative and transformational educational plan enacted by the administration several years ago, our 1st through 5th graders are now ability-grouped for two-and-a-half hour language arts blocks.  Class sizes range from five to eighteen and include instruction by ELA specialists, who are experts in their field.  This is expensive as it requires additional teachers on staff. But it is effective.

We are only now beginning to see the difference this plan is making, as this year’s third graders are the first to have had this experience since first grade. But even on the elementary test score data from this past year, improvements are noteworthy. Proficiency ratings on reading scores improved from the prior year among 3rd graders. Our district earned four A’s in the Value Added category with reading improvements seen among all sub-groups of students.

Touting that achievement is not an exercise in positive spin. Value Added is about student growth, the most important measurement of successful teaching and learning. Our schools added value to the academic performance of every subgroup of students on which districts are measured except Hispanic Students. This is significant and is the greatest endorsement the district could possibly wish for.

Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: Imagine a 4th grader who moves into a CH-UH school from another district, reading at a first grade level. That child will be placed in a small class with a reading specialist and will learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade Ohio Achievement Test in reading, he will fail. And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s in Value Added, means one thing: the trajectory of student performance is positive.

I would also like to add that the bar by which we are judging our students is constantly being raised. The material I taught my students as a 4th grade teacher at Coventry School a decade ago is the same material my son recently learned in 2nd grade at Fairfax. We are continually asking our teachers to teach more and our students to learn more. And they are doing it.

Is there room for improvement? Of course! And the necessary renovation of Cleveland Heights High, Roxboro Middle and Monticello Middle Schools will not magically make our students perform better on tests, nor will it reduce the number of students we serve who live in poverty.  But it will give all the district’s students the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, in environments that are healthy, comfortable, inspiring and conducive to the best 21st century models of teaching and learning.

I showed my 4th grader a picture of the proposed high school and he said, “Wow, Mom, that looks like a college!” I do not doubt that our district’s children will hold their heads a little higher walking into a physical space that shows they are valued. I value every one of the students in this district, no matter their background or socio-economic class, no matter the actions of their parents, and no matter their test scores. I value them and I will prove that by voting FOR Issue 81 on November 5. I hope you’ll join me.

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