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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.

Well, it was a great day for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District in the pages of the trusty Sun Press.  There were eleven well written and passionate letters to the editor in support of the school levy (including two by the mother-daughter team of Nancy and Krissy) and two tired, repetitive letters against. Now if only we could guarantee those same odds on Election Day!

You would think that in the year 2011, it would be easy to access these letters online but I don’t seem able to.  So I’m copying mine below, which was (shockingly) printed in its entirety without one word of editing, despite being 55 words over their limit.  Please please please, if you live in these fine communities, PLEASE vote yes for Issue 6 on November 8.

Dear Editor,

Rita O’Connor’s attack on the Heights Schools is sadly misguided.  She seems to place blame for criminal activity and irresponsible behavior on the shoulders of the school district. It is true that both exist in our communities, as they exist in all inner-ring suburbs. But it is not true, nor even sensible, to think that such problems are the fault of the schools. 

Our district is doing an excellent job educating all of its students, including those whose parents may not meet O’Connor’s approval. The new programs at the Delisle Educational Options Center are helping to ease the transition of students from other districts, notably Cleveland and East Cleveland, so they are better prepared both academically and behaviorally for the high standards of CH-UH.

CH-UH also partners closely with Family Connections to engage parents of “at-risk” kindergarteners, both in the school and in their homes.  Such programs give parents specific skills and opportunities to interact with their young children in ways that promote early literacy.

But even with the district’s carefully planned interventions, there are and will continue to be students from families who, in O’Connor’s words, have “no idea how to support a child and no idea how to live responsible lives.” Many of these children, despite facing enormous obstacles, are excellent students. Sadly, O’Connor’s solution is to cut them off: We don’t like their parents’ behavior and therefore we shouldn’t offer them a high quality education   .

Nothing could be more short-sighted, or more reprehensible. Children from troubled backgrounds are punished for the mistakes of their parents every single day. A just and caring society would wrap their arms around these kids and give them the very best opportunities, even when it’s expensive, both to prevent the cycle of poverty from spiraling forward and because it is simply the right thing to do.

One of the best things about CH-UH is its commitment to every student who walks through its doors. This is not a “bad” district because it pours money and energy into educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Quite the opposite, in fact. That is one of the things that makes it great.

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