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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.

Time to move on to the next big thing . . . St. Baldrick’s!

For those of you new to my blog (or for anyone who needs a refresher course in just how awesome people can be), check out these old posts to learn about the incredible St. Baldrick’s Foundation and the even more incredible men, women and children who shave their heads each year to raise money for pediatric cancer research. These are last year’s highlights: The I’m-Actually-Doing-This! Moment, “Great Things,” and Pride. And these are from 2012, the first year we held our own head-shaving event in Cleveland Heights: Noble, Heroes, Thank You, The Petri Dish, and Most of all.

I know, it’s only December (only December?!) but registration opened early this year so our 2014 event is live online and ready for shavees.  We’re booked at the Cleveland Heights Community Center for Sunday, March 16 from 1 to 4pm.  I might make it longer if we have too many shavees (a problem I’m willing to handle!) or perhaps add additional barbers. Whenever you’re ready, get on there and sign up your kids. . . or yourself.  We will again be cutting and donating the hair of girls and women who have at least eight inches of not-color-treated hair to sacrifice (pas moi). That raised an extra $1,500 last year. And I’m really hoping to have teams from more and more schools this year. I know we’ll have a strong Team Fairfax, as well as one from Roxboro and hopefully Heights High and Gesu.  I think Canterbury School will represent this year and maybe we can get Boulevard and Noble in on the action too (hint, hint). Shaker is ready to revive old rivalries as I expect serious teams from both Fernway and Onaway (and if you’re a member of tiger Nation, that should really get you psyched up to shave). There are a couple other exciting additions to our usual crowd of shavees, but I’ll reveal those a bit later.

Leading up to our event in the past, I’ve visited schools during the day and spoken directly to kids in their classes about childhood cancer, St. Baldrick’s and what they can do to get involved. This gets the kids plenty excited, but (being kids) they also tend to gloss over some of the important details and I inevitably get phone calls from confused parents, saying, “Uuuummm, hello? I was told to call you. My son says he wants to shave his head and I’m, like, okay with that, but I have no idea what for….” So this year, I think I should cut out the middle man/middle child and speak directly to the parents. If you have an interested group or even just a potentially interested group at your school, contact me and we’ll try to plan for me to attend a January or early February PTA meeting.

I’ve decided to go big and bold this year and raise our event goal to $60,000. The first year we made $37, 271 and last year $45,030, but I’ve had enough of this slow inching upward and am confident that this is our year. Heck, I think we could make $75,000 if we really got enough kids involved, but I don’t want to stress myself out trying to reach that goal. Each of the past two years, I’ve felt a surging panic in the weeks prior to the event, certain that everyone’s forgotten us, that they’re “over” childhood cancer and there’s no way we’ll reach our stated goal. And then the last week arrives and, with it, at least one thousand dollars in donations per day. We surpassed our goals in both 2012 and ’13, so I don’t see why we won’t carry on that tradition in 2014.

St. Baldrick’s is a fun and playful celebration, a beautiful way for people, young and old, to feel the power of making a difference. We laugh and spray our heads green and eat shamrock cookies. But it is also very serious work. There are thirty-seven children who will be diagnosed with cancer today. One fifth of them will not survive. Another two-thirds will live with lifelong health complications as a result of their treatment. This is not okay. We can change things. You can change things. Right here, right now.

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.

I know I have readers spread out over the country and even (a few) over the world, so I apologize for the hyper-local nature of the upcoming blog posts, but home is what’s most important to me and this stuff needs to be said.  If you care about public education in your own community, keep reading and always feel free to take my insights and use them as you see fit in your own education-equity battles.

Our school district has a bond issue on the November ballot to fund much-needed renovation and repairs of the high school and two of the three current middle schools. This is Phase 1 of what will be a two-phase ten to twelve year project that will impact all eleven buildings and all 5,500 students in the district. I have worked on this issue for two years and believe it is deeply necessary.

As with all contentious political issues, confusion, misconceptions and misinformation abound.  I’ve been busily crafting a counter-argument to the most common concerns and have finally decided, in the interest of time and space and in order to get things published by our local media outlets, (most of whom have 200-word limits) to break this down and address them one by one. I will post every other day for the next week or so until I feel all angles have been addressed. And I ask you to please SHARE every one of these updates: Repost them on your Facebook page, tweet a link, email them to your undecided friends, colleagues and neighbors. Even if you don’t live within the CH-UH boundaries, if you know a single person who does, share share share. Information is our best weapon.

I do not claim to be the repository of all knowledge and facts regarding this issue, but as a member of the Lay Facilities Committee that recommended the plan that the school board ultimately approved and as an active member of the steering committee for Issue 81, I do know what I’m talking about. And I obviously care deeply about the future of our communities and especially our public schools.

So, with that long intro behind us, I present the first common complaint about this bond issue: Why are the buildings in such bad shape and whose fault is it? Has the administration ignored the needed upkeep, thus creating an ever-growing backlog of work?

The buildings are in bad shape because they are nearly one hundred years old, plain and simple. If anyone is to blame, we can only point the finger at Mother Nature and Father Time. Maintenance and upkeep is done every single day on every building by a team of dedicated custodians and laborers, whether they’re repairing a leaky roof or ensuring that classrooms are heated. The “backlog” list which is often referenced is not a static document, sitting untouched on a shelf. It is constantly changing and every single time an item is completed and moved off the list, another new item is added. The piece-meal, patch-work quilt of maintenance we’ve relied on for the past four decades simply isn’t enough anymore. It wastes tax-payer dollars on expensive and inefficient systems and doesn’t give us anything better for our efforts. We need a massive overhaul of our buildings and Issue 81 will give us that.

Most of us live in old homes and know that maintaining them is an unending process.  I am a good homeowner, but my house just turned 93 and we feel its age every day. We recently had a pipe burst in our second floor bathroom. Naturally, it leaked, causing damage to the wall and ceiling in the entryway below it. To replace the pipe, the original plaster and lathe walls and ceiling had to be broken into and then majorly repaired. This was both expensive and time-consuming. Did it happen because we were somehow irresponsible? Were we mismanaging our money, turning a blind eye to obvious needs?  No. It happened because my house is old. Period.

Our schools are old as well. The eroding and corroding electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems at the high school can no longer be subjected to band-aid repairs. The district has some funds, from a 2002 improvement levy, designated for the constant upkeep of its buildings. Any other discretionary funds the district has had over the past few years have been diverted away from maintenance to use for innovative and necessary academic programming.  That is why the so-called backlog never seems to shorten. Our crews are like gerbils on a treadmill, constantly running but never reaching their destination. The time is now to do one, big, bold renovation to fix these problems for the next fifty years.

Come to the high school this Wednesday, October 16 at 6:30pm for a tour and see the need with your own eyes. You’ll have the distinct pleasure of visiting the boiler room, which reaches 110 degrees in the winter, viewing the Pit of Death from which we pay someone to remove the pigeon carcasses twice each year, and braving the moldy, mildewy locker rooms below the pool. The buildings are old and they are falling apart, with no one to blame but time.

The need, my friends, is real.

Now that we have those beautiful posters, we need to get them out!

Please let me know if you want posters and and other promotional materials for your school or youth group. I have a letter that can go to your PTA or school counselor explaining the event, plus a list of tips for making it more exciting (everything from challenging a teacher to shave if a certain amount of money is raised to allowing registered shavees to come to school on Friday March 9 with green hair). I have flyers that can be customized by schools that can go home with every student, and a small stack of pocket brochures complete with our event’s information for interested students.

If you own or work in a business that would be willing to collect cash donations for our specific event, I have small circle “badges” where donors can write their name that can then be posted on your wall. (You know, how they do it at grocery stores if you give an extra dollar or five to combat hunger.)

The event itself is shaping up to be quite fun. I have twelve girls from an Irish dancing troupe who will come from Akron and do a half-hour performance.  They will then stay to teach their moves to any interested parties. This should be especially fun for the sisters of shavees who might otherwise be bored (unless we can convince them to get up there themselves!). I think I also have the award-winning acapella Barber Shoppers from Heights High coming to serenade us.

I’ve been talking with our mayor about encouraging a friendly competition between the local police and fire departments, so we’ll see if I’m successful on that front. But that would be pretty cool for the kids, especially if the fire trucks appear.

And perhaps most excitingly, we have a female teacher at Fairfax willing to shave her head if her school’s team raises at least $5000. My dear friend and old colleague Kristi Glasier has sacrificed herself up as the motivator for her students to get in on the act and raise some serious money.  In light of that, I have convinced Braedan to change his team name from Team Braedan to Team Fairfax. His team, as of this writing, is still only one shavee strong (ie, Braedan) but we have verbal promises from many. Any current or former Fairfax students are welcome. Kristi is fundraising on her own head with the hopes of raising an additional $10,000! So visit her page and help her reach that goal.

If you’re willing to do this, please sign up right now! Event page here, Team Austin here and Team Fairfax here. If you’re signing up more than one child in your household, you’ll need to create two different user names and passwords and then log in separately for each shavee. You can then personalize their pages with photos and messages.  The easiest way to fundraise is to send a mass email to your friends, neighbors, family and colleagues with a link to your child’s page. People can then donate directly to their page using their credit card (which saves the organization both time and money).

If you’re still interested in helping out on that day, I’m planning to have baked goods: one free item to registered shavees and available for $1 to all others, so baking cookies is definitely on the list of tasks. Besides that, we’ll need some sort of drinks (anyone have an in with a grocery store to request donated water bottles or juice boxes?) and green balloons in the front of the Community Center. Oh, I would love to have the event photographed (using something other than a cell phone!), so that may be a good way to get involved.

And — not to be forgotten — Mark has indeed signed up and will be shaving as the captain of Team Gallagher down at AJ Rocco’s on St Patty’s Day. He needs some brave souls to join him! If you (or your husband) really want to shave alongside your child, it’s fine to register at the Cleveland Heights event. Otherwise, join the adult fun after the St Patrick’s Day parade and be part of the throngs of shavees at one of the country’s most successful St. Baldrick’s events. You won’t regret it!

All are welcome that day to cheer on the shavees, whether you’re leaving bald or not. And, of course, donate donate DONATE.

Just takin’ care of business today:  If you still have things to donate to the Toy & Learning Material Drive, it’s not too late.  A lot of wonderful stuff has been collected (thank you) but it’s mostly for very young children. This is okay because many of the students selected by the school guidance counselors have younger siblings in their homes, but we do still need items for children older than 9.  I know it can be hard to get “toys” for that age group, especially if they’re not tech toys and video games, but books, puzzles, board games, model kits and certain crafts (like jewelry building) are totally appropriate.  If you have something to donate, please bring it to any of the CHUH elementary schools (or my house) by this Thursday.  More information can be found here and here.

Also, I am moving ahead with a Young Authors’ Conference for the district (as discussed here), which will likely be held in the spring at just one or two elementary schools (to be expanded to the others in coming years).  I am hosting a brainstorming meeting next Wednesday morning at 9:15 at my house if you’re interested.

Thanks, all, for being wonderful members to share this community with or for bearing with me when I write such local posts.

One of the most common reasons I hear for why people choose private over  public schools is that they want their children to have “peers.” Now I will readily admit that I don’t want Braedan to be the only white kid in his class, any more than I would want him to be the only boy in his class.  Being the “only” anything is lonely and isolating. Just ask the only woman in the office, the only black student in the school, the only gay guy on the sports team — it’s not easy.

But that being said, we all still need to look carefully at what we mean by that word: peers. Is it really only those who look like our own kids? Can’t they have peers, actual social or academic equals, who are otherwise different from them? Now there is no denying that there are a lot of children in the CH-UH schools who are very poor, often black, ill-prepared for learning, and living with parents who are uneducated and disengaged from their kids’ education. This is a sad reality. Many of these children will, unfortunately, never be the academic peers of my own children. But they are still good children, with open hearts and big dreams, and they too deserve the best possible educational experience.

Then there is another cohort of black children in our schools raised by mostly middle class educated parents who will no doubt be the academic peers — or superiors — of my children. Redefining who our peers are, or who our children’s peers are, and accepting that they may not always be the children of our own peers can be uncomfortable. But discomfort and pushing the boundaries and taking risks is the only way real progress is made. If we think about what it must have been like for our own parents, many of whom were born in segregated America,  to see how truly integrated our schooling was, they certainly must had feelings of discomfort or maybe even distrust.

But that need not be passed down to the kids. Kids simply adapt to the situation they find themselves in and assume it is the norm.  I didn’t know that my school experience was unusual or cutting-edge when I was in it, especially not at the elementary level. It simply was what it was. I thought everybody everywhere sat in a classroom that was half black and half white. I distinctly remember being stunned to learn how recently the civil rights movement and forced bussing had been to my own life.  To me, that kind of legal segregation seemed like ancient history.

Not that we had reached a racial utopia. We had not and still have not. And this is the very reason we need to send our kids forth into this big and sometimes scary world and let them take the next steps. Let us let our children lead us to a better and more integrated and more tolerant society. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back because we voted for Barack Obama and think the struggle is over; we have not yet achieved that post-racial America of which he speaks. And we also can’t just shake our heads and say, “Wow, this really isn’t working, count me out.” We need to step into the ring — or allow our kids to step into the ring — and actually create positive societal changes.  

I don’t mean for that to sound like I am sacrificing my kids, or their education, for some idealistic greater good. Quite the opposite, I believe I am giving them a gift by raising them (and educating them) in this unique community. I believe they will be better people because of it.

Cleveland Heights and the CH-UH schools have not gotten everything right, I know that. But I am not yet ready to give up on this great experiment.

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