I spent most of last school year inside Cleveland Heights High School, following its transformation from a large urban high school environment to five small schools. It's an incredibly complex process that basically strives to provide more individualized attention for students, resulting in better outcomes because teachers, community members, parents and students are all engaged in the educational process.
During the course of the year, I and the seven other storytellers for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation would sit in on classes, meet with administrators, enjoy assemblies, observe scheduling meetings and advisory sessions, attend parent and community meetings. We would meet throughout the year to workshop our drafts, critique character sketches and scenes and discuss how best to present the complexities of transforming public education and the wealth of material we collected in the reporting process.
The result is Small Moments, Big Dreams: Real-life stories from five redesigned urban high schools, available today from KnowledgeWorks. My piece begins on page 36.
The assignment was challenging. How do we capture a year's worth of change in one publication? The answer was to sharpen our focus to provide a snapshot at how the reform is working, and to tell the story through people affecting that change. The stories are in no way complete, and that posed problems for some of the schools featured. But they do provide a look at the incredibly passionate people involved in the process, the seemingly insurmountable difficulties in changing the hierarchical structure of American public schools and the small successes along the way that show the blood, sweat and tears are worth the effort when the kids exceed expectations.
I was no stranger to Cleveland Heights. I cut my teeth as a cub reporter for The Sun Press covering Heights and I understand some of the dynamics that shape the community and some of the underpinnings of those dynamics. In addition to the people featured in the story, I read reams of other materials about Heights High and its history. I spoke informally with alums from a range of ages about their impressions of the school and its ability to reach kids of all ability levels.
A diploma from Heights High means something in this world. Its graduates sit in executive suites and Wall Street, are on the movie screen and the TV screen. They are politicians and business leaders and teachers and nonprofit executives and everything in between. As I get ready for this next year of following the change, the questions in my mind are how to address issues of identity in the small schools structure? How do you maintain this level of change over the long haul? What does the school look like when all of its students are in one of the five small schools? How does Heights continue to excel at educating the highest-achieving students while simultaneously raising the bar for all others?
No easy answers and there's no way to know what this school year will reveal. But I look forward to the challenge of Year Two.
Community engagement is but one piece of the small schools transformation. This year's piece addressed the challenges inherent in bringing community members into the educational process. Fairly early on the opening of my story became clear. The community's perception of Heights High is what it sees gathered at 3 o'clock outside the front of the school. "They could be having a prayer circle and I'd still get calls," said Meghan Zehnder, the small schools coordinator for Heights. And she's right. But it struck me at one point that these kids belong here. This is their community, too, and they are no different from kids gathered outside any other high school. Heights has never shied away from difficult community conversations. And it continues to have those conversations as the demographic realities of Heights High necessitated change. Fortunately, Heights has found a new way to reach its students, and so far, it seems to be working.
The first year after the campus was divided into five small
schools, academic performance on the state report card improved
from “academic watch” to “effective,” a jump somewhat equiva-
lent to going from a grade of D to B.
Bit by bit, the new Cleveland Heights High is making a new place for itself within its community.
Here's the intro to my story:
It’s 3 P.M. at the Cleveland Heights High campus and swarms of students
congregate in front of the school on Cedar Road, one of the main
thoroughfares to downtown Cleveland.
Hundreds of students slap backs, bump chests, chase each other, chat on their
cell phones, climb on concrete ledges and generally let loose in the little space
between the school and a busy intersection. Traffic slows to a crawl as passersby
approach the stoplight just yards away.
The students, caught up with their friends in the after-school mania of
getting rides and waiting for buses, are oblivious to the cars going by. To keep
the disruption in the neighborhood to a minimum, seasoned security officers in
their Heights Black and Gold quickly move the kids along, and a green and white
Cleveland Heights police cruiser regularly circles the campus.
It is just one of the measures Heights High leaders have taken to ensure good relations with the community — a community made up of many disparate elements. A block away is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and a half-mile to the south sit mansions and tree-lined boulevards.
The best hope for bridging the gap between Heights High and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights communities, many believe, is the school's redesign into five small schools. They believe that by engaging the community in the school's transformation and its operation, they can counter misperceptions and increase understanding of the school.
I hope you'll take the time to read on.