In the third of year of transformation from a large inner-ring suburban high school to five small schools, progress at Cleveland Heights High School could be felt on every level — from the security office to the main office and in every classroom and athletic field in between.
After a hectic and exhausting end last year, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Superintendent Deborah Delisle convened the entire district staff in the auditorium at Heights High just before the start of the 2006-07 year.
It was a pep rally of sorts to get district staff ready for another year of transition and constant changes.
Change is still hard, but with each adjustment the evolutionary process of educational excellence becomes a bit smoother.
A common language is spoken here, one that focuses on student achievement, incorporates data-driven instruction and encourages teacher collaboration.
Inside the main office rests a plaque presented to staff, students and families of Cleveland Height High School for exemplary results on the Ohio Achievement Test and achieving an “effective” rating by the Ohio Department of Education for the 2005-06 school year.
Despite its successes, challenges remain — with student behavior and performance, with key aspects of the small schools redesign and with the inevitable shift that comes when key personnel leave.
But progress continues as the second generation of small school leaders builds on the foundation of those who went before them to carry the Heights campus further in its quest for excellence.
Building Trust in the Power to Change
One leader of a small school hopes to keep momentum by inspiring those around him
By Wendy A. Hoke
At the end of his first year as teacher leader at P.R.I.D.E. School, Bob Swaggard is tired, the kind of tired that comes from being constantly “on.”
“I hope I don’t have to attend one more meeting or one more function,” he says, knowing full well there are more to attend in the remaining weeks of school.
Swaggard, who came to Cleveland Heights High School when it was being divided into small schools, took on a leadership role just as it began to see early evidence of significant positive changes. Test scores are up, the school’s state rating is now “effective” and next year’s incoming freshmen got into either their first or second choice of the five small schools. The school pride that permeates the halls, athletic fields and music department harks back to earlier times.
Despite those signs, Swaggard and his colleagues still struggle with students who bring behavior problems into the classrooms, who transfer into the district and bring with them serious impediments to learning and whose home life is anything but nurturing and safe. They also contend with teachers who have one foot in the old “big” Heights and one toe in the new small schools.
It’s tough slogging at times and he pushes back against those who think it would be easier to ship problem students elsewhere or who point fingers. “We can’t just ship kids out to the next port,” he says.
“We have great staff with a wealth of information and resources to share. I think we need to approach change by repeating over and over that it can be done in manageable pieces,” Swaggard says.
It’s that nurturing manner, with an emphasis on relationships, that is earning Swaggard the trust of his colleagues and setting the tone for enabling staff and students to change — even if it’s just a little.
“Bob is a great leader, and he has genuine care and concern for the kids and teachers,” says Jean King-Battle, retiring P.R.I.D.E. teacher and pied piper of student leadership. “I see him doing great things.”
Students agree. “I love Mr. Swaggard,” says P.R.I.D.E. junior Reggie Golden. “He’s a great guy who cares about and respects students.”
Swaggard realizes that the opportunity to reach kids who didn’t have a consistent educational experience before arriving at the Heights campus is his (and the school’s) responsibility. He takes that very seriously and is inspired by the idea the school can be and do more.
He wants others to share in that vision.
A Tale of Two Students
One reluctant, one enthusiastic – and both testing the limits of Heights schools
By Wendy A. Hoke
On a stormy June day, the mood is sunny and bright in the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland’s historic Playhouse Square Center.
Parents, grandparents, siblings and assorted relatives dressed in their Sunday best, armed with bouquets of flowers and giant Mylar balloons, await the 100th commencement ceremony of Cleveland Heights High School. A giant gold banner with black trim and letters simply reads, “HEIGHTS.”
Although it may look like graduations of old, this one is very different. The graduates are the first class from the five small schools at Heights campus and the first seniors required to pass the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) to graduate.
Each small school enters the theater led by a student carrying a flag bearing the small school name. And while all are decked in traditional black cap and gown, each small school has a different colored tassel.
The evening also is a turning point for two students: One who is graduating and moving on, an average kid who found inspiration and a possible career in music, and one who is assuming the mantle of leadership for next year, a charismatic leader and exceptional student. For both students, small schools provided a more enriching educational experience, whether they sought it or not.
Danny Giannetto makes his way through the chaotic maze of students shouting and hanging out in the halls of Cleveland Heights High School. With his backpack slung over one shoulder, he heaves it to readjust the load. He sets his face in a grimace as he enters room 216. It’s advisory day and Danny, a senior in Renaissance School, would rather be anywhere but here.
“I don’t see the point in advisory. It’s a waste of time,” he has said.
He takes his seat and pulls out a binder to work on his real love — music theory.
Teacher Stephen Warner begins a discussion about civility, a topic that is being discussed throughout Cleveland Heights. Danny is unmoved by the discussion until one classmate suggests that a wall be built between East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights to separate the neighboring yet economically disparate cities.
“Whoa!” everyone responds. “What, like the Berlin Wall?” asks one boy.
Danny slams his binder shut and focuses on the conversation.
Warner guides the conversation back to the school. “How do you think Heights High is thought of in the community?” he asks. “Is it safe? Are students scared?”
“This year is better than last year,” says Danny. “The halls aren’t dangerous, just chaotic. I’ve got a lot of friends at (other high schools) and they have metal detectors and police dogs.”
For the rest of the discussion, students debate their role (and whether they have one) in advancing civility within their school. Discussions like the one that on this day has engaged Danny are one reason for advisories, part of the model for small schools.
A quiet, good-looking kid with a contagious smile, Danny is somewhat shy and unassuming, but not afraid to say what he likes and doesn’t like. He’s a baseball player with an athletic build. But there’s also something of the grunge in him. He plays drums in a reggae/funk band and wears small, thick gold hoops in both ears.
He’s an average student and maybe could do better in some subjects, but he has to feel engaged.
Danny was supposed to go to a Catholic high school, but his dad lost his job and the family could not afford to send him to private school. Danny welcomed the opportunity to attend Heights. He made friends easily, and he’s been playing shortstop on the varsity baseball team since he was a sophomore.
Reggie Golden, a junior in PRIDE School, slides into his usual seat by the window in Jean King-Battle’s pint-sized classroom. He’s supposed to have lunch this period, but this is when he meets with “Leaders With P.R.I.D.E.,” the school’s student leadership group.
The son of a pastor and an accountant, Reggie is a natural-born leader. He has high expectations for himself and those around him.
Before the meeting to choose homecoming key chains can get under way, Reggie has to take care of a few practical items.
“Ms. King-Battle, can I get my iron out of your closet?”
He has gym during “zero period,” before the official start of the school day, and doesn’t have time to iron his clothes beforehand when he’s running late. His friends claim that he also brings his iron to church on Sunday mornings because he’s always running late.
He wouldn’t skip this step, even though it’s now midday. He believes that appearances matter.
That perfectionism can be source of contention for Reggie. He has little patience with people who aren’t willing to make positive changes in their lives. “I just want to find ways to get something done and to work together,” he says.
The product of a musical family, he is always singing a tune — usually gospel. He’s almost as busy outside of school as he is in school.
Even in a room full of student leaders, Reggie is the decision maker. “I like the purple number one with white imprint,” he says.
End of the discussion.