School reform is alive and well

School reform isn't new to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. Over the last six years, district educators have been engaged in intensive reflection, research, planning and action guided by more than a dozen educational experts. The process has led to a powerful transformation in expectations and practices, right under our noses! As a result, the schools are on a course that is forward thinking, great for kids and empowering to educators.

Last spring, as part of its collaboration with the Wallace Foundation and Harvard University, district leaders put that course on paper for public awareness and reaction. Their document reveals high and hopeful expectations for public education, children and educators. They reclaim public education as a positive force in the lives of children. Their vision rejects the popular public narrative that has given up on public education and the potential for minority and low-income children to thrive. It proclaims a determination to make sure that our schools and children succeed.

The vision statement, which can be reviewed on the school district’s website, leads with a simple declaratory statement: “We believe in our students!” That statement is elaborated by 11 bullet points, including one that states: “Improved academic achievement is the result of the professional practices of our teachers and leaders, not the economic, ethnic or linguistic characteristics of students.”

This simple statement affirms the capacity of all children to learn and the power and responsibility of educators to make a difference. It rejects the deep-seated attitude that has permeated popular thinking that certain children just can’t achieve because of their background. This is critical in a school district where more than 55% of the student body is below the poverty line and 80% of students are African-American. Our educators are taking ownership for the success of the students who we have entrusted them to educate. They are determined to interrupt patterns of underachievement.

But there is no more effective approach to student success than educators who are empowered to be their best! The plan calls for a highly effective staff, effective use of data to guide strategic action, a focus on global content, use of appropriate instructional materials and methodologies, and the professional development of staff.

It's not simple idealism, either. The district’s strategy for “preparing all students for success in a global economy” depends on educators working together, and addresses this as necessary to achieving their commitment: “We believe in the power of our collective knowledge and, therefore, through the use of our Professional Learning Communities, we will build capacity to meet all students’ needs…”

So what are Professional Learning Communities? The district believes that teachers can accomplish so much more when competition and isolation are replaced with collaborative teams that share their knowledge, teach and motivate each other and pool their best ideas to devise interventions that help children. Collaboration inspires growth and brings out the best in teachers. Professional Learning Communities hope to prove the sum is bigger than its parts. 

The Professional Learning Communities (PLC) innovation has taken hold over this five year transformation process. A recent conversation with the fifth grade team at my neighborhood elementary school about their PLC affirmed that their collaboration has helped their students meet the high expectations that have been set for them. They like their jobs and love their students. Collaboration has been the key to keeping stress at bay and focusing on serving their students.

And, unexpectedly, the real power of this strategy may be its effect on students. One teacher explained that her students have adopted her increased confidence in them. They no longer doubt the possibility of their own success. Success has become a new self-fulfilling prophecy.

By writing down their vision, beliefs and strategies for all to see, district leaders have opened the door to public scrutiny and support. Take notice, learn more and get behind it. When the community joins forces with its educators, all kinds of dreams can become reality.

Susie Kaeser is an advocate for public education. She founded Reaching Heights, a citizen advocacy organization for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, in 1989 and retired as executive director last December. She is a resident of Cleveland Heights and her two adult children are graduates of the Heights schools.

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Volume 1, Issue 6, Posted 11:21 AM, 08.26.2008