Celebrating community ownership of our public schools: Reaching Heights turns 30
My, how time flies!
It’s already been 30 years since an idea that was hatched on my deck became a reality. Fresh from a two-year examination of the best ways to support a successful, integrated school district, a half dozen public-school advocates, who shared a commitment to equity and excellence, created Reaching Heights.
This community-based organization—independent of district administration, the teachers’ union, and the Board of Education—was designed to stay out of elections and mobilize the community as a full partner in providing a quality education for its students. The mission also called for nurturing public appreciation and respect for the public schools.
To this day, Reaching Heights provides connection, appreciation and information, in place of grumbling and rumors. It reminds our community that our public schools belong to us and that we have a lot to bring to the success of this important community asset—an asset that benefits all of us. Reaching Heights advocates for public education by providing support to teachers and parents and offering events such as its annual summer music camp.
In 1987, after two years of intensive public input, school visits and discussion focused on the challenges facing the public schools, the schools’ consensus project task force completed its work. The final task force report noted the crucial role of the community: “The expectations that the community holds, as well as the investment of money, time, talents, caring and energy, and demonstrated support by a broad base of community residents will be the driving forces toward excellence in education.”
Task force members followed their own advice and created Reaching Heights to make sure residents had a way to advance excellence. Steve Bullock and I, two members of the task force, served as founding trustees, along with 10 other activists committed to public education. By 1989, we had incorporated and earned a start-up grant from the Gund Foundation. Two years later, I became the executive director—my dream job.
For the next 17 years I was energized and driven by our mission and by a wonderful board of trustees who shared my passion for our children, our schools, our community and the equal opportunity afforded by public education. Collaboration with dedicated advocates for students and the common good was uplifting and fun, and was the model for what we hoped to do for our educators, which was to create a sense of shared purpose and responsibility.
Over the years, Reaching Heights has focused on the community as a resource. While its programs and activities have evolved, the organization continues to facilitate connections and build trust, communicate high aspirations, set achievable goals, and deliver support in large and small ways.
It is at the community level that we can see, hear, feel and assess what is going on in the schools. This is where problem-solving, built on trust and high expectations, not judgment, can advance needed changes. This is where each of us can make a difference by encouraging students and educators, shaping informed perceptions of life in our schools and the value of our students, and advocating for public education.
On Dec. 10, Reaching Heights trustees and staff, past and present, along with donors, teachers and friends, will gather to recognize the endurance and continued relevance of this small community-based nonprofit. I will be there to celebrate this 30-year legacy and to congratulate Krista Hawthorne and the Reaching Heights board on keeping alive the vision and purpose we found so compelling when we met on my deck so many years ago.
Authentic voices are needed more than ever, and so is Reaching Heights.
Susie Kaeser is a 40-year resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She is active in the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.