School district has a data gap

The allegation was, frankly, a little heartbreaking: “They do not cheer for the successes of our students and our teachers, and they do not, in any way, identify themselves as being part of Tiger Nation . . .”

At the Aug. 4 CH-UH school board meeting, a spokesperson from the Tiger Nation for Strong Schools PAC noted that another levy ask would be forthcoming in November. The board maintains that the influence and availability of the EdChoice voucher for CH and UH residents is the main culprit of school-funding and enrollment loss.

I listened to that sentence in the spokesperson’s prepared remarks, initially, with grim resignation and sorrow. It is an obstacle not unfamiliar to me as an urban educator—students from high-poverty, highly transient, majority minority districts are often underestimated, underserved and unsupported, not only academically, but vocationally, socially and emotionally. The burden of a systemic failure is erroneously laid at childrens’ feet, rather than with adults who have been charged, by hire or by vote, to create successful school programming. This is, and always has been, unconscionable and unjust.

Reflecting on this assailing statement for several days after the meeting, my curiosity was piqued. Where did this unsettling data—that EdChoice and other non-”Tiger Nation” families only wish harm on district schools and students—come from?

One of the taglines surrounding EdChoice on the district website is that “the vast majority (more than 93%) of EdChoice students within the CH-UH City School District boundaries have never attended our public schools.” Presumably, that means that 7% did, and chose to leave. Certainly, I thought, the district has outreach and exit data. What did the district learn from those families? Did a theme emerge indicating that they want the schools to fail? Why does such a large number of EdChoice recipients never attend a district school? If a family starts with the district, why does it transfer? 

EdChoice has been available in the Heights for 10 years—that’s 10 fall intakes from which the district could [have tracked] critical trends. On Sept. 9, I asked the school board and superintendent for the data they collected. My questions were:

  1. What evidence-based outreach has been offered to the 93% of voucher recipients to determine why they never attended the public schools;
  2. Same question, but directing the outreach at the 7% who had children in the public schools and withdrew them; and
  3. What other approaches or methods have been used to isolate the factors that influence these families’ decisions?

Superintendent Kirby responded that she was not “aware of any feedback data that has been collected over the approximately 10 years of the EdChoice scholarship program in the district.” Not one member of the board followed up with me.

The takeaway from Kirby’s assertion is stunning:

  1. The district does not know why people opt not to enroll their children. Instead, it has  assumptions, including, “they do not cheer for the successes of our students and our teachers.” As charged a statement as that may be, it is not verifiable in the evidence because, by the superintendent’s admission, there IS no evidence. 
  2. The district does not know why people withdraw their children from it. These families had direct experience with the district and chose to devise exit strategies. Where did they go? Why? Are the students happier? More academically supported? Was it a safety issue? A programming one? The school board cannot create meaningful interventions for these issues, because it doesn’t know what the issues are.
  3. Without well-analyzed, lived experience data, the district is making EdChoice and levy policy and strategy, absent identifying information about families who take the voucher. Any belief the district and its agents have about who these families are is just that—a construct—steeped in bias, anger, suspicion and “othering.” Unless these destructive attitudes are tempered, no larger community relationship-building can take place.

Lost is the opportunity for the district to build healthy, proactive, aerial-perspective relationships with families who educate their children elsewhere. This will require dialogue, active listening and healing action by all parties. If the district doesn’t pursue this restorative course, levy campaigns will continue to be divisive, built on historical hurts, cultural myths, and deeply ingrained distrust. EdChoice families may, in fact, be cheering for Heights children who are successful in district schools, but the district, in its own echo chamber, hasn’t yet—10 years later—figured out how to listen to them. 

Sarah West

Sarah West is a former member of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Advisory Committee and the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission. A 19-year resident of the Noble neighborhood, she is the mother of three.

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Volume 13, Issue 11, Posted 5:54 PM, 10.12.2020