The Common Good

Educators speak with one voice

No one likes a whiner. Complainers who decry how hard, unfair or useless it is, come across as powerless, not as effective change agents. 
Superintendent Talisa Dixon of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools participates in a monthly meeting with superintendents from Cleveland and 15 inner-ring suburban districts. Because they serve our most vulnerable students, these districts are the most vulnerable to the state legislature’s obsession with basing high-stakes decisions on test scores. Because tests are predictors of income rather than school quality, these districts and their students are punished. 
One glaring example was Ohio House Bill 70, which included a punitive provision giving state officials authority to take over school districts. Six variables—graduation rates and five performance measures based on test scores—are used to determine if a district is in “academic distress.” If test scores don’t improve after three years, governance responsibilities are taken from local elected boards and their superintendents. The assumption is that those leaders are slackers and the solution is to have an appointed outsider lead.
Youngstown and Lorain have already come under state control, and the outcomes have been disastrous. Three Cuyahoga County districts are next in line: East Cleveland, Maple Heights and Warrensville Heights. That’s just the local count. The takeover threat is spreading across the state like the plague.

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Volume 11, Issue 7, Posted 10:28 AM, 06.29.2018

City and school leaders work together

On April 16, Cleveland Heights City Council passed a resolution calling for the Ohio General Assembly to stop ranking schools based on state test results. The resolution calls for a report card that “more accurately measures how public schools are fulfilling their primary role of developing productive citizens.”
The current system combines aggregated standardized test results, complicated growth measures and graduation rates to create an A-to-F grade for school districts and individual schools. This quick and dirty system defines winners and losers but provides no real insight into the quality of opportunity or learning.

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Volume 11, Issue 6, Posted 11:52 AM, 06.01.2018

Lobbyists for the common good needed

As a true believer in democracy, I take my rights as a citizen seriously. 
These rights are a lot like muscles: Use them or lose them. Our democracy was set up to give citizens the power to make government accountable and useful. Because government appears to me to be veering off course, I am propelled to exercise a broader range of what is available to me as a member of a democratic society.
It is an almost religious experience to cast my vote. We will have that chance again on May 8. Big issues are on the ballot, including a vote on the system that defines how state legislative districts are drawn. Be sure to exercise your vote.

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Volume 11, Issue 5, Posted 4:12 PM, 04.30.2018

Political ideology is not a substitute for educational principles

“Keep your eye on the ball!” Those were my Dad’s words of wisdom as he coaxed me to improve my tennis game.
This is also sound advice for those advocating for great public schools. It’s important to keep your eye on the ball—the right ball!

Privatization and the accountability movement have cast long shadows over everyday life in our schools. The goal is to cripple public institutions. They are selling a political ideology, not a philosophy of education. They justify these policies as levers to improve schools through competition, but they don’t work. It’s been a distraction from paying attention to what does!

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Volume 11, Issue 4, Posted 8:54 AM, 03.30.2018

Silence is the enemy of change

Five years ago, I was among 160 people making their way through snow and cold on three consecutive Wednesdays to discuss Reign of Errors: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by public school advocate Diane Ravitch.
The book documents how wealthy ideologues captured education policymaking to promote privatization and accountability at the expense of the common good. Ill-conceived state policies that use tests to grade school districts and punish students, and which allow public funds to be extracted for unregulated charter schools and private-school vouchers, are widespread.

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Volume 11, Issue 3, Posted 1:41 PM, 03.01.2018

Diversity is essential to greatness

To gather energy for a new year, I read John Lewis’s 2017 book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America. Civil rights icon Lewis is committed to democracy and human equality. For him, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act.” A more just society depends on continuous action by every generation. The work of democracy is never done. It is for all of us to do.
In describing our most recent national election, Lewis observes, “The intolerance of difference got even worse. It became a rallying cry in code words, ‘Make America Great Again,’ as though diversity had damaged, not uplifted, our civilization.”

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Volume 11, Issue 2, Posted 11:34 AM, 01.31.2018

Local accountability fosters common good

The Internet makes it easy to gain access to events that you don’t attend in person. I recently spent several evenings on the CH-UH City School District’s website, viewing recordings of board of education meetings going back to 2012. I recommend it. To view the recordings, go to and select “Board of Education” from the “About” menu. 
The board meetings provided a body of evidence about our district’s history and the role of the school board for a project I have been working on. They were fascinating!

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Volume 11, Issue 1, Posted 2:03 PM, 01.02.2018

Public education: essential but not invincible

Drip, drip, drip. 
Canyons, bluffs and barren hillsides attest to the power of slow, persistent attacks by the elements. Seemingly impenetrable spaces are shaped and reshaped subtly over time. 
I think public education and democracy are like mammoth landforms. When you look at them, they appear to be strong and enduring. They are a given. They define our reality and provide sources of security and comfort.

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Volume 10, Issue 12, Posted 11:09 AM, 11.30.2017

Public school advocacy: passing the torch

I’ve been a public school activist since 1976. That’s a long time. 
Each year it gets harder to go to meetings—the bread and butter of any grassroots engagement! So, when the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Council of PTAs-sponsored candidates’ night for the CH-UH Board of Education rolled around on Oct. 3, I didn’t want to go. 
The meeting was right up the street at Boulevard Elementary School, so I had no excuse. This is my school. I’ve been a volunteer there since my daughter started kindergarten in 1988. It has always been my most authentic source of connection to public education and inspiration about the work that teachers do every day, and it was hard to ignore the invitation to attend from fellow Boulevard enthusiast Kristi Bidinger. I headed up to school.

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Volume 10, Issue 11, Posted 2:15 PM, 11.01.2017

Let's translate outrage to action

Where is the outrage? 

This is the question William Phillis, Ohio’s guardian of public education, poses at the end of most of his blog posts.

Phillis is the standard-bearer for fairness in school funding. In 1992 he left his post as Ohio’s assistant superintendent of public instruction to lead the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. This alliance of school districts filed suit against the State of Ohio for its failure to meet its constitutional obligation to support public education. In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the DeRolph case, finding that the legislature failed to provide for a “thorough and efficient” system of common schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 10, Posted 2:05 PM, 09.29.2017

Leader sets high bar for board of education

I met Ron Register in 1994, the year he and his family moved to Cleveland Heights from Memphis. We were both involved parents at Boulevard Elementary School. I remember making plaster of Paris zoo animals with his delightful young daughters and feeling happy to meet the parents who went with them. 
Register and I clicked. Perhaps it was our shared background as urban anthropologists, or our appreciation of the advantages of integrated education, or gratitude for our district’s rich range of resources to help meet the needs of diverse students. We both believed that parents and communities have a lot to contribute to making schools great places for kids.

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Volume 10, Issue 9, Posted 1:13 PM, 09.01.2017

Music, not testing, helps to develop kids' brains

My summer gig is directing the Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp. Tamar Gray and Betsy Neylon, two exceptional music educators, and I founded this intense weeklong musical enrichment experience 13 years ago. Reaching Heights has kept it a priority ever since, and so have I.

We keep at it because it is an exceptional learning experience and a hothouse for developing leaders and music professionals. It encourages kids, adds to the school district’s music program, and draws on the amazing expertise of our public school teachers, students and graduates. It can be magical.

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Volume 10, Issue 7, Posted 12:14 PM, 06.29.2017

Leaders motivate teachers through trust

It’s June. Another school year is in the books.

Summer brings a much-needed opportunity for teachers to regroup and recharge after months of getting up early, building relationships and advancing student learning, juggling family obligations and late nights, and falling into bed so they can make the next day a successful one.

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Volume 10, Issue 6, Posted 1:32 PM, 05.31.2017

Opinion: Restoring faith in public institutions

On March 30, the Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing on Russia’s use of “active measures” to affect the 2016 presidential election.

Active measures, including misinformation used to sow discord among allies and distrust in democratic institutions, have long been a tool of Russian efforts to shift balances in power through subversion. The Russians are pros at this, and now social media has made it even easier for them to interject themselves into our lives and create chaos.

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Volume 10, Issue 5, Posted 11:46 AM, 05.02.2017

School vouchers do not support public education

Senator Rob Portman voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, despite a fervent outcry from his constituents—including me and the Heights Coalition for Public Education. He defended the decision on his website, saying DeVos had expressed her commitment to “strongly support public education.” And he liked her embrace of local control.

She sure fooled him. The DeVos agenda supports neither public education nor local control.

Shortly after taking office, DeVos and her boss announced their commitment to making vouchers the centerpiece of their education plan. Rather than advancing civil rights by investing in our public schools, for them the road to equality is giving more poor children the same opportunity as the wealthy to reject public schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 4, Posted 7:09 PM, 03.30.2017

Short messages work

Short and punchy messages are important to successful protest. They help frame issues and raise awareness. They can get to the core of an idea and make it real and raw.

My favorite short-form medium is the bumper sticker. As I try to organize and focus my concerns, my mind quickly turns to formulating a bumper sticker. When I gave up my 1990s Honda CR-V, it was covered with the names of my favorite candidates and messages about causes that mattered to me. I was disappointed during this election cycle to discover the bumper sticker was no longer a critical part of electoral politics.

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Volume 10, Issue 3, Posted 2:59 PM, 02.28.2017

Silence is not an option

What do you do when you don’t agree with the direction your elected officials are taking you? When you know their goal is to destroy something you value deeply, should you observe with disdain or act?

Is it sour grapes to disagree? Is it a violation of the principle of majority rule? Is it disloyal or unpatriotic or a waste of time?

Or is it the most important thing you can do as a citizen?

I’m taking the last option! Our voices are our most powerful political tools. You simply have to speak up if you disagree. When people are silent it implies indifference or consent, and it perpetuates compliance.

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Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 6:01 PM, 01.31.2017

Superintendents protest new graduation requirements

When school superintendents protest at the Ohio Statehouse, you know there is something terribly wrong.

Their job is to implement policies mandated by their local boards of education and comply with the Ohio legislature’s demands. They are not exactly the boat-rocking kind—except when something seriously threatens their students.

On Nov. 15, more than 200 superintendents and school board members from across Ohio gathered in Columbus to protest Ohio’s latest misuse of standardized tests. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District participated in this public display of concern. Superintendent Talisa Dixon and board members Ron Register, Kal Zucker and Beverly Wright made up our contingent.

These advocates for students challenged Ohio’s newest high school graduation requirements.

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Volume 10, Issue 1, Posted 11:48 AM, 01.03.2017

In a democracy, citizens have the most important job

During the final three weeks leading up to this year’s presidential election, I spent eight days working in a basement on Edgehill Road in Cleveland Heights. I was part of a four-person team that welcomed volunteers to our staging location, where we trained them, assigned a “turf” and sent them off to knock on doors in our community. Their mission: to urge their fellow citizens to vote.

Each volunteer was given a walk packet identifying 35 to 40 addresses to visit. Some walked in pairs, while others went solo. They gave up beautiful days and private time because democracy matters. They endured rain and cold to reach one more street and a few more households. They presented themselves to strangers, some of whom readily engaged and others who slammed doors or yelled obscenities. They took themselves out of their comfort zones to do something important.

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Volume 9, Issue 12, Posted 6:02 PM, 12.01.2016

Participate in democracy: Vote!

The election is upon us. No one has expressed the importance of the vote better than Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “Give Us the Ballot” speech of 1957. “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote,” he said, “I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.”

Nearly 60 years later, author and political analyst Donna Brazile observed, “For Dr. King, the right to vote was sacrosanct and foundational. It is the very essence of our social contract. Free elections create legitimacy. They imply the consent of the governed. He knew that unfair elections laws did not just hurt minorities or the working poor, they rendered hollow the very essence of American government.”

As neighbors, volunteers, workers, taxpayers and, yes, voters, each of us helps shape our community and workplace, civic life and public institutions, and our democracy. The vote is essential to the common good and to our responsibility as citizens, so, during this fractious political season, in an era of a resurgence of voter suppression, I decided to volunteer to register voters. It was something I could do to make the election more inclusive and democracy more complete.

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Volume 9, Issue 11, Posted 11:15 AM, 11.01.2016

Quality education requires making teaching an attractive job

Jeff Chapman was my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher at Boulevard Elementary School in 1992. He co-taught with his wife, Laurie Chapman, who was my son’s teacher a few years later. Parents and students couldn’t wait for fifth grade. They knew it would be exceptional!

In that era, before testing ran schools, these teachers inspired students and trusted parents. They were wonderful partners and they were school leaders, innovators, and people who researched their fields. They experimented and were willing to take risks and bend rules to break down barriers to equal results with rambunctious pre-teens. Much of my respect for teachers comes from knowing them.

Because teachers are such important participants in the development of our children, it is easy to forget that for them it is also a job. Jeff Chapman is the person who awakened me to the reality that teaching my children was his employment. He chose teaching as a way to contribute to the lives of children and as the way to support his own family.

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Volume 9, Issue 10, Posted 11:50 AM, 09.30.2016

Young leaders emerge from among us

We need leaders who are positive role models. We need leaders whose actions inspire others to engage, to take risks, to be their best. These leaders listen and respond. They are respectful, encouraging, courteous, thoughtful, kind and responsible. They push themselves and they try hard. They are good citizens and good people. They see what needs to be done and they do it. They make good decisions and learn from mistakes.

I am pleased to say that we have some wonderful local leaders who demonstrate the best qualities of good role models. Those leaders are our Heights High students.

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Volume 9, Issue 9, Posted 11:09 AM, 09.01.2016

Fair education policy needs committed allies

The free-market policy gurus who sold charters, vouchers and testing to the Ohio legislature have created a profitable, entrenched and destructive monster. It is going to take all of us to stop this callous ransacking of the public purse that now benefits education business at the expense of the common good.

This is a moral fight—a social justice fight—that will need to be won in the political arena. It will take courage and organized, sustained opposition.

Successful political fights need to rally allies to their cause, and a good source of support in any political campaign is the people who are hurt by the policy.

In this case, the injured parties are not just the students but the communities that are most affected by a policy that puts the financial burden for charters and vouchers on local school districts, without giving the districts any authority regarding how those precious resources are used.

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Volume 9, Issue 8, Posted 6:24 PM, 07.28.2016

Challenging the narrative about education funding

Children say the darnedest things.

One of the many ways Zagara’s Marketplace supports our community is by hosting local groups raising funds for youth activities. I’m an easy target for those earnest young volunteers selling candy bars, raffle tickets, popcorn or Girl Scout cookies.

A recent sales encounter really set me back. An enthusiastic sports team member asked me to buy a raffle ticket. After handing over my money, I asked the young salesgirl where she attended school. Much to my disappointment, she named a charter school and then offered quite innocently, “You know private schools are better.”

I was devastated. In one sentence a young student rejected public education, the historic guarantor of access and opportunity for all. 

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Volume 9, Issue 7, Posted 9:32 AM, 07.01.2016

Intrinsic motivation, not accountability, produces excellence

It’s June. Once again, the school year comes to an abrupt end. Comfortable routines evaporate, and other sources of stimulation take over. Children and teachers say goodbye, knowing the process will begin anew in the fall. Well-deserved vacations commence.

So much happens over the 180 days of a school year. Teachers—special guardians of our youth—provide safety and stimulation and create activities to inspire learning and cultivate the minds of young people. Children grow and change. When the seemingly endless year comes to a close, sincere words and gifts of gratitude make their way from children’s hands and hearts to their teachers.

As testing has permeated education, I worry about our teachers and their ability to recover over the summer. High-stakes testing takes a debilitating toll.

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Volume 9, Issue 6, Posted 10:37 AM, 05.30.2016

'Number sense' necessary to assess impact of school-funding policies

“Number sense” is an important part of learning math. If you know what a number represents you can use it to make sense of the world. I remember my kids collecting pop-top rings to take to school to help them understand 100 and 1,000. I don’t think they tackled 1 million—too hard to collect that many rings in one year!

The number I am trying to understand now is $5.5 million. This is the money the state of Ohio owes to our school district but withheld this year in order to fund private and religious education through vouchers, Peterson grants and charter schools. This number is too big to represent with pop-tops.

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Volume 9, Issue 5, Posted 6:39 PM, 04.29.2016

Say yes to children, no to the test

On Feb. 17, in anticipation of Ohio’s overdue 2014–15 report cards, the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the CH-UH Council of PTAs sponsored rallies across the school district. “We Are More Than a Score” events gave people who are up close and personal with our schools an opportunity to express what they value and appreciate.

Instead of making unfair judgments based on ill-conceived numbers, the celebrations offered heartfelt praise and applause for students and teachers. Student and parent speakers created a rich picture of each child’s unique qualities and the deep connections that create places for children to thrive. The events reclaimed the humanity of our education system.

The celebrations evoked tears of joy and exasperation among the cheering crowds, because what matters most for those closest to a school is valued least by a policy that judges them.

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Volume 9, Issue 4, Posted 9:15 AM, 03.28.2016

Change happens: Rap Art closes its doors

After more than 40 years of close-up work with adolescents in Cleveland Heights and surrounding communities, Rap Art, a community fixture, has closed its doors.

Jewish Family Services started Rap Art as a drop-in center for adolescents in a former pool hall near Cleveland Heights High School around 1973. In 1977, Rap Art became a program of the Center for Families and Children, and Paula Atwood took the reins. In 1997, the agency moved to a new building on South Taylor Road, which became the home base for this touchstone program for struggling adolescents and their families.

The building at 1941 S. Taylor Road will now be called The Centers McMillan Early Learning Center, and services offered there will focus on expanded early childhood education. The Heights Family to Family Collaborative will remain at this site.

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Volume 9, Issue 3, Posted 11:34 AM, 03.01.2016

Standardized tests don't measure education quality

Standardized tests are the cornerstone of Ohio’s education “accountability system.” Test results are the dominant measure used to create report cards that judge the quality of education offered in Ohio’s schools and school districts and to shame and blame low performers.

Last year the state switched to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests to measure school quality. The tests are aligned with the controversial Common Core standards. In July, the state rejected Common Core and jettisoned the PARCC tests. The 2015–16 measuring stick will be standardized tests created by the American Institute of Research (AIR).

There is still no report card for 2014–15.

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Volume 9, Issue 2, Posted 11:30 AM, 01.29.2016

Student refugees build new lives in Heights schools

I wanted to make my guests feel welcomed so I baked my mother’s ginger snaps. The cookies made my house smell good as five thoughtful high school students, Ruth, Ornela, Oshin, Tapash and Raja, chatted around my dining room table. They were accompanied by Carla Bailey, their cultural interpreter, advocate, coach, advisor, prod, driver and, at times, surrogate parent.

The students are refugees. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and religious persecution in Bhutan led their families to refugee camps in Namibia and Nepal. After several years, their families’ petitions to be permanently resettled were approved by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. US Together, a resettlement agency located in Cleveland Heights, supported the startup of their lives here, along with families fleeing the war in Iraq.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:32 AM, 12.31.2015

Color coding doesn't account for complexity

Some bad practices never leave us. One of them is reducing complex issues to simple ratings and using them to make big decisions that create inequality. I am talking about redlining. It is illegal, but the Heights Community Congress (HCC) tells us it’s back.

Our ignominious history is important. A devastating home foreclosure crisis during the Great Depression prompted the first federal housing program, an agency to refinance mortgages so that desperate homeowners could keep their property. In 1933, Congress established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and made protecting homeownership a new national priority.

Sadly, while the agency saved more than a million homes from foreclosure and established new lending practices that made homeownership affordable for generations to come, it also codified racial discrimination in lending. HOLC created a national system for evaluating mortgage risk that made the race of residents in a neighborhood a defining factor in where to lend money.

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Volume 8, Issue 12, Posted 9:47 AM, 12.01.2015

End remote-control education

My friend has a remote control for her gas fireplace—the epitome of luxury. Curl up on the couch, pick up a good book, click the remote, and you have instant fire and comfort. Clickers are great for making instant and inconsequential decisions, such as whether to watch TV, listen to music or enjoy a fire.

Politicians, though, have decided that to be educated now means to pass an unreliable standardized test and, through a program of education reform that focuses on testing to make serious decisions about children, teachers, schools and money, are using a remote-control approach to improving schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 3:03 PM, 10.29.2015

Public schools suffer when students leave

I like writing this column. The discipline of exploring complex ideas in 750 words or less helps me think and, I hope, gives the reader access to those thoughts in an engaging and informative way. I am grateful to the Heights Observer for providing me with a deadline and platform for sorting through issues that I find significant to my passion for democracy and the crucial role of the common good in a humane society.

Readers have been wonderful. They give me positive feedback at the grocery store or the swimming pool or when I’m walking my dog. Last winter, a complete stranger stopped to talk to me after whisking past on her skis. Feedback from teachers is often the most moving. They thank me for describing how the damage caused by testing has motivated several of them to leave their beloved profession.

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Volume 8, Issue 10, Posted 1:53 PM, 09.30.2015

Cutting funds will not improve schools

Resilience is an essential quality for surviving adversity, and I'm worried. Are our public schools resilient enough to survive the constant attacks by the Ohio legislature? Our schools are suffering from a regime that uses testing as a substitute for support, unfairly labels schools and children and communities as failed, ties high-stakes decisions with real consequences to an unreliable testing system, and then gives away public funds to private and charter schools with no oversight or accountability. That’s how crazy it is.

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Volume 8, Issue 9, Posted 11:07 PM, 08.31.2015

Simple steps are significant

On the Fourth of July, my neighbors on Compton Road strengthened the connections that fuel commitment to the common good, and it was nearly effortless. It took just two phone calls, 15 minutes at the computer, a few text messages, two seventh-graders delivering flyers, two gallons of lemonade, and less than $20 for our street to come together to celebrate.

At 9:30 a.m., car traffic ended when the barricades delivered by the city (one of the phone calls) made the street the domain of bikes, dog walkers and strolling neighbors. Young people from the street and their friends gathered in the Dooners’ backyard (second phone call) to decorate bikes, strollers, wagons and dogs.

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Volume 8, Issue 8, Posted 4:01 PM, 07.31.2015

Building for an unknown future

It’s official. Heights High is closed. A proud history that started in 1926 ended this June as a platoon of moving trucks pulled away from the school laden with remnants of a glorious public space that has changed many lives.

Now, shiny silver letters attached to the façade of the former Wiley Middle School spell out Heights High. They declare that change has arrived. This will be the fourth building since 1902 to provide a high school education to residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights.

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Volume 8, Issue 7, Posted 2:07 PM, 06.29.2015

Schools build the future

Strike up the band. Bring on the fireworks. Shout from the rooftops: They did it! We did it!

June 1 was graduation day for Cleveland Heights High School’s Class of 2015. Another cadre of young people just took the next step into adulthood. This month marks their transition out of the protective, demanding, encouraging and at times difficult environment of school into the bigger world.

We can all celebrate. As the owners of our public schools, we have provided these young people the opportunity to flourish.

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Volume 8, Issue 6, Posted 1:54 PM, 05.29.2015

Relationships are the mainline to learning

“Each of my students wants to be noticed as a person. We all do,” observed Roxboro Elementary School’s Lynne Maragliano, a 32-year kindergarten teacher.

At the start of each day, Maragliano welcomes each child with a handshake as they pass through the door into her long rectangular classroom divided into nooks and crannies full of enriching and engaging materials. “It’s a golden time to make a connection. I can tell from this encounter where they are and if anything special is going on with them that I need to know about,” she said.

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Volume 8, Issue 5, Posted 1:19 PM, 05.01.2015

Obituaries can enlighten us

Standards and testing require children to acquire specific measurable competencies by a specific time. You are a failure if you don’t fit. These standardized outcomes ignore differences in development—not to mention differences in opportunity. One size does not fit all!

Rather than promoting more effective education, testing for accountability undermines success. It creates winners and losers instead of committed learners. By standardizing education outcomes by grade level, it ignores human diversity and sacrifices an essential education purpose: developing a curious and critical-thinking electorate of lifelong learners. It’s all wrong.

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Volume 8, Issue 4, Posted 1:18 PM, 03.30.2015

Standardized testing is a debilitating silver bullet

For a child, the 180 days of a school year can feel like an eternity, but this is not so for teachers.

Under the gun to squeeze more and more into the annual teaching window, teachers have too little time to effectively plan lessons and cover ever-expanding content, get to know children and respond to their needs, communicate with parents, overcome any effects of inequality, digest yet another set of standards (the Common Core) and the latest format for testing those standards (the PARCC assessments) and then administer all the mandated high-stakes tests.

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Volume 8, Issue 2, Posted 3:20 PM, 01.29.2015

Hope is critical for success

In 1976, by a fluke, my career as a city planner was redirected to focus on the needs of students who did not succeed in our public schools. I became a child advocate. For a decade, I gathered, analyzed and published data that showed the extent to which Ohio public schools failed with these students. I used the data to identify school districts with problems.

It took me a long time to recognize that shaming people with data would not generate solutions.

When my focus turned to finding remedies, I finally found useful and inspiring information. I talked with educators across Ohio who turned around failing students. Despite their successes, they also had broken hearts and deep frustration. Success was never universal and often transitory. It could disappear at any moment when the conditions of life got in the way.

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Posted 11:57 AM, 01.05.2015

Question authority

Teachers choose their profession to change lives. They pour their minds, hearts and bodies—yes, it is physically demanding work—into the profound responsibility we have given them. Depending on where they teach, they pursue this work with access to different amounts of support, materials and affirmation. We expect them to sustain commitment and do their best every day.

This is a profession that takes time to master. Most teachers are always in the process of becoming better. Even the best can have bad days or a bad year. A few have given their best and are worn out. All are undermined by a policy environment focused on blaming them. To do their best, they need to hold on to the idealism that made them enter this life-changing profession. Whatever their particular situation, they go to the classroom to make the world better by helping our children to grow. We should be grateful to them for embracing this valuable work.

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Volume 7, Issue 12, Posted 2:04 PM, 12.01.2014

The year every child must be proficient has arrived

In 1948 George Orwell wrote 1984, his famous indictment of the totalitarian state that made 1984 a dreaded year for me.

Another dreaded year is 2014. This time the cause of the dread is the U.S. Congress and its 1,000-plus-page No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which became law in 2002.

NCLB required that, by 2014, every public school student be proficient in math and reading, or else. “The goal set by Congress of 100-percent proficiency by 2014 is an aspiration. It is akin to a declaration of belief. Yes, we do believe that all children can learn and should learn. But as a goal it is utterly out of reach,” observed Diane Ravitch in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. No one has ever achieved it.

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Volume 7, Issue 11, Posted 10:15 AM, 10.31.2014

Who should define our community?

Fifty years ago, the idea of housing integration was akin to a four-letter word. It was, as housing activist Kermit Lind explained to me, “a state of pathological transition.”

Segregation was the reality for nearly everyone living in Cuyahoga County. Single-race neighborhoods and a lack of choice for African Americans were the cumulative outcome of federal law, lending and real estate practices, and cultural norms. It appeared to be a locked system, with no options for change. Cleveland Heights was nearly all white. Only 251 African Americans were counted among 61,831 residents in the 1960 census. Then, everything changed.

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Volume 7, Issue 10, Posted 2:55 PM, 09.29.2014

Summer changes the starting line

How did you spend your summer vacation? It is a wonderful back-to-school conversation prompt. It turns out that the answer to that question has significant implications for children and the advantages that they bring to school in the fall.

My summer reading included Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 publication, Outliers, where he explores what makes some people more successful than others. He is adamant that our belief in superior ability and hard work as the only explanations for success is wrong. Over and over he shows how “outliers,” those people who appear to be exceptional, find success because of their own assets but also because of external opportunities and advantages.

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Volume 7, Issue 9, Posted 1:40 PM, 08.28.2014

Lilt and learning: playing music and teaching have a lot in common

Things can be wonderful.

Frequently, I am critical of the misdirection of our policy makers and the undermining effects of their narrative and policies on public confidence in public education, teachers and the education of the whole child. The blame, test and punish approach to “school reform” just doesn’t jibe with the magic that occurs daily when we pull together as a community and when teams of educators collaborate from a place of trust to help children grow.

This month I want to focus on wonderful.

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Volume 7, Issue 8, Posted 11:25 AM, 07.31.2014

Sharing leadership, finding solutions

Leadership is looming big in my thinking these days as the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district welcomes a new superintendent and as three other organizations near and dear to my heart change their executive directors. Leadership is hard to get right.

In education, where so many individuals play a role in the success of our children, it is crucial for our leaders to be able to motivate and engage the team that is needed to achieve our developmental goals for them. School leaders need to be visionary and decisive, but they also need to be inclusive, respectful, engaged, patient and trusting. They need to be collaborative! The typical hierarchical style of big bureaucracies just doesn’t work when your job is to motivate.

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Volume 7, Issue 7, Posted 2:22 PM, 06.30.2014

Career teachers strengthen education capacity

It’s June. Another school year comes to an end. Joy, regrets, successes, new friends, new skills, a broader world view, frustrations, fears, failures—it’s a complicated mix of emotions.

When I was young, this festive moment—the end of the daily grind, early to rise and early to bed, controlling my temper, paying attention, books, pencils, chalk—was accompanied by this joyous chant, “School's out, school's out, teacher let her bloomers out.”

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Volume 7, Issue 6, Posted 11:36 AM, 05.30.2014

Play is important to learning

When winter finally broke, I rounded up three neighbor kids and headed for a hike at Shaker Lakes. Decked out in their rubber rain boots, they collected and tossed stones, flirted with the mud, balanced on fallen trees, and waded in the rushing water. There is nothing more fun than watching curious children. They were uninhibited kids being kids. They were playing and learning.

Play is a wonderful way to learn. I am concerned that the emphasis on measuring children’s performance in school is not only undermining good education and teacher morale, but also robbing the younger generation of the exploration that is important to a healthy childhood. I am no expert in early childhood development, but I am a parent and classroom volunteer. I know fear and failure are not the way to get young minds to let loose and grow.

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Volume 7, Issue 5, Posted 2:07 PM, 05.05.2014

This fantasy is a nightmare!

Put on your rose-colored glasses and imagine this fantasy: 

When it comes to academic success, all children are immune to such factors as their parents' situation, access to food and health care, vision or hearing issues, early childhood education or enrichment experiences, stress, expectations for academic achievement, the number of times they move in a year, trauma affecting people they care about, the learning conditions in their schools, language barriers or their ability to concentrate.

In this dream world, every child—regardless of their economic status, educational setting or personal challenges—is expected to learn the same amount, at the same rate.

Using this fantasy as their basis, regulators have developed quick and inexpensive tools that can measure the depth and breadth of academic success.

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Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 3:08 PM, 03.31.2014

Can our voices change the world?

How do you change the world?  

In a recent conversation about the future of public education—the focus of my quest for a more just and inclusive society—a friend reminded me that change starts with each of us: “I only have control over what I do.”

Can a one-person-at-a-time approach make a difference when unfettered corporate influence, gerrymandered legislators, and both political parties embrace education policies that are undemocratic and harmful to children?

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Volume 7, Issue 3, Posted 4:45 PM, 02.27.2014

Veneration of private over public is a mistake

“A private school experience at a public school cost,” reads the headline on the Lake Erie Preparatory School’s home page. The school is one of six charter schools in the Cleveland area sponsored by the for-profit ICAN charter school company.

What exactly is a “private school experience”? This website message implies that it is something to aspire to, better and safer than a public school education, but out of reach because of cost. Remember that private schools exclude some people, and public schools don’t. By likening itself to a private school, this charter is saying, “You can have an elite education for free!” 

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Volume 7, Issue 2, Posted 4:25 PM, 01.30.2014

Ohio’s dual system of publicly funded schools

I prefer to ignore charter schools. I know good people who work in them and use them. Charters don’t appear to have much to do with my school district. How much good can they do? How much harm?   
Reports of fraud, profiteering and failure pushed me to learn more. Because charter schools are funded with public funds, I thought I would go to the heart of the matter and “follow the money.” I turned to Bill Phillis, a longtime advocate of reforming school funding in Ohio, for an explanation of the system that now uses state tax dollars to fund two different kinds of public schools. I am troubled by what I learned.

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Volume 7, Issue 1, Posted 10:40 AM, 12.17.2013

Public school supporters are more than fair-weather friends

The Saturday before the election was cold and rainy. Volunteers from my neighborhood dutifully filed into my kitchen to pick up their walk lists for the final lit drop, which would encourage voters to fund the renovation of three Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools. Our team included a retired graphic designer and medical engineer, a substitute teacher, a Montessori parent, the kids across the street and their mom, an innovations coach, and me.

Jokes about the Browns, the exercise opportunities associated with dropping literature and the need to fix the aging buildings for future generations were part of the friendly conversation that took place as I handed out street assignments. Despite the weather, we were ready to act on our commitment to our community and its children.

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Volume 6, Issue 12, Posted 11:49 AM, 12.02.2013

When it comes to learning, factor in the learner

When I walked into Belinda Farrow’s kindergarten classroom for a lunchtime meeting to plan this year’s tutoring program, she was huddled next to a child in tears. Her firm, reassuring voice comforted a young student recovering from a meltdown over tangled shoelaces.    

This brief encounter brought me back to the reality of education. It is messy—intellectual growth pursued within the cauldron of physical and emotional development. All of it counts, and yet none of it can be measured with much accuracy.

As a kindergarten volunteer I help students master letter sounds, a foundational literacy skill that is crucial for achievement. But the emotional needs and coping skills of our young charges, like the thermostats in our houses, govern them and their encounters with the education agenda. You can’t teach a subject without factoring in the child! There are no shortcuts and no formulas.


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Volume 6, Issue 11, Posted 12:20 PM, 10.31.2013

You can't dispose of public schools at a garage sale

The school building boom in Cleveland Heights took root in 1904 when the newly incorporated village of about 1,000 residents built Lee Road School on the site of the current Boulevard Elementary School.

As the orchards and farmland of this new village started to sprout streets full of apartment buildings and one- and two-family houses, the need for more schools grew. In 1914 a high school was built next to Lee Road School. By 1960, when the population of Cleveland Heights peaked at 61,813, the school district, which by then included University Heights and a strip of South Euclid, operated 10 elementary schools, four junior high schools, the current high school at Cedar and Lee Roads and an administration building. 

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Volume 6, Issue 10, Posted 3:29 PM, 10.01.2013

A 50th anniversary: a time to celebrate, reflect and recommit

I grew up reading the Green Sheet, the section of my daily newspaper that reported on what had happened on that date 10, 20 and 50 years ago. It helped me connect my reality to history. On a good day, that connection helped me understand the present and respect those who went before. It inspired both caution and hope.

This year, Taylor Branch, the author of an exhaustive history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement—more than 2,300 pages written over 24 years—condensed that history into 180 pages, hoping people would use the 50th anniversary of the movement to pay attention, understand our history, honor the courageous fight and become prepared to continue the unfinished work of democracy.

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Volume 6, Issue 9, Posted 12:51 PM, 08.30.2013

We don't want to go back

John Lewis is my hero.  

His unwavering belief in the dignity of every human being has driven his life—a life focused on making our democracy more authentic, more inclusive. As a longtime civil rights activist, and a 27-year veteran of Congress, he exemplifies moral certainty and perseverance. At times he has put his life on the line to dismantle a violent, racist culture and to confront a frequently complicit government, in order to guarantee all citizens full citizenship, including full access to the vote.  

For Lewis, civil rights is about all of us. In his 1998 memoir, he recalled screening white college students volunteering to participate in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. He reminded them: “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro. Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.”

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Volume 6, Issue 8, Posted 12:16 PM, 07.30.2013

We are the owners of our public places

If you live in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district as I do, we have something in common: We are co-owners of a lot of real estate—13 school buildings (11 currently in use), a stable and an office building, which together occupy more than 135 acres. School-district property is found in every corner of our community.  

This portfolio was amassed over the last 110 years to meet our high expectations for serving the educational needs of the children of our ever-evolving community. These buildings, as small-town Texas superintendent John Kuhn so eloquently put it, “are not just schools, they’re touchstones. They’re testaments to our local values—monuments to community.” They belong to us and we are responsible for their maintenance and quality.

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Volume 6, Issue 7, Posted 4:00 PM, 07.01.2013

Summer music camp: a time for enriched learning

In this era of test-driven accountability, school can feel like a pressure cooker. The demand for measurable results can dominate every second of the day—often at the expense of young learners exploring their interests, discovering their gifts, and enjoying the pure pleasure of learning.

Summer vacation is more important than ever as a time to recover and relax—and as a time for joyful learning. I’m happy to say that 90 local 10- to 15-year-olds will spend a week this month at the Heights Summer Music Camp, a community-run enrichment opportunity sponsored by Reaching Heights. I direct the camp and helped found it. It’s something I want to brag about because it is a unique music experience and an example of how our community nurtures our youth.

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Volume 6, Issue 6, Posted 1:54 PM, 05.30.2013