Published Online:

Racial Incidents 'End the Innocence' in Cleveland Suburb, Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Cleveland Heights, Ohio--This suburban community, with its solid brick and Tudor-style homes neatly arrayed along tree-lined streets, has gained a national reputation for sponsoring progressive programs to encourage residential integration.

Twenty years ago, as black residents began moving out of Cleveland into close-in suburbs looking for better schools, housing, and jobs, Cleveland Heights mobilized to welcome them and prevent the "white flight" that in many parts of the country accompanied the movement of minorities out of the cities.

Today, the diversity that community activists sought has been achieved: 60 percent of the suburb's 54,052 residents are white, 37 percent are black, and the rest are of Hispanic origin or are members of other minority groups.

Residents here say they are proud of their bedroom community's liberal outlook and of the high level of citizen involvement that has given rise to dozens of neighborhood organizations and civic groups.

But in the past year, they also have begun to realize that the demographic shifts that transformed this town also have wrought tremendous changes in the one institution that comes closest to bringing all of Cleveland Heights together: its school system.

Two highly publicized incidents last year proved to be wrenching turning points for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, 63 percent of whose 7,880 students are members of minority groups, up from 8 percent in 1971.

In February of 1990, a group of dissatisfied black students and parents staged a walkout at the local high school, charging that black students were being discriminated against.

The following month, a black middle-school student was shot to death on a Cleveland Heights street corner on an otherwise quiet Sunday.

The "events of last year," as people here call the walkout and the shooting, prompted an intensive round of soul-searching for both the community and the school district, which immediately set up a commission to examine the allegations of bias and the issue of school safety.

'End of Innocence'

The commission's final report, submitted to the school board in March, concluded that the district "cannot be said to be a racist system, nor does there appear to be any segment of the school administration that could feel free to discriminate against others or to condone such acts."

The report highlighted, however, issues of student discipline and achievement that have plunged the school system into an ongoing examination of its successes and failures--an attitude some educators here say was long overdue.

"Big blinders have been obscuring, in my mind, the reality, and that is that this is a predominantly African-American school district, and it's been coming for a long time," said Patricia Ackerman, the principal of an alternative school for underachieving students here called Taylor Academy.

"While the complexion has changed," she added, "the dialogue that needed to accompany that has not occurred in an orderly, systematic fashion."

"I had predicted that no one would deal with this until someone got killed," Ms. Ackerman continued. "Then folks got real serious."

To begin the dialogue, the school district has launched a three-year training program in race relations and multicultural education for all staff members. The training sessions, which began this school year, are supported by $134,000 in grants from the George Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation.

Judith Simpson, a 12-year Cleveland Heights resident and a senior program officer with the Gund Foundation, said last year's turmoil "ended the innocence of the community."

Ms. Simpson might well include her own family in that description: The middle-school student was shot a few short blocks from their home.

"Many teachers and administrators are now faced with the challenges of dealing with a very different cultural population," Ms. Simpson said. "The whole place needed massive attention to the racial stresses among teachers and administrators, as well as how to deal in a more positive way with a multicultural school system."

Attention Is Welcomed

Although the training sessions have proved to be painful and at times uncomfortable for participants, many community leaders and educators say they welcome the district's attention to racial issues.

Both groups say they are beginning to appreciate the difference between living in a desegregated community and one that is truly integrated.

"There's so much talk today about moving into a multicultural world that it's assumed it's going to be a smooth, easy transition," said Martha Goble, executive director of Heights Community Congress, a fair-housing advocacy group.

"I think people have a great deal of difficulty with the specifics,'' she said. "Schools tend to be where people take out their frustrations."

Larry Peacock, the district's director of staff development, noted that, "as adults, we say we moved to Cleveland Heights because of the diversity, but in day-to-day living, that doesn't play itself out. We're asking kids to do something that we don't do ourselves."

The Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, which represents the district's 560 teachers, has been supportive of the race-relations training, according to Tom Schmida, the union president. Some of its executive-board members are presenting the workshops.

"There's a definite sentiment among many of the staff that the multicultural workshops are needed," Mr. Schmida said. "Whether or not what's being delivered will fit the bill remains to be seen."

'Vulnerable' on Taxes

In addition to being racially diverse, the school district serves children from a variety of religious backgrounds. Cleveland Heights has always had a large Jewish population, while University Heights, a community of 15,000 residents that also is served by the school district, has many Catholic residents and is the home of a Jesuit university.

Residents of the two communities have a long history of sending their children to religious schools, which district officials say makes it harder for them to pass tax levies to support the public schools.

The district stretched its last successful two-year levy over three school years. But just last week, voters defeated a new two-year levy by a vote of 5,385, to 5,049, throwing a wrench into the district's long-range planning efforts.

The need to persuade an aging population of taxpayers to continue to shoulder the residential district's high taxes has made the district ''vulnerable," said Susie Kaeser, president of the board of trustees of Reaching Heights, a foundation that supports the public-school system.

"White families with school-age kids have a choice," Ms. Kaeser said. "[The district] gets in the newspapers too often. There's a sense that this is not a safe choice any more. That [attitude] is out there, and that makes a difference."

Some people credit Superintendent of Schools Lauree Garrity--who assumed her position a week before the high-school walkout--with fostering a more open attitude toward issues of diversity. Among other moves, she named Charles M. Shaddow, who has extensive experience running inner-city Cleveland schools, to replace the departing high-school principal.

Ms. Garrity, a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School who has spent her entire career in the district, has seen single parents and low-income families follow the middle-class blacks who originally integrated the town.

"Sometimes we look at it as a totally racial difference," she said of the changes in the district, "but I see that a big part is socioeconomic."

Achievement Under Scrutiny

Along with offering the training sessions, which are taught by school-district employees who were trained by the Gesell Institute of Cleveland, the district is examining a host of issues that have surfaced in the past year: the low academic achievement of many black students, who tend to be concentrated in lower-track courses; the high expulsion and discipline rates for black males; and the degree of gang activity in the schools.

"We don't bury our heads in the sand," Ms. Garrity said. "One thing is real clear, and that is that we need to make some changes in how we teach African-American kids, because we're not being successful."

The achievement of many black students contrasts sharply with the school system's overall high marks. Consistently ranked as one of the best districts in Ohio, Cleveland Heights is known for an academic emphasis that produces large numbers of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists and champion chess and speech teams.

The district also has a low dropout rate, just 4.3 percent. Taylor Academy, which offers an intensive one-year program for students who have fallen behind in grade level, is credited with helping the district retain students who might otherwise have dropped out.

But when the academy opened, it drew protests from some black parents, who feared that the district was trying to segregate students. They noted that a majority of Taylor's students were black. Since then, however, the academy has come to be regarded as one of the district's most successful programs for troubled students.

Now the school district's attention is focused on increasing the number of black students who are enrolled in the regular high school's Advanced Placement and other college-preparatory courses.

Students Combat Segregation

The racial separation apparent in many classrooms at the high school is mirrored in the cafeteria, students say, where black and white students rarely sit together.

The attendance at school dances and sporting events also tends to follow racial lines. According to the students, blacks cheer for the football and basketball teams, while white students root for the hockey and swimming teams.

To combat the gradual polarization at their school, a group of students in 1989 formed an organization called Unity that strives to help students break through racial barriers.

To overcome the segregation at athletic events, for example, the group sold two tickets for the price of one that admitted students to one event considered "black" and one considered "white." Unity also sponsored a winter dance with a variety of music appealing to both African-American and white students.

The students, whose work is supported by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, also have conducted workshops for community groups that are exploring the same issues on a neighborhood basis.

Unity members say they are uncomfortably aware of the lack of black students in the college-preparatory Advanced Placement classes. Some black members said they were stigmatized by other black students for taking the courses, or felt that they had to "lose" part of their own identity in order to fit into the white culture that dominates such classes.

For Joanna Moresky, a white senior, participating in Unity has taught her to value the differences between the two cultures.

"One of the things I've always been taught is that we're all the same," Ms. Moresky said. "I'm starting to realize that maybe we're not."

Ms. Moresky is the only white student in her African-American drama and poetry class, a situation she said "intimidated me at first."

Clifford Gates, a black 10th grader, complained that the same is true for black students in college-prep classes. He said guidance counselors at the school "are not pushing [black students] to take high-level classes."

'O.K. To Be Fearful'

The issues that Unity members discuss are not far different from those that have surfaced during the race-relations training for district staff members.

Mr. Peacock, the staff-development director, said the program will continue for three years, until all of the district's employees have been through it.

In addition to helping teachers work with a wide variety of students, he hopes the training sends the message to staff members that "it's O.K. to say I'm fearful, I'm not competent in this area."

The tension that can grow out of openly discussing racial issues became immediately apparent at a recent training session.

Participants in the group of high-school teachers, who were about evenly balanced by sex and race, were asked to begin by talking about their hopes and fears for the training.

Many teachers began their remarks by stating their faith in the school district and hopes that the sessions would enable it to improve.

A common theme among white teachers was the fear that the district would not be able to remain integrated. One teacher said he worried that "middle-class flight" by people of all races would drive down property values.

Another feared that the training sessions themselves would send a message to the community that the district was "changing" in some negative way.

Black teachers, on the other hand, said they resented the implication that growth in the number of black students or residents would reduce the quality of the school system or hurt local property values.

They also said they felt like "forgotten resources" in the district, especially after the racial tension of last year, or felt that the advice they offered was not valued.

When one black teacher remarked that she saw "coexistence, not integration" in the district and preferred it that way because blacks must give up their cultural identities to integrate, it was apparent that many white teachers did not understand what she meant.

Betty Smith, a middle-school principal who is president of the Heights Alliance of Black School Educators, called the Cleveland Heights-University Heights community "very suburban, confronted with urban situations."

The training sessions are "a move in the right direction," she said, but "there's a lot more work to be done with the adults before we can really move into the kid issues."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories