Special Report

Cleveland: A Study in Crisis

By Beth Reinhard — January 08, 1998 20 min read

To fathom the daunting odds against success in a big-city school district, peer into the lives of Sylvia Parks’ six grandchildren.

Roxanne, Nathaniel, Tangela, Antonio, John, and Michael live with their grandmother in a crowded, ramshackle house with only a few worn books to read. Ignoring the neighborhood’s “drug boys,” they walk each day to and from Paul Revere Elementary School, one of two schools here that were doing such a poor job of educating their students that most of the teachers were forced out last summer.

Ms. Parks, who remembers picking cotton as a child near Memphis, Tenn., never made it past the 8th grade. She’ doing the best she can to raise her grandchildren, with the help of welfare checks and good intentions. “I hope and pray my grandkids stay in school,” she says.

None of her eight children did. Sadly, they’ve got a lot of company. Only one in three Cleveland students receives a high school diploma.

The downtown revival here has transformed the city in recent years from a national joke into a gritty urban-comeback story. But away from the twinkling lights around the new baseball stadium and the glass-and-steel Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland’s 76,000-student school system is failing miserably.

Roughly 15 percent of the district’s 4th and 9th graders passed the 1996-97 state proficiency tests. Only 4 percent of 8th graders passed algebra, and fewer than 1 percent of the high school students took Advanced Placement courses. On any given day, nearly one in six students won’t show up for school.

While low test scores and attendance are typical of urban districts nationwide, the performance of Cleveland’s students is particularly alarming. The slew of penetrating social, economic, and political problems that thwart progress in many big-city schools plague Cleveland with a vengeance:

  • Poor management. The district was run so ineptly for years that it nearly went bankrupt in 1995, when a federal judge ordered the state to take over. Acknowledging the limits of state intervention, Ohio lawmakers passed a bill last year that, pending court approval, will hand control to Mayor Michael R. White.

  • Insufficient resources. In 1996, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the state’s school aid system, saying it punishes poor districts. Strapped further by tight local revenue, Cleveland can’t afford updated textbooks or the 575 million needed to fix aging schools. At Willow Elementary School, for example, the bathroom stalls have lacked doors for years.
  • Politics. Head-butting between the Cleveland Teachers Union, parent activists, district leaders, and local and state officials on a wide range of issues has drained attention and resources from the plight of children.
  • Poverty. Eighty percent of the students are so poor that the federal government pays for their lunch. Many come to school too hungry, tired, or sick to learn. Largely because of housing problems, 20 percent change addresses every year.
  • Inadequate parental guidance. Half the city’s children live with only one parent, while 40 percent of its adult residents lack high school diplomas. Many students are raised by single parents who lack the time or know-how to visit schools, help with homework, or go to school board meetings.
  • There’s an elevated hostility around the schools, and the kids get caught in the crossfire.”

    “We’re dealing with so many issues that it becomes overwhelming,” says Michael Charney, a longtime middle school teacher and a charismatic union leader. “Too many people feel defeated.”

    That desperation has prompted Cleveland to undertake some of the most extreme educational reforms now in use anywhere. The overhaul of the staff at Paul Revere and Waverly elementary schools last fall, called reconstitution, stemmed from a belief that the only way to fix these chronically failing schools is, essentially, to start over. The court-ordered takeover by the state and attempt by state lawmakers to shift control to the mayor show a complete lack of faith in local school leaders. Another drastic initiative, begun in 1996, involves circumventing the public schools altogether by giving parents vouchers to send their children to private schools.

    It is perhaps the best indication of how bad the schools here had become, and how desperate everyone from the governor on down has been to do something about it, that Cleveland is the only place in the country where all four of these measures are playing out at the same time. Unfortunately, that also shows how little agreement there is here or anywhere else about how to bring a tottering urban school system back from the brink.

    Poverty, racism, and poor school management go way back in the city once maligned as the “mistake on the lake.”

    Before World War II, Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the country, bustling with trolley cars, steel mills, live jazz, elegant shops, and nearly 900,000 people. School enrollment peaked in 1966 at 152,000.

    The late 1960s brought big changes. Riots in mostly black neighborhood left four people dead. The industrial economy began to crumble. Lured by convenient shopping malls, multi-lane highways, and green spaces, middle-class families headed for the suburbs, taking their children and tax dollars with them.

    In the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River, which snakes through the middle of Cleveland, caught fire, becoming an infamous symbol not only of industrial pollution, but also of how bad life in the city had become.

    Against this backdrop, African-Americans were protesting one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. More than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, the district had done little to mix its growing black population with the dwindling white population. School officials forced crowded, predominantly black schools to endure double shifts, built new schools just for blacks or whites, and bused black students to separate wings of all-white schools.

    “It was discrimination at its worst,” says 88-year-old Gus Joiner, who protested when officials moved equipment from a notable black vocational school to a white school. “We had our say, but we weren’t violent.”

    In 1973, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the state and local school systems on behalf of black children and their parents. Three years later, U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti found that the defendants had engaged in intentional segregation.

    The court approved a plan in 1978 that required each school’s racial composition to closely match the district’s, which was then about 32 percent white and 66 percent black and Hispanic. In a city where most minority residents live on the east side and most whites on the west, cross-town busing was the only way to create mixed enrollments.

    Both city residents and district leaders resisted forced busing to the extent that in 1980, Judge Battisti found the school board in contempt and appointed an outsider to run the desegregation program. But the desegregation program demanded more than racial diversity. It included 14 broad remedies, such as reading instruction, magnet and vocational programs, student counseling, extracurricular activities, student testing, and greater parental involvement.

    After Judge Battisti’s death in late 1994, the case took a dramatic turn. A federal appeals court judge who stepped in temporarily, Judge Robert B. Krupansky, ordered the district in 1996 to stop assigning students to schools based on their race, thereby ending forced busing. By that time, only 20 percent of the students were white.

    “Busing ravaged this city,” says Joyce Haws, a local parent who founded Cleveland’s chapter of the National Association of Neighborhood Schools. “Schools were no longer the hub of the neighborhood.”

    The school district has gone one step further toward dismantling the desegregation program by asking the federal court to give up oversight altogether. U.S. District Judge George W. White is reviewing that request, as well as the new law that would give the mayor control over the schools.

    Since 1978, about $1.1 billion in state and local tax dollars has been spent on the desegregation program, making Cleveland’s one of the most expensive in the nation. Judge White has encouraged the two parties to reach a settlement, but negotiations have been fruitless, partly because of the plaintiffs’ refusal to drop an appeal to the 1996 decision on student assignment.

    District officials say they’ll have a better shot at improving achievement when they no longer have to obtain court approval for every program and policy. At one point, the desegregation program included hundreds of court mandates, says Steven M. Puckett, the assistant state superintendent for public instruction, who works in the district’s ivy-covered downtown headquarters.

    “The days of top-down desegregation don’t work in the 1990s,” Mr. Puckett says. “We need to work toward a more community-based organizational structure.”

    James L. Hardiman, the only original plaintiffs’ lawyer still on the case and a former legal director of the local chapter of the NAACP, says the rigid court monitoring and extra state aid that accompanied desegregation enriched many children and teachers. Still, he says, the district is not fully complying with a 1994 settlement that narrowed the original desegregation order.

    “In 1978, a black child received an inferior education,” says Mr. Hardiman, a graduate of the Cleveland schools. “In 1997, a black child is not necessarily getting the best possible education, but the separate-but-equal wall has crumbled. We’re still not where we should be.” He notes that one year after the end of busing, enrollment patterns in the district are starting to look more as they did before 1978. Many children attend schools where they rarely, if ever, interact with peers of other races.

    “We’ve never totally adhered to the spirit and intent of desegregation,” says Gloria Aron, a former member of the advisory commission that oversees the desegregation program. “How far back will we slide if no one is holding a strict order over our heads?”

    As desegregation here reaches a crossroads, so does the district’s governance.

    When Judge Krupansky inherited the desegregation case in 1994, he found a district battered by massive debt and turnover among its top leadership, with eight superintendents in 10 years.

    Several factors contributed to the financial woes. A 1976 state law limits tax revenues by preventing inflation from boosting property values. The district had not passed a local levy since 1983, and to compensate, had borrowed roughly $200 million in state emergency loans since 1990.

    Tax breaks given developers and businesses for locating in the city have also limited revenue. While some public officials argue that the city has to offer incentives to compete with the suburbs for new business, the teachers’ union says they cost the needy district $21 million a year.

    Expensive labor contracts made it difficult for school officials to trim the budget. Gains won by the union after strikes in 1978, 1979, and 1988 left the district with salaries that exceeded the state average by 10 percent, according to a state audit. Salaries for custodians and other employees also surpassed those in comparable districts. The desegregation plaintiffs opposed attempts to close underutilized schools and cut staff.

    On March 3, 1995, Judge Krupansky declared the district in a “state of crisis” and ordered the state superintendent to take charge. He also stripped the Cleveland school board of most of its powers. Richard A. Boyd, a former superintendent for the state of Mississippi and school districts in Warren and Lakewood, Ohio, was chosen to try to rescue the system.

    “The depth of the financial problems was appalling,” Mr. Boyd says. “I’ll never forget that on my first day, I visited East Tech High School and saw that the pool was empty. I later found out that there were five school pools sitting around empty because we couldn’t afford to fill them.”

    Mr. Boyd, a slim 70-year-old with a runner’s stamina, closed 14 schools and cut 500 jobs. His administration successfully campaigned for a local tax levy last November, which will add $63 million a year to the district’s roughly $600 million budget, and he restructured the whopping debt.

    The tax hike has jump-started school repairs, but the demands are gargantuan. District officials estimate that 74 of the 121 schools fail to meet code requirements or need extensive repairs.

    But equally important, the school system under state control has fumbled when it comes to raising achievement. And relations haven’t improved with the 5,000-member teachers’ union. “Politics play a big part in getting in the way of education,” Mr. Boyd says. “There’s an elevated hostility around the schools, and the kids get caught in the crossfire.”

    Political tensions escalated last summer with the passage of the state law shifting power over the schools to Mayor White.

    The popular mayor is widely regarded as a politician who gets things done, and he coasted to re-election in November. But some accuse the Democratic mayor, who is African-American and a Cleveland native, of turning his back on traditional allies.

    The criticism centers on his close relations with white business leaders, his favorable stance on the privatization of some public services, and his intervention in teacher-contract talks. Some blacks also resent that two white, suburban, Republican lawmakers sponsored the school governance bill, and that Gov. George V. Voinovich, another white Republican, signed it.

    Blacks make up 70 percent of the district’s enrollment, half the city’s population, and six of the seven members of the school board.

    “We resent people telling us what to do who are not part of our community,” says the Rev. Michael DeBose, a former school board candidate, who is black. “It’s a plantation mentality. You’ve got black people in charge and a majority black district, and these white people think they’re going to come in and be our savior.”

    The NAACP and the teachers’ union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, are challenging the mayoral takeover in federal court, arguing that the law violates the state and federal constitutions by depriving a predominantly African-American community of its voting rights. The law allows the mayor to appoint a nine-member school board to replace the elected board.

    In the midst of these efforts to revamp the district’s governance, the state has approved spending $15 million over the next two years to help low-income public school students attend private schools through the voucher program-one of only two of its kind in the country. That money would be better spent on the needy public schools, many educators and civic leaders argue.

    “There’s something wrong with public schools that don’t have public support,” says David Bergholz, the executive director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland. “They don’t work.”

    Unlike a similar voucher program in Milwaukee, Cleveland’s allows students to attend religious schools. About 3,000 poor children here receive up to $2,500 a year toward private tuition.

    Last year, the state appeals court said the vouchers violate constitutional ban against public aid to religious institutions. But the state supreme court has allowed the program to continue while it reviews the ruling.

    Such legal proceedings mean little to people like James and Cheryl Burianek, who simply want their children to go to the best schools.

    The couple described their family’s experience with the public schools one evening recently in the living room of their white, clapboard house, surrounded by family photos and the smell of sloppy Joes warming for supper.

    When their two older sons attended Carl Shuler Middle School in the mid-1990s, the boys received no instruction in music or athletics. When Jim stayed home for two days for a family emergency, no one from the school called to check on him. Mike was mugged for his watch, and his lunch was stolen repeatedly.

    The Burianeks blame conditions at the school on incompetent teachers and administrators as well as racial tensions between the white children who live on the west side, as they do, and black children bused from the east side.

    “That school was a zoo,” Mr. Bunanek says. “There’s no learning. You had three kids sharing one book.”

    The Burianeks were thrilled when they received a voucher for their youngest, Tyler, to attend kindergarten at a Roman Catholic school. Ms. Burianek shows off the alphabet flashcards that Tyler’s teacher sent home in a plastic baggie with a note asking her to practice them with her son. “You’d never see that come home from a Cleveland school,” she says.

    Striving to hold principals and teachers more accountable, the district began evaluating schools last year on the basis of proficiency-test scores and attendance, Just three weeks before the opening of the current school year, the district announced it would transfer most of the teachers of Paul Revere and Waverly elementary schools.

    District officials blame the last-minute announcement on a delay in receiving test scores, and say the shake-ups were necessary. Only 3 percent of Paul Revere’s 4th graders passed the 1996-97 proficiency tests.

    “Desperate times require desperate measures,” says Robert Walters, the new principal at Paul Revere Elementary. “It was a method to create the best possible situation for the children.”

    Parents and teachers picketed in protest, blaming the school’s problems largely on poor communication by the former principal. Gina Bell, a kindergarten teacher who was one of 10 instructors to stay on at Paul Revere, says the school suffered from a lack of books and other materials. She says her colleagues were unfairly blamed for low 4th grade test scores, since those students attended different schools in grades 1-3.

    Starting from scratch isn’t easy. Mr. Walters has never been a principal before, and he has not received extra money for new material or professional development.

    Kindergarten teacher Robin Fluke says the first few weeks of school were filled with meeting after meeting as the new staff hammered out dismissal procedures, schedules, and other policies. As a first-year teacher with 25 disadvantaged pupils in a reconstituted school, she has her hands full: “I have children in my class who have never seen toys before. They don’t even recognize their name.”

    Sylvia Park faces equally difficult challenges at home as she tries to keep track of her six grandchildren.

    Working on her math homework at the kitchen table one afternoon, 8-year-old Roxanne’s concentration is disturbed by the stomps and cries of the other children. The 3rd grader at Revere Elementary School knows that two plus three is five, but she isn’t sure what three plus two equals.

    “She can usually do her homework by herself,” Ms. Parks says. “It does get loud around here, but that’s life.”

    Getting parents Involved is another problem at Paul Revere and other city schools. During the first few weeks of school, Ms. Fluke sent letters home asking for volunteers to help out in the classroom. Only one parent responded.

    Gay Respress, whose son is in Ms. Bell’s kindergarten class, is one of the exceptions. Though she works from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. assembling faucets and raises four children alone, she makes time to visit the schools and chaperone field trips.

    Her oldest daughter, Brandon, graduated third in her senior class in 1996 and is studying nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

    “When my children come home, their first stop is at the table to do their homework,” says Ms. Respress, a graduate of the Cleveland schools. “I don’t let them hang out with the kids who disrespect their parents and don’t do their homework. It’s the parent who makes the difference.”

    Yet some parents feel the schools begrudge their input, and they blame teachers for their children’s academic shortcomings. At a meeting of the United Parent Council at a downtown hotel, the subject of parent-teacher relations brings rolled eyes and sighs.

    “I have seen school clerks in the front office glance up at me and wait 20 minutes before asking if they can help,” says Lucille Scott, the vice chairwoman of the district’s parental advisory groups, called school community councils. “And you wonder why there’s some hostility? We send our children to school and they graduate without being able to read.”

    The teachers’ union was holding a reception in a room right next door, but the philosophy on parent participation was worlds apart.

    “Some parents just want to come to class to critique you,” says Judith Cunningham, the union’s first vice president. “It’s hard to keep the attention of children when parents are coming in unannounced. They’re welcome to come-with an appointment.”

    Teachers also say it’s much harder to teach children who come to school with so many emotional and behavioral problems. One out of four children in the city lives in a neighborhood with inadequate housing, rampant crime, and high unemployment.

    “Teachers are raising their own families and can’t raise other people’s children too,” say Meryl T. Johnson, a passionate spokeswoman for the teachers’ union. “That’s why there’s so much burnout.”

    Poor attendance is another problem beyond their control, teachers say. At Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, located in the same building as the high school of the same name, 22 percent of the students are absent on average. The abysmal turnout shows up in test scores--none of the 6th graders and only 2 percent of the 8th graders passed the 1996-97 state proficiency tests.

    Sophomore Shywan Putman explains why she failed two courses last year. “English was the first class of the day, so I was late all the time,” she says. “American history was last, and I never felt like going. It was boring.”

    “Kids don’t see how school relates to their future,” says James Smith, who teaches math in the building’s high school wing. “My biggest challenge is motivating them to see the value of education.”

    Yet, as in every troubled urban district, some schools excel. One standout is Newton D. Baker Elementary School, whose students scored among the highest in the district on the state proficiency tests.

    That’ no accident, says Principal Marion E. Aguilera. Teachers work hard, she says, and many of them have administrative certificates that indicate their leadership abilites. Vocabulary words and math problems decorate the hallway. Students who fall behind receive after-school tutoring. Parents are encouraged to volunteer and visit classrooms.

    “This is an aggressive building with aggressive teachers and aggressive parents,” Ms. Aguilera says. “We want our kids to be the best.”

    Robert Wehling, one of the founders of a statewide group caned Building Excellent Schools for Today and the 21st Century, or BEST, notes that many urban districts fail to generate success systemwide. “In every urban district, you see pockets of success side by side with pockets of failure,” he says. “We’ve got to move lot faster to clone success.”

    The future of the Cleveland schools is murky. The district has stabilized its finances under the state’s watch, but has yet to how much improvement in academic performance. The end of court-ordered desegregation would remove a layer of bureaucracy but also an equal-opportunity watchdog.

    Mayor White has been silent about his plans for the system. Some residents express strong confidence in his stewardship, but his relationship with the teachers’ union is shaky.

    Some middle-class families are returning to the city, thank to tax breaks and new construction. Enrollment has crept upward since 1994, the first gains in decades. The court ruling on state education aid could result in more resources for the district.

    Still, public confidence in the school system remains so low that even the vice president of the school board, Genevieve Mitchell, says she would send her three sons to private school if she could afford the tuition. “They are missing so much by being in these economically deprived schools,” says Ms. Mitchell, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year. “My 9th grader gets no gym. The buildings are dilapidated. Teacher and student morale is bad. It’s a nightmare.”

    A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week