School & District Management

On Borrowed Time

By Karla Scoon Reid — May 16, 2001 16 min read
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Less than a month after she was named the Cleveland school system’s chief executive officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett made an unannounced visit to Tremont Elementary School.

Tremont’s principal, Richard Larrabee, thought: “Uh, oh. I’ve got my hands full.”

Many believe that Byrd-Bennet is living up to her pledge to resurrect Cleveland’s crumbling school buildings and help its students learn more.

Byrd-Bennett peered into every classroom—more than 40—during that December 1998 visit. She quizzed teachers and students, trying to capture a sense of Tremont’s learning environment. And she noticed that the school appeared to be shedding its skin, promising Larrabee that the building would be painted.

Larrabee, a 33-year veteran of the district, says he didn’t put much faith in the new CEO’s comment and had given up on securing a much-needed face-lift for Tremont. Weeks later, though, when Larrabee walked onto his school’s campus during the Christmas holidays, workers were busy painting Tremont’s four floors and six hallways.

Larrabee, now a regional superintendent for the Cleveland schools, says: “That sent a message. If she promised something, she delivered.”

So far, many believe Byrd-Bennett is living up to another pledge: resurrecting Cleveland’s crumbling school buildings and helping its failing students learn more. While there have been other signs of hope for the schools here over the past 25 years, those glimmers were never sustained.

This time, the fresh start came when Byrd-Bennett, who honed her craft in New York City’s public school system, received the keys to Cleveland’s schools from Mayor Michael R. White after the state relinquished control of the district to the city. White appointed a nine-member school board and handpicked Byrd-Bennett to resuscitate the ailing district, which he personally credits with helping to educate him to run the city.

With the mayor’s backing, and free from a court-ordered desegregation plan and from the financial problems that plagued the mostly African-American, 76,000-student district, Byrd-Bennett stepped in to pick up the pieces in November 1998.

“If we can have her here for her fifth anniversary, I believe we will see a substantially different Cleveland school system,” says Steven A. Minter, the president and executive director of the Cleveland Foundation, a community endowment that helps support the city’s needs. “We have an enormous amount invested in Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s success.”

Still, time is slowly running out for the dynamic and passionate leader to convince the Ohio city of 500,000 residents that its schools should remain in her hands and under the mayor’s supervision. The governance change is similar to those made in Boston, Chicago, and Detroit in efforts to bolster failing urban schools.

In the fall of 2002, voters will decide whether they want to wrest control of the schools away from the mayor and return to an elected school board. It’s a decision that would trigger Byrd-Bennett’s departure, she says.

But Mayor White and others are optimistic about the future of Cleveland’s chief education crusader. Out of Ohio’s eight largest urban districts, Cleveland students posted the biggest gains on state proficiency tests in reading and mathematics last year. Labor relations with teachers, who were on the verge of a strike in 1996, are on the mend.

Both Byrd-Bennett and the mayor are celebrating the $335 million bond issue approved by 60 percent of voters last week to repair and renovate the city’s aging schools. Some say the bond issue, which will generate an additional $500 million in state funds, was a referendum of sorts on the schools chief and on White, who is expected to run for re-election this fall.

The last successful levy was passed in 1996 and provides $67 million annually. The link between the school system’s renewal and the city’s rebirth is undeniable. The city’s jewels— the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and its football and baseball stadiums—are within walking distance of the district’s downtown headquarters.

White says, emphatically, of Byrd-Bennett: “She is going to succeed.

“She’s not here just for the job. She’s not here to write a book. She really believes in what she’s doing. She’s poured her whole self into this.”

During an education career that spans three decades, Byrd-Bennett, 50, has made it her mission and her business to turn around failing schools. As the superintendent of the New York City district that serves Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and later as the supervising superintendent for that city’s lowest-performing schools, she gained a reputation for working with poor and academically struggling students and getting results.

The mayor describes her as a tireless worker who won’t accept defeat, no matter what the circumstances.

“I never thought there was something that couldn’t be done,” she says.

Her religion was the ‘60s. As an English student at Long Island University, from which she graduated at the age of 19, the civil rights movement consumed her.

“It was a time when ‘belief’ was the operative word,” she recalls. “We believed we could. We knew we could.”

Those experiences shaped the foundation of Byrd-Bennett’s philosophy and led her to accept the job in Cleveland, where 71 percent of district students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals—a standard indicator of poverty.

“It was an opportunity to do what I call ‘the work’ in a different venue,” she says.

To Byrd-Bennett, “the work” is reforming complex education systems to prove that children can achieve academically. Being the person “completely in charge” and working with a school board with no political aspirations also appealed to her.

White describes Byrd-Bennett as a tireless worker who won’t accept defeat, no matter what the circumstances. Most of all, he says, she can relate to anyone—from a business executive to a drug addict.

“She’s got the pedagogy down,” he says, and then adds almost in a whisper, “but she’s got street in her, too.”

Byrd-Bennett acknowledges that she is capable of yelling, being meddlesome, and having a “potty mouth.” At the same time, she’s likely to give as many hugs as handshakes in any given day. Just don’t be fooled by her warm, welcoming smile, she warns: “I really don’t take any crap.”

“She knows what she wants,” says Ronald J. Hudack, a 35-year veteran social studies teacher at Cleveland’s James Ford Rhodes High School. “But I don’t see her as an absolute ruler. She’s open to us. She’s listening to us.”

Byrd-Bennett calls herself an “oddity” to Clevelanders, and there’s no denying her New York roots from the moment she utters her first word.

The straight-talking district chief wears large pieces of eclectic jewelry and can be spotted grooving in area nightclubs to vintage jazz or the modern sounds of Macy Gray. Her glasses, whether perched atop her head or on the tip of her nose, are as much a dramatic device as they are practical. Hand gestures, showcasing her long, perfectly manicured nails, emphasize almost every point she makes.

She’s followed everywhere by a bodyguard, a precaution she takes after being shot at through the windows of her office in New York.

In her Cleveland office, there’s no desk or computer. Byrd-Bennett sits at a large wooden table, filled with stacks of paper and surrounded by chairs, because she says she needs the space to organize. Communicating by e-mail is almost distasteful to her. Instead, she prefers jotting down notes.

Rudolph F. Crew, the former New York City chancellor, understands why her unorthodox style has captivated Cleveland.

"[Byrd- Bennett] has a very, very interesting and provocative blend of aggressive yet thoughtful leadership,” Crew says. “She is a painter, and she will bring her vision right down into the classroom.”

There was little doubt in the minds of influential Clevelanders that Byrd-Bennett was up to the task of running the city’s schools. “On the day the mayor announced that [Byrd-Bennett] would be CEO, she became CEO,” says Minter of the Cleveland Foundation.

Minter says Byrd-Bennett immediately took charge of the school system and has never let go of the reins. He credits her for building up the system, instead of tearing it down and degrading those who had been trying to keep the district afloat.

For her part, Byrd-Bennett admits the district’s problems were more complex and deeper than she had imagined. Instead of a school system, she observes, she found a “system of schools,” each one operating as its own little fiefdom. Larrabee, a former elementary school principal, says that schools were merely surviving in spite of the district office and avoided contact with central-office administrators.

Byrd-Bennett immediately took charge of the school system and has never let go of the reins.

Arts instruction, outside of magnet schools, was nonexistent. Schools weren’t required to use student test scores to revise and improve their curricula. The district’s 122 schools were in woeful disrepair.

Because practically every part of the system was broken, Byrd-Bennett recalls wondering, “Where do you start the repair work?”

After calling on several New York City colleagues (“the posse,” as it has been dubbed) to join her team for support and frank criticism, she set out to craft a plan that outlined her vision for improving student achievement and how it could be realized.

Myrna Elliott-Lewis, the district’s chief academic officer and a longtime New York colleague of the CEO’s, says they are trying to transform Cleveland into a “data-driven system.” That means interpreting student test scores and other data as a guide to needed improvements.

The district’s main focus is on literacy, with reading instruction mandated throughout the system. About 14,000 students attended summer school last year, the largest such program in Ohio, with classes focused solely on reading and literacy.

Arts instruction was reinstated in some form at every school. A system was devised to track school performance, including student test scores, with annual goals for every school. Middle schools are being phased out in favor of K-8 schools.

The schools chief established what she calls the “CEO schools,” a group of 16 schools struggling with academic, staffing, and other issues. As the regional superintendent assigned to those schools, Thandiwe Peebles is providing them with personalized attention and guidance. The CEO schools, modeled after the New York City “chancellor’s district” that Byrd-Bennett ran, also are pulled together in a support group to share common experiences.

Charles A. Mooney Middle School, one of the CEO schools, had a bad reputation across the city, especially following the 1994 stabbing death of a student in front of the school, says Principal Samuel J. Maul. Student test scores were dismal, classes were overcrowded, and staff morale was low, he adds.

The district’s shift to neighborhood schools and toward dissolving some magnet programs immediately helped reduce Mooney’s student roster, from 1,170 last year to 750 this year. To help deal with discipline problems citywide, the district set up a variety of alternative education programs. Mooney Middle School sent about 60 overage children to those programs.

Maul, who is in his second year at Mooney, says there was no schoolwide instruction policy. Now, the school has a literacy-based curriculum with reading and writing stressed in all classes. All students have a daily 80- minute block of English and language arts instruction.

While Maul is trying to draw on the advantages of a CEO school, those schools also face additional pressure to perform.

Anita Guisto, a 3rd grade teacher at Mount Auburn Elementary School, says she had mixed feelings about its designation as a CEO school. Still, she’s quick to add that Mount Auburn’s walls have been painted, and that the school has received much-needed academic supplies.

“I’ve got so many materials, I almost don’t know what to do with it,” she says.

There’s a sense that business as usual in the Cleveland Municipal Public Schools is long past. And Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s fingerprints are all over the system. Members of her staff, from custodians to administrators, use her buzzwords, including standards, literacy, and vision.

Even 17-year-old Alesha Washington, a senior at Glenville High School, acknowledges the difference she’s found in the curriculum over the past two years: “I can actually say that my grades indicate what I’m learning.”

Shar-on Dozier-Lee, the president of the Glenville Alumni Association, says the current district administration is more responsive than its predecessors, and that the focus is more positive. As a result, she says, more people want to get involved in the schools.

Peebles, who joined Byrd- Bennett’s team from New York, says people can see the potential, and they want to be associated with the district’s success.

“They lived through the failure,” she says. “They’ve been beaten down so much that they began to internalize those things. So they’re willing to take a chance.”

As Byrd-Bennett’s second anniversary as district CEO approached last year, the Cleveland schools were recuperating. Byrd-Bennett’s plan for improvement was well established, and student test scores were up. The schools chief had a positive working relationship with the mayor and the school board. The community was well versed in her goals and generally supported them.

“We were on such a roll,” Byrd-Bennett says. “We were moving right along and trying to turn the corner.”

Then, on Oct. 6, the roof caved in.

Just as Byrd-Bennett recalls where she was when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she remembers where she was when she got the call about the roof collapse at East High School.

She was on her way to visit another school when her assistant called on her cell phone. First, the report was that the ceiling had fallen. Moments later, however, she learned that the roof over the 25-year-old building’s gymnasium had collapsed.

Immediately, Byrd-Bennett was forced to shift gears. Along with the mayor, she formed a commission to study Cleveland’s facilities. The commission urged the district to ask voters to support the bond issue.

Instead of spending time in classrooms discussing instruction, Byrd- Bennett diverted her energies to debates about boilers, air ducts, and falling plaster. She lost 6 pounds on the marathon bond campaign.

‘When a system reaches a point like the Cleveland district, you have a generation of people who don’t believe that good things can happen.’

Barbara Byrd-Bennett
Chief Executive Officer
Cleveland Municipal Schools

While no one doubted the dire condition of the district’s facilities, some questioned how the money would be spent and who would oversee it. City Council members also demanded a detailed accounting of renovations.

“If you can’t give me a line-by-line budget ... how can you keep people accountable?” says Lana M. Benton, a parent who said she would vote against the bond because she believes people at the grassroots level have not been engaged enough on the issue.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People first pledged to oppose the bond issue, claiming the mayor would misuse the funds, before reversing its position.

The NAACP’s initial position was painful for Byrd-Bennett, a lifetime member of the organization. She acknowledges that its stance spoke to her credibility.

“It makes it harder to go to sleep at night,” she says. “But you’ve got to put blinders on and focus on the race.”

The race, in this case, is easily illustrated by East Clark Elementary School, the district’s oldest building, at age 107. The poster child of Cleveland’s bond campaign, from the outside East Clark resembles the Hollywood set of the latest teen horror movie. Windows are covered in wire to keep the wind from knocking out the glass from the rotted panes.

Wearing a Cleveland Browns football jersey, Rick Sarli, the school’s custodian, is eager to emphasize the brick building’s multitude of infirmities. Turn the knobs on the sinks in one student bathroom and no water comes out. The parts needed to fix the faucets aren’t manufactured anymore. Ceiling tiles have fallen on teachers’ heads as they taught.

Adds Sarli, who graduated from East Clark in 1966 and has a nostalgic connection to the school: “The building moans at night.”

A large plastic garbage can sits in the back of Tiffany Sonnenthiel’s 3rd grade class, anticipating the streams of water that fall from a gaping hole in her ceiling. On one wall, student artwork is stained and smeared by water, making the children’s masterpieces almost unrecognizable.

“It’s spiritually and emotionally demoralizing,” Sonnenthiel says, with a sigh. “It’s hard to be in ugly surroundings all day and to have your work destroyed by the environment.”

With renovations slated to begin next year from the successful bond issue, Byrd-Bennett said changing the culture in Cleveland’s schools remains her toughest obstacle.

“When a system reaches a point like the Cleveland district, you have a generation of people who don’t believe that good things can happen,” she says.

But Byrd-Bennett sees signs of progress. She overhears teachers and other staff members referring to Cleveland’s children as “our kids,” instead of “those kids.” There are discussions about “our contract” with teachers, not “the contract.”

“That, for me, is a symbolic issue,” the CEO says.

Questions continue to swirl about who really is Cleveland’s commandant of schools. Byrd- Bennett acknowledges that she keeps Mayor White, a Democrat who was first elected in 1989, updated on the “big picture,” but says that on day-to-day issues, she’s on her own with the school board.

Annoyed by critics who maintain that the board acts as a rubber stamp, Hilton O. Smith, its president, says the board is trying to be professional and avoid the grandstanding that was the trademark of past boards.

For his part, the mayor defines his role as guiding the district along the “broad perimeter of education politics.”

Gerald C. Henley, the president of the city’s last elected school board, asserts that the mayor can’t be trusted. Henley, who is a consultant for the NAACP, claims that Byrd-Bennett has become enamored with her celebrity status in Cleveland and merely serves as a puppet, with White pulling the strings.

But Richard DeColibus, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, blames what he says was Henley’s misguided leadership of the board for encouraging the Ohio legislature to hand control of the schools to the mayor. The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, had anticipated that the takeover would be a disaster because of the mayor’s contentious relationship with the union and his reputation for being heavy-handed.

“We thought that the only way it would work is if they hired someone exceptional for the job, and if the mayor would leave that person alone,” he says. "[The mayor] has done those two things.”

‘[Byrd-Bennett] has a very, very interesting and provocative blend of aggressive yet thoughtful leadership.’

Rudloph F. Crew,
Former New York City Schools Chancellor

No matter how White may describe his relationship with the district, voters will make their views about the governance change known at the polls. White is widely expected to run for a fourth term in office this coming fall. In November of next year, Clevelanders will decide whether they want an appointed or elected board.

The switch to an appointed board prompted legal challenges, which failed, and has some residents feeling left out of the democratic process.

Byrd-Bennett says she will not stay if voters back an elected board: “I don’t think I have the tolerance for nonsense and wiggling around for a political agenda.

“So the people will have to decide.”

Byrd-Bennett says she will make her exit from the district when she feels as if the system’s renewal has “legs.” In her eventual retirement, says Byrd-Bennett, who is married to a New York City psychologist and has a grown daughter, she would like to paint, write, and learn to play the piano.

Later, she concedes that she would likely continue “the work” in some way.

Healing may be under way for the Cleveland schools, but a worried DeColibus asks: “What’s going to happen when Barbara Byrd-Bennett leaves?”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as On Borrowed Time


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