Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Cleveland School Makes City Its Classroom

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 02, 2016 8 min read
From left, Trinity Tyler, Oliver Treven, and Gabrielle Johnson work on installing LED lights in the speaker they built for their freshman engineering capstone project at Cleveland’s MC2 STEM High School.
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The auditorium at Cleveland State University is packed with more than 400 amped-up high school students for the MC2 STEM High School’s spring rap concert, salted here and there with community leaders and business people in suits and subdued smiles.

By the time 9th grader Trinasia Ray steps onto the stage with her teammates more than an hour into the concert, one might expect the teenagers to have tuned out and the school’s community partners to have made a discreet exit. But everyone in the hall has a personal stake in these songs.

There’s outreach, and then there’s community.

“I’m feeling like a cat with nine lives/'cause I can see myself die/in people’s eyes ...” —"This Ain’t Livin’”

What MC2 is doing here is more than outreach. The project-based science, technology, engineering, and mathematics school uses a combination of co-located campuses and experts pulled from local industries to build a community school in the core of a city that is losing its population and a school district with one of the highest dropout rates in the country.

MC2 Principal Feowyn MacKinnon takes the same approach to building community in and out of classrooms: Take all comers. Find out what drives them. Show them how they can work with the school to achieve their goals.

“A lot of people are looking for what’s the new model supposed to be, when I think what we really need are many, many different alternatives. The thread that spans across [school reform efforts] is, in order to be effective, a school has to have a purpose,” said Robin Lake, the director of the University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education, which studies new school models and recently singled out MC2 as a school to watch.

MC2 was set up eight years ago, as part of the Cleveland district’s push to develop more STEM-focused schools. School founder Jeffrey McClellan, MacKinnon, and others were concerned that magnet schools often end up becoming isolated from their surrounding neighborhoods, because of their themed structure and selective admission practices.

So instead, the school took a place-based approach to teaching STEM subjects.

“We brainstormed all the places in the city that had to do with STEM—the General Electric Co., the science museum, the college—and just said, how can we work with them?” said MacKinnon—"Miss Fee” to her students—who sports an arm tattoo of the school’s mad-scientist mascot, paid for by her staff for Principal Appreciation Week.

Chris Carter, a 9th grader, performs offstage during his school’s spring rap concert. The group performances are part of a capstone project for MC2 freshmen.

Today, MC2 is far from the only science-focused magnet high school in the Cleveland district, but it’s the only one that doesn’t require prerequisite courses or minimum test scores for admission. In a school with more than 85 percent of students in poverty, MC2 has a 97 percent high school graduation rate, and more than half its alumni continue at least through their freshman year of college.

Moreover, the school is not only still embedded with its early partners, it’s working with more than 85 local industry and advocacy groups—not just to get their money, but to have them help prepare the students to work in and for their community.

City as School

The projects used to teach all the courses pull in guest lectures and workshops from experts throughout the city, from NASA engineers to forensic investigators in the city medical examiner’s office. MC2 also literally uses Cleveland as its campus. Freshmen take classes within the Great Lakes Science Center, a museum on the shore of Lake Erie.

The 10th graders learn at General Electric Lighting’s Nela Park campus—making it the only public school operating inside a Fortune 500 company, said Amanda Smith, who coordinates GE’s work with MC2. About 500 GE employees volunteer with the school, acting as biweekly mentors for each student, as well as tutors for state standardized tests. Employees also help teach a fall capstone project in which students design a lighting system to help people with special needs.

“GE looks at it as, we would like to create a pipeline” via high school internships and college scholarships, Smith said. “We like to have talent that we can get to know for four years. We get to know the person they are, if they are hard-working, and then we can have them come back and be employed by GE.”

Tenth grader Daryus Bell, center, and classmates try to maneuver a marble through a maze built as part of an engineering project.

Over weeks and sometimes months, teachers work together to integrate the required Ohio state content standards into elaborate projects and scenarios. Earlier this year, the 10th grade took on the mystery of who had “killed” one of their teachers, learning chemistry and biology and working with a real forensic pathologist from the city medical examiner’s office to understand how to analyze a crime scene.

“There are standards we have to hit, and if they aren’t being hit by the main capstone project, you’d better be designing projects that hit them on your own,” said Forest Clayton, a biology teacher at the 10th grade campus. “If you really take the time, you can come up with some pretty cool projects, and they can learn in very different ways.”

“I’m like a fire, a flame, determined to burn/and we won’t stop ‘til our voices are heard./Remember when I said that I could die a thousand times?/Well, scratch that, ‘cause it’s our time to rise.” —"This Ain’t Livin’”

For example, in one 10th grade project, Clayton and the art teacher asked students to explore mutations and evolution.

“A lot of students through their art pieces were able to really talk about adaptations, mutations, a lot of cool stuff,” Clayton said.

The 10th graders concluded that project with an opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, exhibiting paintings, sculptures, and multimedia installations on genetic mutations as well as on how technologies like the bicycle are adapted to changing circumstances.

The freshmen attend classes at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland.

"[The curriculum] is scheduled to be at the same pace [as other district schools], but if you take the initiative, it gives you the opportunity to go at a faster pace,” said sophomore Cole Ramsey.

Classmate Catherine Buxton agreed. “I think I would be moving at a slower pace if I was at a regular high school,” she said. “It’s easier for me to learn here because everything is really hands-on.”

CRPE’s Lake said she is encouraged by MC2’s example in Cleveland, noting that the district is moving to a portfolio model with more themed magnet schools. But she is unsure of how easy it will be to replicate the model. MacKinnon is part of a working group helping other school leaders in the city find opportunities to embed their own campuses with local industries, like hospitals—but so far nothing like MC2 has panned out.

“It’s a hard slog; it’s hard to move a district built for sameness into one that’s promoting differences,” Lake said.

MC2’s 10th graders study in a building on the GE Lighting campus.

Whenever a company or community group comes to MC2, MacKinnon talks with the group’s leaders about what it does and is interested in, and then tries to pair those interests with school needs.

“It’s definitely messy,” said MacKinnon. “Every company in America gets tax breaks and has all these different reasons for community outreach, but frequently what happens is companies want to work with schools; schools want companies to work with them—but nobody tells them how. And then nothing gets done. A lot of it is envisioning upfront what the partnership will look like,” she said.

For example, Key Bank, a primary employer in Cleveland, donated $4.5 million to the district to renovate an unused tower on the Cleveland State University campus for MC2’s 11th and 12th grades. The company has donated to other schools throughout the district, but, MacKinnon said, “the difference was here, [Key Bank] really wanted to be part of the process.”

After meeting potential scholarship students, Key Bank employees noted the students were polite but didn’t seem confident speaking to adults. MacKinnon responded with requests for more personalized help: Now, those on the managerial track at Key Bank also volunteer at the school to teach the students business etiquette, public speaking, and other soft skills needed for the workplace.

Cyclical Learning

In the end, MC2’s future may depend on how tightknit its business and community partners remain, according to Janice Morrison, the president of the Cleveland-based Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, which helped the district plan the design for MC2.

Students at the high school’s Cleveland State campus joke in the halls between classes.

Business and community partners have helped save the school once already. In 2008, districtwide budget cuts led to layoffs for nearly all the school’s teachers. The school limped on with many of the teachers working as long-term substitutes in their own classes for four months, and facing additional rounds of layoffs. It finally stabilized its funding with help from the community partners.

“A lot of [partners] just want to give us money—and that’s fine, we always need money—but I actually prefer the time and mentorship aspects of partnering,” MacKinnon said. About 20 of the school’s partners go beyond funding, to work with the school to train teachers, participate in capstone projects, and cheer their students on.

Coming Together

The freshman concert—an annual tradition for four years now—starts with David “D.J. Doc” Harrill, a Cleveland-based musician and activist who acts as an artist-in-residence at MC2’s campuses.

Over the course of a semester, students choose and research a community problem that has affected them, from teenage gossip to gang violence and police brutality. Students write their lyrics with help from the 9th grade English teacher, work with D.J. Doc to understand beats and typical rhythms in rap and other music styles, and work with science and engineering teachers to design and build their own working sound systems capable of playing their music via a smartphone.

The seniors watching them judged their speaker systems earlier that day, giving feedback based on their own experiences. And for the adults, the concert—and the students’ response to it—are the return on years of investments and personal relationships with these students.

“This ain’t livin’, it’s only surviving./Constantly flinching and twitching,/feel like I’m drowning inside.” —"This Ain’t Livin’”

Just having Ray and her fellow singers on the stage is an accomplishment; the first time the students were singing the song they had written, “This Ain’t Livin’,” they “totally froze up,” Harrill said.

Ray admitted the song is emotional for her. Both Ray and one of her fellow singers are survivors of child abuse: “So I decided, I can get my message through the song, to help any other girl or boy who is being abused, and also get what I was feeling out.”

And when Ray’s singing group launches into “This Ain’t Livin’,” her classmates—and many of the adults in the audience—sing and clap along.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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