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One Year In for Cleveland Schools’ Sanders

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 8:38 AM

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Running the Cleveland Municipal School District could be one of the hardest jobs in Northeast Ohio. One year ago next week Dr. Eugene Sanders took on that challenge, facing rapidly-declining enrollment, graduation rates now well below 50 percent, students living in poverty and fearing for their safety at school. As Sanders enters his second year on the job, where do things stand? ideastream Education reporter Dan Bobkoff takes stock.

Eugene Sanders’s honeymoon as the new CEO of Cleveland Schools ended about three weeks ago when angry parents at two elementary schools denounced his decision to turn their neighborhood schools into new single-gender schools.

Christina Trabert: He came in with customer service, you know, call parents back within 24 hours, and then for him to drop us without consulting any parent or the community, it just floored us!

Christina Trabert led the charge against Sanders’s plan to convert the Miles Park Elementary School building into one of his planned single-gender academies. Sanders proposed forming the all-girls and all-boys schools as one of the many options students will have in the next school year. There will also be schools for at-risk boys, an honors academy for the gifted, and pre-schools. Few criticized giving parents the option to send their children to single-gender schools. It was the execution that was bungled.

Mike Polensek: You have to communicate with the community in a more effective way.

Mike Polensek is a city councilman in the Collinwood district of Cleveland. Polensek says he has a good working relationship with Sanders, but he criticizes how the single-gender schools were rolled out.

Mike Polensek: We know that there’s going to be changes. We know there are going to be schools that have to be closed. We know that there are going to be schools that maybe aren’t going to be rebuilt as a result of the student population. We can deal with that if we’re brought into the mix. If we’re brought in up front.

The emotion over the single-gender school debacle was perhaps made worse because Sanders came into office promising to change the ways of previous administrations: he’d return phone calls within 24 hours, and make sure the community stays informed of what’s going on in the district. This week, Sanders chalked the controversy up to a version of “change is hard.”

Eugene Sanders: Everyone says we want change, we want progress, and you can’t have it both ways. So our position is to continue to work together to make our schools better and we’re very much committed to doing that.

And, Sanders has an unusual ally in his efforts to radically reform the city’s schools.

Joanne Demarco: Gene gets it, his people for the most part get it, and you know, that’s pretty unique in Cleveland.

Joanne Demarco heads the Cleveland Teachers’ Union, and while she received numerous complaints from her members about not getting enough information about school changes and closings, she thinks Sanders has learned a lesson. She’s also quick to tout the relatively painless teacher contract negotiations this year as a joint success.

Still, some wonder if Sanders is trying to do too much too fast. Piet Van Lier writes about the district for Catalyst Cleveland magazine.

Piet Van Lier: There’s just this enormous pressure to do things fast and make things happen.

In February, Sanders outlined his ambitious goals for the year: opening the schools of choice, implementing school uniforms and dress codes across the board, and getting from the undesirable “academic watch” designation, up to “continuous improvement. We won’t know if the district achieves that until August, but Van Lier says if Sanders falls short there, it might have the effect of undermining long term progress.

Piet Van Lier: Because they lose hope. You make this high goal, you don’t make it, and it’s hard to tell how the community will react to that.

Sanders this year also vowed to seriously step up safety and security. He cautions that we’re likely to see an increase in violence statistics this year, but he attributes that to more vigilance and better reporting. Still, councilman Polensek says safety needs to be top of the agenda.

Mike Polensek: I ran into two parents recently who live right near a brand new K-8 elementary school, just opened last year. And told me that their children are in charter schools because they didn’t feel safe, because their children were being jumped on.

Polensek attended Collinwood high school at a time when the district had over 100,000 students. With the faltering economy and an exodus to charter schools and the suburbs, Cleveland is projected to have less than half that number of students in the next few years. Still, many are placing a lot of confidence in Sanders. One teacher this week said this year was the first in years her students had new books in the classroom. Sanders clearly hopes his ambitious agenda builds even more confidence next year. Dan Bobkoff, 90.3.

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