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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

East Cleveland Schools CEO Prepares To Release His Improvement Plan

East Cleveland schools CEO Henry Pettiegrew visits a class at Shaw High School and participates in the discussion with a student about U.S. government. [ideastream]
East Cleveland schools CEO Henry Pettiegrew visits a class at Shaw High School and participates in the discussion with a student about U.S. government.

Dr. Henry Pettiegrew II will announce Thursday his plan to turn around the failing East Cleveland City Schools.

The state took over the district in 2018, after East Cleveland received three consecutive Fs on the state report card.

An academic distress commission was established and eventually hired Pettiegrew, the former Maple Heights Assistant Superintendent, to be East Cleveland schools’ new CEO. He has the powers of both the superintendent and school board.

This type of control granted under House Bill 70 has been controversial in Youngstown and Lorain, the only other districts where it’s been implemented.

There is currently a bill in the statehouse to repeal portions of HB70 and lawsuits are pending, including one before the Ohio Supreme Court.

While all this is playing out, Pettigrew laid out his priorities ahead of a public meeting this week announcing his turnaround plan. 

“The first priority was to touch as many people as I could,” said Pettiegrew. “My first day I had to get in front of the students, I had to get in front of the staff, let them know that I’m here. I’m on the job and I’m going to help cause the revitalization of our school district, so that we can come up with a plan of how we can recover and become a district of excellence, a district that we can truly be proud of.”

What do you think is the main issue why the district has been failing?

I think it’s been mismanaged for over a couple of decades, and it just does not have the new and innovative processes in place. For example, there’s not a coherent systematic way to analyze what students are struggling in specific areas and then give that information to teachers so they can give students what exactly they need to be successful.

There’s a lot of blind guessing and there’s a lot of, ‘We hope things will be successful,’ but there were no systematic programs to determine what’s working and what’s not. So we’ve got a very bloated system. We’re doing everything, but we’re not doing any of those things very well.

Talk about your first meeting with the students.  

Several students have told us that they felt like a prisoner. I’ve had principals say prior to me coming they felt like a warden and I had to get up and get dressed as a warden. And our kids and our adults felt like they were living in a prison for years. So, I would like to present the idea that we can be a learning organization where students can be volunteers. I’ve told my kids already, ‘You don’t have to do the work. You don’t have to. We have to create environments and work that’s so exciting to you that you want to do the work. You are a volunteer.’”

What is the main goal you want to communicate to the district, to the students, to the teachers and to the community about how you are going to turn the school district around?

We’re going to show the plan. And the plan has been developed based on the listening tour and the voice of the people. It is the will of the people that we focus on attendance. We have to get our kids to school every day. We have to focus on the student achievement — our Performance Index which is at about a 56.4 in the last report card. It has to move up so that we can make some true impact on our report card. And we have to stay true to our whole child approach.

It’s going to feel like the community is doing this work. It’s not one person taking over a district and just ruling at will. The community needs to be deeply involved in this work.

There are two other school districts under state control. There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of dissention in those communities against the CEOs Krish Mohip in Youngstown and David Hardy in Lorain. Neither are from Ohio. Do you feel that because you are a graduate from Bedford Heights High School and Cleveland State University and the former Assistant Superintendent of Maple Heights City Schools that will help you?  

I’ve heard that before. ‘Oh, he’s a local guy. That’s why it’s a little different.’ Maybe in part, but I bring a skill set that works very well. I can’t tell you if it would work well somewhere else. But at this place and this time where East Cleveland is and where I am professionally it was a perfect blending of two necessary parties coming together, and we are making success already.

There’s 60 days of work at the time of this interview, and we’re already seeing the changes. The people are happier. They are coming to work early or leaving later. People have smiles on their faces, and it’s not because of the old regime is gone or something new is here. It is because they see the CEO who actually cares about them and wants to see them succeed individually and as a whole school district. I think that’s a little bit of the difference.  

I also have personal ties to this district. I know a lot of people here, both professionally and personally. People who have known me since I was five years old. There’s an accountability on me that I have to make this better. There are people depending on me, and I know the weight of that is also fueling the way I'm going to lead the school district.

House Bill 70 is the law that allows the state to take over failing school districts. But some lawmakers are not happy with the law and there is a bill currently, HB154 , that would repeal portions of HB70. In particular it dissolves the academic distress commissions and CEO position and replaces them with a new system. What are your thoughts that people want to do away with the current way the state handles failing school districts?

It tells me I need to get the test scores up and get this district moving pretty quickly. I don’t know what’s going to happen with HB70, and it’s not on my radar. I’m not here to comment on it one way or the other. But I do know it gives me an urgency that whatever is decided in Columbus or at the state level, it may or may not have an impact on what happens in East Cleveland. But today I have to be about these East Cleveland kids, tomorrow too, and the next day after that. So we’re focused on our children.

darrielle.snipes@ideastream.org | 216-916-6404