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Q&A: CEO Gordon On How CMSD Will 'Put This Brutal Year Behind Us'

Academic loss occurred this year, in part, because remote learning "attendance was spotty," according to CMSD CEO Eric Gordon.
CMSD Summer Learning Experience Graphic

Next week the Cleveland Metropolitan School District will begin the first of two month-long summer sessions offered to all students. The sessions will go well beyond the typical summer school offered to students who need a couple of credits or some remediation. As Eric Gordon, the district’s CEO, told ideastream’s Jenny Hamel, it’s a response to an academic year completely overshadowed by the pandemic.

What does your summer programming look like and how was it impacted by the pandemic?

What we’ve created – and we’re intentionally not calling it summer school, we’re calling it the Summer Learning Experience – is a customizable experience where kids and their families can design their own experience that really does three things: finish, enrich and engage.

So, “finish” is finishing that unfinished learning. We didn’t lose the ability to learn, but we lost a lot of time. So, focusing on the big ideas and reading, the conceptual understanding of numbers, which is the gateway to algebra at the high school level. It is credit recovery, but it’s also credit flexibility where you can take a part of a class that you didn’t finish instead of taking the whole class over again. You can pick up extra credits, maybe world languages, you can take ACT/SAT prep. But the first portion is “finish.”

The second is “enrich.” So, these are four-week projects in the arts, humanities, STEM, career tech education, high school transition or my favorite, “I love the land.” And so the student will pick the project that they’re interested in, and they'll spend four weeks on a project-based learning, where they’ll finish the project with a demonstration of learning on a day where they show the community, “Here’s what I learned this four weeks.”

And then the final is “engage.” We have to get our kids back, engaged with their friends, making new friends, getting their social-emotional health back. And so we’re partnering with a lot of our out-of-school time providers to provide athletic camps and band camps and After-School All-Stars and Boys and Girls clubs and all those things that kids didn’t get to do.

Is there any data that flowed to the district that made you realize there was loss that occurred? I'm just wondering what you're seeing, as CEO, that made you go, “This needs to be pretty comprehensive.”

I mean, we know from the remote attendance records that attendance was spotty and inconsistency is, by nature, going to create gaps. We also know that our testing data that we were able to get in reading and math, although not as dramatically low as we had anticipated, was lower.

But, also, we just kind of intuitively know how hard this year was. And so we just really said to ourselves, “We have to put this just brutal year behind us and we have to bring joy and adventure back into education and really re-engage our kids and community in learning.”

So this summer experience isn’t only for kids who maybe didn’t get all of their learning last year. This is for our accelerated kids. This is for gifted students. It’s for English learners. We just felt like we needed something that brought finality to the experience that kids and families have had and give them great experiences to replace it with. 

I know this takes money, and I also know in speaking with other districts and from what’s being told on a national level, public school districts seem to be on the receiving end of a historic infusion of federal relief funds. What does that look like for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District? And can you give me a sense of how the district is going to use this money? 

So, we are really fortunate to be the beneficiaries of historic funding with the caveat that it’s three-year funding. It’s a cliff. And so we're being cautioned all over the country not to make investments that we plan to continue. I’m actually pushing a little on that. I’m actually trying to build an experience that we need to continue to advocate for fair funding in Ohio and that our taxpayers will be willing to continue to support. So summer experience is a part of that bet, that summer should be a great learning experience for all kids, not just remediation for some.

Maintaining technology one-to-one for all students and their teachers and having a four-year cycle of refreshing, where a senior would leave with their high school computer, and the ninth grader would get the new four-year model. Expanding art, music and physical education, particularly in our pre-K through 8 schools and extending the length of the day so kids can have middle school choir and band and orchestra and art club and things of that nature. Putting health professionals in every building so that there's a full time health professional.

Those are bets that, you know, frankly, a lot of us are being cautioned not to do because the money will go away. I actually think that we have a responsibility to provide a much better learning experience for all of our kids with these resources to make the case that we have to continue to resource schools effectively to give kids what they deserve.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”