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'The most important work I have ever done.' Former CMSD CEO looks back on 12 years at helm

Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon at the City Club of Cleveland
Michaelangelo's Photography
Now-former Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon speaks at the City Club of Cleveland late last year.

This is the first week of new Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Warren Morgan's tenure, and it also marks the official end of former CEO Eric Gordon's contract, who guided the school district for 12 years.

Gordon was appointed CEO in 2011 when the school district was in a near state of crisis, facing the threat of takeover by the state due to financial woes, plummeting enrollment and poor academic performance. Since then, the district has seen progress in multiple important areas, including improved graduation rates and increased enrollment in prekindergarten programs, although the pandemic-related school closures erased some of those gains.

Gordon has attributed that growth, in part, to the Cleveland Plan, a cross-city effort that brought together the city, local nonprofits, the Ohio legislature and others to create a holistic framework to support the district while also leaving room for growth of charter schools in the city. Along with that, the district received voter support for three levies to improve the district's financial outlook during Gordon's tenure.

As Morgan takes over the reins of one of Ohio's largest school districts, Gordon reflected on his time at CMSD during an exit interview with Ideastream during his last days as CEO. Gordon was about to take one of the first long vacations in years and will begin a new high-level administrative role atCuyahoga Community College, known as Tri-C, next week.

Gordon's responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

How are you feeling about the future of the district after 12 years as the CEO?

Well, I'm really pleased that Dr. Morgan was the selected CEO because I know him. I hired him into his first district-level role when he came to Cleveland in 2014. So I know firsthand that he has the talent and the skill to do the job well. And I also know that he has the professional humility to understand that there are not simple solutions to really complex problems. So that sets him up, in my opinion, for great success. And because we have a personal relationship, I also believe that if and when I can be helpful, he will allow me to be so. This could have gone many, many different ways. And to have one of our own coming home feels really good to me.

There were plenty of challenging times during your tenure, including immediately when you became CEO in 2011 when the district was facing significant financial challenges. Can you talk more about that?

There's been plenty. You may not remember, but when I first got the role as CEO, I, along with Mayor Jackson and then-Board Chair Denise Link, sent a letter to the governor to try to get some immediate reforms. And I had been a really highly respected CAO (chief academic officer) that suddenly blew up the world even before I ever sat in the seat. So I started in a challenging time, and my first challenge was to restore enough cuts to make the district able to operate after we'd laid off 1,400 teachers. So, I've done some of that and also, you know, have obviously lived through the pandemic. As you know, that was an incredible challenge like none of us could have ever predicted. And I remember telling people that everything was going to be OK, even when I didn't know if it was. So, there have been challenges along the way, but there's been way more joy over all of those years. It's been a great, great place to work.

1,400 people? Wow.

Yeah. So the interim CEO had to lay off 1,400 people to balance the budget. The problem was that we didn't have enough people to actually teach. We would have had like 50 or 60 people in a classroom. So I immediately had to find a way to bring back teachers and make other cuts like extracurriculars, cutting art, music and (physical education) out of the school day to shorten the day, along with early childhood education. And that was before we were able to get the Cleveland Plan in place and go get that first levy.

Changing gears a bit, what were some moments of joy that came during your tenure?

At every turn, it's about the kids. I've got so many examples. It's almost hard to give them. But one that is particularly meaningful to me was during the pandemic, I didn't realize how much time I spent with kids in schools and... at programs and at athletic events and everything until you couldn't do it anymore. And there's no really delicate way to stand at the back of a Zoom room. And I was feeling really, really isolated. And somebody sent me a video of the dance students from Cleveland School of the Arts who were all at home and they were choreographing their sophisticated dance routine. And I remember this one young woman who was literally dancing in the L-shaped space around her bed because that's the only place that she had to be perfecting that craft. But she was doing it, and she was doing it beautifully.

I remember the drive-through graduations where I stood out in the rain half the time and cooked in the sun the other half of the time. And I just finished 25 graduations over the last couple of weeks because it's important to me to see every one of those kids go across that stage. And even today, I got a picture sent to me from one of their summer learning experiences where two students who are beginning a new musical instrument were in their lunch recess time, on their own accord, practicing their instrument. You know, it's those little moments of watching kids find joy and adventure and learning that have just made it such a great experience all these years.

Especially with the pandemic-related school closures’ disruption to students’ learning, what challenges does the district face as it moves forward?

I mean, the pandemic did what we knew it did. It hurt, particularly early literacy, where you can't learn to read because you're not in school or because your face is covered, and you can't see people talking. And it hit us in graduation rates because kids went to work, right? But if you also look at last year's report card, and I'm confident what you'll see on this year too, is that our progress scores and our gap-closing scores were some of the best in the state. And that's evidence that we were growing rapidly before the pandemic. And we are coming out of the pandemic again, improving rapidly. And so I'm very confident that the district's headed in the right direction and can and will recover.

Are there any important lessons you learned as CEO that you'd like to share?

Well, you may not remember, but I actually was the "surprise CEO." I had applied for the job and got cut. I didn't make it to the finalist round. And when it went to the final round, I was invited to serve as the interim while they were going to restart the search. And I politely declined and said, "If you want to give me the job on a one-year no-frills contract and test me out, and if I can't do the job, fire me."

And here I am 12 years later, I will tell you that, honestly, a superintendent's license did not prepare me for this job. I wish I had had an MBA or something because I had to reorganize my thinking that I'm running a billion-dollar corporation. And that's very different than how you run a smaller school district where you're the superintendent. So I actually had to park a lot of my academic officer skills and focus on other things, like the finances, like talent, like the infrastructure, the organizational structure, public trust, the politics, all of these other things that they didn't teach me in superintendent school.

I recall you telling some students about some of the challenges you and your family faced growing up. Could you share a little bit about how that informs your philosophy on education?

A lot of times people become teachers because they love school. And I actually didn't have a great school experience. I had great teachers along the way, but my overall experience was not great. And I actually went into education in large part because I knew it could be better.

My mom and stepdad both worked two jobs to feed their family and keep our home and so they were the family that often gets accused of not being engaged and not caring about their kids. When in fact the single worst fight my mom and I had when I was in high school was she was mad because I'm doing my homework in front of the television and good parents don't let their children do that. So, she was very engaged. But, people often attributed what they observed and what her capacity was and created judgment (based) on it.

I lived in poverty at points in my life. And so I understand what it's like when you have to get food from pantries or fire stations or donations. And so I just have had some lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our kids and families. But (those experiences) always reminded me to be empathetic, always to remind me, and to remind others that our families are doing the best job that they have the ability and skills to do. They love their children every bit as much as other people, and they're not keeping their good kids at home and sending their bad kids to us. They're sending their kid. And we've got to meet them where they are, and we have to approach with the expectation that this is somebody who loves their children very much and is doing the very best job that they are able to do. And our job is to help them be a success.

Is there anything else you want to say to the community as your tenure at CMSD comes to a close?

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have led this organization for 12 years and to work here for more than half of my career. It is so rare that an urban superintendent gets to do this work for 12 solid years, and it is the most important work I have ever done in my life and likely will ever do in my life. So I just want everyone in Cleveland to know how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to play a small part in the success of children in Cleveland. And also, just know that we're in great hands with Dr. Morgan, and I look forward to everybody getting behind him and supporting him so that we can continue the great work that's going on in this district.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.