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New report details pandemic's impact on CMSD schools. CEO Eric Gordon says 'Don't lose faith'

Say Yes sign outside Cleveland School of the Arts
Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media
The new report contrasts the district's academic gains since the inception of the Cleveland Plan with the losses caused by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has left its mark on every aspect of life, but a new report by several Cleveland philanthropic and educational institutions highlights just how damaging the pandemic has been on the city’s schools.

According to the report, enrollment in pre-K programs dropped by 50 percent in 2021, while chronic absenteeism in K-12 schools doubled, along with drops in enrollment and academic performance. Among the kids who made it to graduation day, fewer were going on to pursue higher education.

The findings are contrasted with the educational strides made prior to the pandemic, including the Cleveland Plan to transform Cleveland’s schools that was first approved in 2012 and a renewed focus on quality preschool education in the city.

“The ten years prior to COVID we were making a lot of progress,” Helen Williams, program director for education at the Cleveland Foundation, told Ideastream Public Media. “More students were going to school, no matter what the level of education, students were doing better, they were graduating in larger numbers. COVID hit and really changed that landscape dramatically.”

Williams likened the pandemic to a natural disaster that left students dealing with grief and trauma. She said the challenge now is to adapt to the “new normal” and, she hopes, rebuild the city’s education system stronger than it was before. The top priorities, Williams said, are getting kids back to school, addressing the significant mental health effects of the pandemic on students, and tailoring education to meet students’ individual needs.

Cleveland schools’ CEO Eric Gordon told Ideastream that what the district needs most is for folks to “believe in my kids, and believe in our educators, that we can and will recover.”

Gordon said some high school students have dropped out entirely to work during the pandemic, while many elementary students are skipping school to care for siblings, because they are worried about getting sick, or simply to take “mental health” days. The best thing parents can do, Gordon said, is to make sure their kids are in school, and they are engaged with their kids’ educational work.

The community, he said, should continue to invest in educational coalitions like the Higher Education Compact, and make sure internships and other opportunities are available to students.

He also encouraged folks to keep in mind that when the next round of school report cards are released, and the district has “lost ground,” to use that as a baseline for recovery rather than a “place to lob criticism and defeat at the district and its kids.”

Gordon thinks the district can get academic results and graduation rates back up in three to five years.

“If we don’t believe in our kids and our ability to recover then we will simply dismiss this as a lost generation and that would be a tragedy,” Gordon said.

Ida Lieszkovszky is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She covers an array of topics, including politics, education, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter @Ida_in_Cle.