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What is the Cleveland Plan, and what does it say about charter schools?

Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
CMSD CEO Eric Gordon announcing the PRE4CLE preschool plan in 2014. He will be stepping down at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. What will his departure mean for the Cleveland Plan?

Outgoing Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon was instrumental in development of the Cleveland Plan to reform the city’s public education system, a plan that Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb says he wants to “double down” on in partnership with the next CEO.

So what is this plan exactly?

First, a brief look back in history. In 2011, Cleveland’s schools were in serious financial and academic distress, prompting serious scrutiny from the state. Student achievement levels were incredibly poor at the district, and only about 52% of students were graduating. Enrollment was plummeting as a result.

So CMSD, the city of Cleveland, local nonprofits and other agencies joined forces to develop a plan that was ultimately approved by the Ohio legislature and then-Governor John Kasich to try to improve the quality of education at a rapid pace.

The plan ultimately called for transforming CMSD into a “new system of district and charter schools that are held to the highest standards,” according to the plan’s executive summary.

“The plan is built upon growing the number of excellent schools in Cleveland, regardless of provider, and giving these schools autonomy over staff and budgets in exchange for high accountability for performance,” the summary reads.

The plan also established the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, a nonprofit organization meant to vet new public charter schools coming in the city and to monitor relations between those charter schools and district schools. In the time since, a levy approved by voters included a 1.5-mill tax allocation that gives additional funding to “high-quality” charter schools that partner with CMSD schools, Executive Director Meghann Marnecheck said. That includes 17 local public charter schools.

CEO Eric Gordon said the partnership with charter schools goes back before his time as the head of CMSD.

“I am the person that led this district to partner with charter schools, I mean, that was not a thing done in the state of Ohio,” Gordon told Ideastream Public Media Tuesday, following the announcement of his decision to step down at the end of the school year. “As the CIO (Chief Information Officer), when I came here in 2007, I urged us to stop fighting over kids and start working collaboratively to get kids in better seats.”

Helen Williams, education program director with the Cleveland Foundation, was part of the group that worked on creation of the Cleveland Plan. She recalls that initially, Ohio was like the “wild west” of charter schools, with few regulations in place. Things have gotten better since, she said, but at the time Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and other partners lobbied the conservative state government to grant them more authority on which charter schools could open in the city.

“But the city did not get the authority that it wanted at the time,” Williams said, citing different priorities among state legislators.

The Transformation Alliance was created to provide some level of review of new charter schools opening in the city, Marnecheck said, but it doesn’t have the authority to stop them from opening up. She explained that the Alliance is notified of any new charters intending to open up and sends recommendations to the Ohio Department of Education on its support of those schools. But the department ultimately has final authority.

In the time since the Cleveland Plan was developed, there have been a number of positive developments on the education front in Cleveland, Williams and Gordon said. The Say Yes Cleveland program, implemented in 2019, provides free college tuition to all CMSD students living in the district along with expanded wraparound support services to help them succeed. Several organizations have taken root including PRE4CLE and the Higher Education Compact. And the district recently introduced PACE, a career and technical education exploration program.

Academic quality at CMSD has improved significantly in tandem with the new programming, according to a 2021 update on the Cleveland Plan, including the following changes between 2013 and 2019:

  • CMSD’s high school graduation rate increased from 64% to 80%.
  • K-3 literacy rates have grown by 4.4%.
  • Cleveland has almost doubled the number of young children enrolled in “high-quality” preschool.
  • The percentage of CMSD graduates who needed remediation in post-secondary math or English dropped from 76% to 53%.

During that time, the number of public charter schools in Cleveland expanded from 49 to 59, although the number of students enrolled remained relatively static, a little more than 14,500. That’s compared to CMSD losing about a thousand students during that same time, from 38,724 students in 2012-2013 to 37,158 students in 2019-2020.
Much more work is left to be done to improve the quality of education in Cleveland, Williams and Gordon both acknowledged. Williams says students will need more and higher-quality learning time, potentially through improved after-school program offerings.

Gordon said he hopes his successor joining Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb on a larger “youth agenda” will be critical in the coming years.

“We have to get at the social determinants that keep kids trapped… you can’t move the education needle without moving the digital divide, without moving poverty, without removing segregation,” Gordon said.

With Gordon set to hang up the reigns at the end of the school year, it’ll be up to his successor to continue that work.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.