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Cleveland public schools leader says district is strong as he prepares to 'hand off the baton'

Eric Gordon smiles behind a podium at his 2022 State of the Schools speech.
Michaelangelo's Photography
CMSD CEO Eric Gordon delivers his final State of the Schools speech at a City Club of Cleveland event on Sept. 21, 2022.

In his 12th and final State of the Schools speech, outgoing Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon compared his work with CMSD to a role in an important relay race. He said the time is right for him to pass off the baton to his replacement at the end of the school year.

Gordon, in his speech hosted by The City Club of Cleveland at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland’s Public Square, said it’s critical for the success of the schools that he go out on a high note.

“CMSD is healthy, strong and strategically well-positioned in a way we haven’t been for decades,” he said. “Moreover, the district is uniquely prepared to accelerate the momentum we have built together and to face new challenges in the short few years ahead.”

When Gordon took the reins in 2011, the district was in financial and academic distress, the state was threatening to take over operation and public trust in the district was at its lowest.

Gordon made the case that the schools have had a strong turnaround since then, starting with the implementation of the Cleveland Plan in 2012 that meant realignment of the district as a whole.

“The Cleveland Board of Education held me and my team accountable for three critical goals: first, to increase the academic performance of the district and its schools; next, to ensure that CMSD was in strong organizational and financial health; and finally, to restore public trust in our schools,” Gordon said.

Highlights Gordon listed in the time since include:

  • Improvements in K-3 reading skills, improvement on math and reading scores, and “record increases in graduation rates,” from being in the 50% range when Gordon started to roughly 80% in recent years, although that rate took a dip in the last year to 74% due to the pandemic.
  • The approval of three levies and one bond issue to adequately fund the district and significant renovations and construction of new buildings (20 new school facilities were created during Gordon’s tenure)
  • Development of several community strategies and nonprofits, including Say Yes to Education which provides free college tuition to CMSD students who attend four years of high school and live in the district; the Pre4CLE high-quality preschool initiative; and the PACE career planning and exploration program.
  • Strong relationships with labor unions and the building of a “high-quality workforce.”

More recent developments include major improvements to school safety and information technology, a “modernized” bus fleet, as well as the district being “one-to-one” with a laptop or other device for every student and providing a laptop for every graduate as they move toward college or another career after school.
Recent labor negotiations have meant every pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school has a full-time art, music and physical education teacher, and every school has both a full-time health professional and a full-time community, college and career coordinator.

Gordon did not mention the recent controversy over the direction of the school district with regard to public charter schools, with the Cleveland Teachers Union raising concerns about Mayor Justin Bibb boosting support for those schools. Gordon reiterated throughout his speech that it was his decision to step down and that he felt it was the right time to do so.

Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, said she agrees, so long as the next CEO continues the progress started under Gordon.

“As long as we get a new CEO that maintains that vision and maintains that collaborative spirit, and keeps these partners together at the table working together so well, I think we can continue to move forward,” she said.

Meryl Johnson, a member of the state board of education and a retired teacher with over 40 years of experience in Cleveland Schools, said the biggest challenge for Gordon’s replacement will be the ability to connect with the community, which she applauded Gordon’s ability to do so.

“That’s the biggest challenges, especially for people who are not people of color,” she said. “They need to work with the community in a way that they are accepted and trusted. And if they don’t come in understanding that, then they’re not going to get much done.”

Gordon noted some of the district’s scores on the annual state report card have returned to pre-pandemic levels, and he reported that it showed the district having the “highest rating” of any urban school district in Ohio, although he didn’t say how he arrived at that metric.

The report card did show the district having four-star rankings in the “gap closing” and “progress” categories, which were higher than most other urban districts in Ohio, but also one out of five star ratings in the areas of early childhood achievement and graduation rates.

Gordon noted that there have been significant transitions of leadership in many other organizations in the Cleveland area, from city hall to nonprofits like the George Fund Foundation to local universities like Cleveland State University, making it a good time for a change in leadership at CMSD as well.

In his closing remarks, Gordon reiterated the relay race metaphor.

“When we reach the moment of exchange this spring, I will, with more gratitude than I can express here, be fully prepared to pass the baton and to leave a new pair of running shoes fully laced up for the next CEO,” he said.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.