Students Confront Mandatory Vegetables, “Zest,” as School Starts in Cleveland

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By Joanna Richards

Bells and cafeteria lunches, math and metal detectors, dress codes, reunions, detentions – it’s the start of the school year for most Northeast Ohio students.

On Collinwood High School’s first day, ninth- and tenth-grade principal Maria Carlson stands in the front hall, just beyond the security checkpoint, ready to welcome students back from summer break.

“Phew! I’m sweating already,” she says. It’s 7:30 in the morning, but the school has no air conditioning, and it’s already heating up – especially for staff bustling before students arrive.

“Good morning,” Carlson greets a hurried woman crossing her path.

“Good morning!” the woman responds brightly, without slowing.

At 7:40, the doors open.

“Read those signs, ladies and gentlemen! Get to know ‘em, okay?” booms a security guard, clearly dusting off a familiar spiel. He’s talking about the posters ahead of the checkpoint, spelling out the dress code and other rules.

When a girl steps up to the x-ray machine, his tone softens.

“Good morning, honey. That goes through too, for me, okay?...Huh? No, no – leave your jewelry on. Just hold your hands up.”

The guard fills a box with half-drunk pop bottles as teenagers move through the lines. He instructs them to pick them up at the end of the day.

Collinwood’s students are nearly all African-American, and poor.

“The socioeconomic status of our students is pretty low, so they have some challenges that come with that. But they’re all very hard-working and we have high expectations of them,” principal Carlson says.

The 10th graders are ushered down an echo-y stairwell into an auditorium, for a video by teachers and staff extolling the values of a new educational model, called New Tech.

The East Side high school has been one of the city district’s poorest performers, so it’s phasing in a new approach to try to turn things around. Carlson’s focusing on transforming the lower grades, while temporary principal Mary Miller oversees the upper grades as the more traditional approach is phased out.  

The video presentation is big on lists of ideals: six themes, three goals, seven character strengths… Honestly, it all gets pretty confusing.

But one thing is clear. Students need “Zest.”

“Zest is approaching every day with enthusiasm!”  enthuses a woman in the video, sparking an eruption of giggles from the seats behind me.   

Zest is probably a bit of a reach, but sophomore Antshawyn Norman is feeling optimistic. He thinks this year will be better than last. 

“I had a really tough time, you know. I was dealing with moving through a new school and having family troubles and stuff. But everything was cool after everything got resolved. And it’s a new year, I’m gonna meet new people, have more fun than I did last year, hopefully. Um – try again. It’ll be nice to just start over and try again.”

In the second-floor hallway, a confused-looking boy stops in front of a doorway.

“What is this?” he asks.

“Two-sixteen,” teacher Naomi LeVeck tells him. He wanders off.

“Good morning. What’s your name?” she asks another boy.

“Donte,” he says, passing her into the classroom.

“I’m Mrs. LeVeck…Good morning!” she repeats. Students are arriving one by one.

“Good morning.”

“I’m Mrs. LeVeck. Who might you be?”

“Aniyah.”

“Aniyah,” LeVeck repeats, as the girl slips through the door.

These sophomores collaborate on projects, and work mostly on laptops. Teachers collaborate, too. This class marries geometry with interior design: geodesign.

LeVeck’s co-teacher Cara Colker is getting things started. Thirteen in her class of 31 showed up for school today.

“We’re so short on kids today and you guys are so awesome for coming to school on the first day – get in a group of four…,” she says.

Principal Carlson says just figuring out who Collinwood’s students are this year could take weeks. Even before school started, teachers and staff went knocking on doors, noting who’s moved, which homes have been abandoned, talking to families, encouraging kids to go to school.

Today, teachers troubleshoot lost computer passwords, forgotten skills – and student behavior.

“If you touch the fan you get a detention!” Colker warns a boy midway through class.

“Jaquan, if I see the cell phone out again, you’re losing your trust pass. Put it away. Thank you.”

“Alright guys…pretty – pretty decent job today. We’ll be better tomorrow,” Colker says. The kids are already stampeding toward the door.  

Next up: lunch.

“Carrots or spinach?” an energetic woman in a hairnet inquires.   

“It won’t be too bad…What you want, sweetheart?” Beads of sweat show on her forehead minutes after the lunch line gets moving.

A finger points to cheese pizza rectangles.  

“Pizza. No spinach? Just a little? You got to get a little. I’m sorry.” She sounds genuinely apologetic.

An official-looking sign nearby, stamped with “USDA,” mandates: “Your lunch MUST include a fruit or vegetable.”

I catch up with sophomore Antshawyn Norman to see how his day’s going. He likes his American history class.

My teachers are pretty cool,” he says over the lunchroom roar. “And the class wasn’t hard, it wasn’t easy. It was, you know – cool.” He and his friends quickly return to discussing zombies and video games.

“This day was so irritatin’!” Alexis Daniels snaps, when I catch the sophomore I met in Colker and LeVeck’s geodesign class earlier in the day.

I ask: “Why’s that?”

“’Cause these teachers are irritatin’ my soul!”

“Your soul?”

“Like, I said I had to pee, and my stomach hurt, and he told me to sit down,” Daniels explains.

“Do you think it’s going to get better?”

“No, it ain’t gonna get better!”

Principal Carlson says overall, though, things are getting better at Collinwood. Starting the new program last year lifted attendance and test scores. 

“The kids are more engaged in their learning,” she says. “I really feel that this model is going to help us.”

This is the final year the school has to meet certain improvement goals, or it could face drastic measures by the district, like takeover by the CEO, replacement of the staff, or even closure.

So Carlson, too, is starting a new school year hoping for better grades.

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