breakthrough: will charter schools save cleveland's neighborhoods?

The morning of the Ohio Achievement Assessment, teachers at Citizens Academy hand the students letters of encouragement written by their parents. These notes give the children a much-needed confidence boost for the all-important annual exam, the results of which will determine who moves on to the next grade and how the school will perform on its own report card.

This simple gesture is more than symbolic; last year, students at this K-5 charter school in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood earned scores on par with Solon, the highest-ranked district in the state. Citizens also earned a coveted "Excellent" rating from the Ohio Department of Education. These results are in spite of long odds: More than 80 percent of its students are poor and African-American.

To earn these impressive results, Citizens uses an innovative academic model that includes longer school days, teacher home visits, individualized achievement plans, an emphasis on parental involvement, and a school-wide culture of high expectations.

"We believe that all children can succeed," says Margie Hirschfeld, the Model Leader of Citizens Academy. "We want to provide high-quality education to children in Cleveland."

Just a few blocks away, Citizens Academy is opening a new middle school, Citizens Leadership Academy. Its efforts have been aided by Breakthrough Schools, a group of three high-performing charter schools that banded together two years ago to share services and raise money. In addition to Citizens Academy, the two other members of Breakthrough are Entrepreneurial Preparatory School (E-Prep) and The Intergenerational School (TIS).

Breakthrough is helping to launch four new schools in the next two years, thanks in part to support from local foundations as well as a $2 million grant from the national Charter School Growth Fund. In tandem with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District's (CMSD) ambitious Transformation Plan, the group's leaders say they are changing the city's educational landscape and providing families with better school choices.

"Our goal is to open 20 schools by 2020, which would allow us to serve 7,000 students," says Alan Rosskamm, CEO of Breakthrough Schools and retired CEO of Jo-Ann Fabric. "For too long, urban schools blamed the customer, saying kids from disadvantaged backgrounds can't learn. We're taking away the excuses and helping kids become successful and graduate from college."

Growing New Schools

Charles Orr Elementary School in Hough closed in June as a result of CMSD's declining enrollment and budget problems. The news shocked parents who sent their kids here -- the school had recently been rated "Continuous Improvement" by the state.

Yet this week, the building is again bustling with life thanks to the launch of Citizens Leadership Academy, a brand new 6th-8th grade middle school. The school has had little trouble recruiting students -- more than two-thirds of the graduating fifth-grade class at Citizens Academy has been enrolled by pleased parents.

Citizens Academy decided to open the new middle school after Breakthrough purchased the building from CMSD, along with three other schools that had been closed. Breakthrough plans to open two more new schools -- a second Citizens Academy elementary and another E-Prep middle school -- in fall of 2012.

"We're taking boarded-up schools in Cleveland's neighborhoods and bringing them back to life," says Rosskamm. "This is about keeping families in the city."

To that end, Breakthrough member The Intergenerational School is opening a new elementary school, Near West Intergenerational School, in the lower level of CMSD's Garrett Morgan School of Science in Ohio City. TIS decided to open a school here after being recruited to do so by members of a local babysitting co-op. It's the first time a charter school has ever leased space at a CMSD school.

Naturally, the move thrills parents like David and Jen Hovis, a research associate and physician, respectively, who live in Ohio City and lobbied for the Near West Intergenerational School.

"I'm excited to be able to send my son to kindergarten just blocks from my house, where the student population will cross all of the socioeconomic lines we have in Cleveland and he will get a great education besides," David Hovis explains.

The import of recent events like these are certainly not lost on Rosskamm, who says, "I believe we've stumbled on a wonderful moment in history. It's not about Democrat versus Republican. It's about good schools versus bad schools."

Charter Schools vs. District Schools

Despite Breakthrough's success, charter schools in Ohio still are a hot-button issue. The decision whether or not to lease space at Garrett Morgan to NWIS was fiercely contested during a CMSD board meeting this past spring. The Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU) lobbied against it, saying the school would divide the community, and two CMSD board members voted it down. After a lengthy debate, the board voted 7-2 to support it.

Historically, school districts and teachers unions have opposed charter schools, arguing that they hurt district schools by siphoning off motivated, high-achieving students. The proliferation of charters, they've suggested, creates a two-tiered education system that leaves behind the most disadvantaged students – those lacking parental advocates.

In recent years, however, the context of the debate has shifted in favor of charter schools, due in part to mounting evidence that high-performing charters can be a tool for achieving educational reform. In an interview, CTU President David Quolke admitted that partnerships between high-performing charters and district schools could be helpful.

"I get the fact that charter schools are not going away, and we'll support high-performing charters," he said. "One of the things that Breakthrough Schools does really well is to empower its teachers. There are things we can learn from each other."

Christine Fowler-Mack, the Director of the CMSD's Office of New and Innovative Schools, agrees. "We can absolutely learn from others," she says, adding that CMSD sponsored Breakthrough's schools this year after a rigorous vetting process that included review by national experts in charter/public school partnerships. In the past, Breakthrough's member schools were sponsored by school districts outside of Cleveland.

Rosskamm refutes the argument that Breakthrough schools are exclusive, stating that they are community-based public schools. "There are entire neighborhoods in the city where all of the district schools are in 'Academic Emergency,' and we offer an alternative," he says. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that "parents must seek us out" to enroll their kids. By comparison, district schools accept every student in a given area.

Portfolio Approach

In recent years, the number of high-performing schools in Cleveland has increased dramatically -- and they are not all charter schools. Of the 34 high-performing schools in the city, according to Rosskamm, half are district schools and half are charter schools.

"Within our portfolio of new and innovative schools, we have many new schools that are achieving at a high level," adds Fowler-Mack. "We want to make this the norm, not the exception. That's where charters come in -- we can share best practices."

CMSD's Academic Transformation Plan, which was started under former CEO Eugene Sanders, calls for providing more school options to students, closing failing schools, opening new and innovative schools, and breaking down the city's largest comprehensive high schools into smaller, themed academies.

A year into executing the plan, CMSD so far has closed 23 low-performing schools, opened three new ones, and earned $30 million in federal "Race to the Top" money. These funds are being used in part to help students from closed schools transition to new ones.

Despite this progress, however, CMSD has a graduation rate of just 54 percent, and last year, two-thirds of its schools received a D or F on the state report card. Much progress must be made before it reaches the lofty 90-percent graduation rate called for in the plan.

Yet Rosskamm sees visible progress, especially in the school's leadership. "CEO Eric Gordon is a wonderful educator," he says. "He's really embraced the idea of a portfolio school district, where there are lots of different innovative schools, including charters."

Funding Gap

Despite the success of schools like Citizens Academy, there is a major funding gap between charter schools and district schools. While charter schools in Ohio receive a share of state tax revenues, they do not receive any local tax dollars. Thus, if a student leaves a district school for a charter, one-third of that student's funding remains with CMSD.

"If there ever was a civil rights issue in today's society, this is it," says Rosskamm. "We're operating on less funding than district schools, so we're at a disadvantage."

One of Rosskamm's biggest jobs is helping member schools bridge this funding gap. While Citizens Academy and other schools have long eyed expansion plans, they've been hampered by the need to raise millions each year in supplemental funding.

"Now that Breakthrough is helping us, our mission is so much easier because we don't have to worry about fundraising," says CA's Hirschfeld. "We can focus on education."

Until Breakthrough and other charter advocates are successful in changing how schools are funded in Ohio, they'll be forced to rely on private fundraising to plug the gap. Fortunately, the group's successes already have attracted major supporters. Lubrizol Corporation recently donated $1 million for a new Citizens Academy elementary school."

Changing the Conversation

Ultimately, Rosskamm says, high-performing charter schools have the potential not only to provide choices for urban families, but also to spur change within CMSD. It's no accident that CMSD sponsored Breakthrough's member schools this year, he says; after watching enrollment numbers plummet for decades, it finally saw the light.

"The district can get credit for charter schools' test scores, and that's a good thing because it benefits them," he says. "We should all be part of one portfolio system."

Rosskamm is also heartened by signs that citizens at the neighborhood level are reaching across ideological lines to embrace all kinds of reform. He recently attended a meeting about E-Prep's plans to relocate to a school in the Glenville neighborhood, and received a warm welcome from the councilperson, clergy and community members.

"I think anyone doing a good job should be welcomed, because we all need to play a role," he says. "It will take all of our efforts to create good schools of all kinds."

Photos 1 - 5: Bob Perkoski
Photos 6 - 10: Courtesy of Breakthrough Schools

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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