Choosing the right school can spell success

When Tamara Nickerson began thinking about educational options for her four-year-old son Ellis, she heard from a co-worker about Stonebrook Montessori, a public charter school in University Circle. Even though there are two Cleveland schools closer to her home in the North Collinwood neighborhood, Nickerson enrolled Ellis in Stonebook.

“He loves it,” says Nickerson of the choice, adding that Hawken was another school she considered. “He loves being at Stonebrook. I love the setup of the classroom. A graduate of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) herself, Nickerson simply wanted to make sure her son went to a school that targeted his needs.

“I’m not saying CMSD is not a good school district, I graduated from it and my siblings graduated from it," she says. "But I wanted an education focused toward him [Ellis] and one that caters to him. Everyone learns differently. Each child has his way of learning and I wanted to foster his style.”

Nickerson had the choice to send her son to Stonebrook instead of the schools in her own neighborhood in part because of the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools.

In 2011, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson charged CMSD, area foundations, the business community and high-performing charter schools to develop a plan to fundamentally reinvent public education in Cleveland. With that, the Cleveland Plan was created. A major part of the plan is to weed out the failing Cleveland schools by 2018, support those schools that excel and make sure families have the ability to choose the right school for their interests and needs.

The nonprofit Cleveland Transformation Alliance was subsequently formed, and one of its goals is to make sure parents and students know their options. “Back in my day, you just went to the school you were assigned to,” says Piet van Lier, Transformation Alliance director of school quality, policy, and communications. “Now, with open enrollment, you can choose your school.”

A key component of the Transformation Alliance’s mission is the ambassador program. The ambassadors are charged with informing the community about their choices. About 23 ambassadors are broken into five geo-clusters: the Southeast, Downtown, East, Near West, and Far West.

“The ambassadors provide outreach to families, helping them make informed choices,” says van Lier. “The ambassadors are key to reaching people who may not be informed. It’s getting people out in the community to communicate to small groups.”

Van Lier explains that getting students in the right schools for them may mean enrolling in a high-performing school or a school that specializes in a science and math curriculum like John Hay High School or a gifted program like Menlo Park Academy.

Other schools that Van Lier highlighted include the charter schools E Prep and Village Prep; Cleveland High School for Digital Arts, which was started by CMSD and the Center for Arts Inspired Learning; and the district’s New Tech programs, which are based on a national model that focuses on project-based learning with a strong tech component.

As an ambassador, Marilyn Burns, who is involved with a variety of community programs, makes it her mission to get students in the CMSD in the right school. “It entails a lot of work, to say the least, but I think that it is very informative for parents that didn’t know that they do have a choice of where their child can go to school," she says. "The number of different schools that are out there to choose from is phenomenal. This program opens the door to a brand new future for our children.”

Burns serves the southeast cluster with other ambassadors, which is the largest cluster and covers some of the Buckeye area, Woodland hills, Central and Broadway. Burns sets up tables at community events and anywhere else groups of parents and students gather.

“When there is an event that has an audience of parents as well as students we try to engage that group and get the information to them about school choice, and also find out what is going on at the school that their child may already be attending,” Burns says.

Not only do the ambassadors inform parents and students of the choices they have available in which school they attend, they also encourage feedback about the schools the students are currently attending. Ann Mullin, Transformation Alliance board member and senior program officer for the Gund Foundation, points out that most parents CMSD children have already made a choice in schools, even if it’s the default choice. A school may have a low report card rating in academics, but that school may offer other amenities, such as transportation or after-school care, that are attractive to a family.

“What they are charged with is directing the parents to become advocates for quality schools, whether they move schools and stay in their current school,” says Mullin. “We want to give them tools to speak with school leaders about what is happening in their schools and what is not happening in their schools and how to change it. You’re an advocate for your child and all the schools in Cleveland.”

Transformation Alliance’s school quality advocate Andrea Foxx says the ambassadors are a great resource for informing parents of the fact that they have a choice in what schools they send their kids to, but they also serve as a community sounding board. “They meet with small clusters and get a handle on what’s going on in the community,” she explains. “They go to school meetings and make sure parents are aware of quality options. But they also allow parents to anonymously talk about the schools – what they like and where they’d like to see improvement.”

The plan is to ensure all schools in the district are high quality. “The overall goal is to make sure there are quality schools in every neighborhood and quality seats available and then fill those seats,” says Foxx. “We want to create a community that is active and involved in the schools they choose.”

Burns enjoys working with parents to find the right school for their children. “The most rewarding for me is getting to see how the kids feel about their school as well as how they feel about their teachers,” she explains. “What they wanted for their future and how determined they were to get there. I saw so many kids with bright futures ahead of them it made me see a promising future ahead for our young and upcoming generation."

Ambassador Tanya Allen also hits community events to inform parents of their options. “A lot of my contacts come from different fairs,” she says. “I set up a table and usually spend five to seven minutes talking to them and I have them fill out a survey. I encourage them to visit [a school], to sign up and take the tour or ask to come in.”

Allen says she sees the major concerns of the parents she meets as getting a quality education, school safety and transportation.

The Transformation Alliance has a new version of its book coming out Friday, which mirrors the website that lists most of the information parents need when choosing a school. The revamped website will also go live this week with interactive tools like school reviews from parents and community members.

Local community development organizations are also working on publications about the schools in their neighborhoods. For instance, the Collinwood neighborhood will have its own book coming out later this month.  The book relies on the students to tell the stories of the neighborhood’s schools.

“We’re trying to focus on art -- children drawing stories about the school day,” says Julia DiBaggio, business development specialist for Northeast Shores Community Development Corporation. “It’s evident through the drawings that they love the schools. It’s personal testimonials from families in the neighborhood and they are not just about the numbers."

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.