By Mansfield Frazier
The last question asked by moderator Joe Frolik (chief editorial writer at the PD) at the “Community Conversation” on transforming Cleveland schools, held on Monday, Feb. 11, at the Idea Center, was perhaps the most critical of the evening: “What about Pre-K?” He undoubtedly saved the toughest question for last — for when time was running out —since he knew no one on the panel of very bright and dedicated people had an adequate answer. Nonetheless the question looms large in the schools transformation debate.
Fresh off a ballot-box victory where voters opted to provide the schools with $63 million a year for four years, Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon demonstrated why Mayor Frank Jackson had enough faith in this administrator (who served for four years as the District’s chief academic officer) to put him in charge: Gordon is amazingly bright. He’s also very fortunate to have a partner in the transformation process, David Quolke, president of the 6000-member Cleveland Teachers Union, who is equally bright; and both are totally dedicated to making transformation work this time.
They both have been around public education long enough to become hard-nosed realists: Changing how Cleveland school kids are educated is not going to be a cakewalk by any means. While Gordon and Mayor Jackson won some much-needed concessions from Gov. Kasich (whose bit of financial legerdemain in regards to school funding is fooling absolutely no one), concessions that had to be in place if the schools were to move forward, we need to be mindful of the statewide politics that always seem to come into play.
Ohio still is a place where the state school board president, Debe Terhar, can post an image of Hitler on Facebook, making a comparison between the most despised mass murder the world has ever known and President Obama … simply because she doesn’t agree with the latter’s stance on gun control. Terhar is mostly likely one of those right-wing ideologues (read: nut job) who believes creationism should be taught in public schools instead of evolution, that global warming is a myth being perpetuated by pointy-headed intellectuals, and the moon landing was faked in the desert somewhere outside of Roswell, New Mexico; disturbingly, as of this writing, she’s still in her position. This woman represents the kind of loony reactionaries we’re forced to contend with here in Ohio as we attempt to reform our schools.
The truce between the Teachers Union and the Administration seems to be holding; we’ve finally got somewhat of a handle on the charter schools issue; and an intelligent plan to drastically improve educational outcomes is in place. However, the one glaring issue that has everyone whistling past the graveyard is Pre-K education.
All of the positive changes in the works will mean little if we continue to allow children to enter kindergarten woefully unprepared for learning … and no amount of tinkering around the edges will make a bit of difference until this issue is addressed.
Certainly the changes outlined in the Cleveland Plan are necessary, and indeed, long overdue. No one can argue against greater teacher accountability and the call to remove the consistently under-performing ones from the classroom. But, on the other hand, we simply have to stop expecting professional educators to become surrogate parents; it’s not their job, and they can’t do it well even if they wanted to. Children have to be made ready for their educational careers in the home, by their parents (with assistance if necessary), and it has to start at birth. And some parents are in dire need of help.
When Joe Frolik posed the question: “What about Pre-K?” Eric Gordon responded that moves were being made (he didn’t have time to outline them) to address the issue by bringing four-year-olds into the formal educational process, and eventually three-year-olds as well. I would have liked for him to have kept moving backward all the way to birth, but he was only addressing those ages he might reasonably be able to reach in the near (or distant) future.
Changing educational orthodoxy has been difficult, but at last more and more educators are beginning to wrap their minds around the notion of instituting what Geoffrey Canada has successfully been doing with the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). His programs work since he starts at the beginning of life (and even before) by helping expectant mothers with education classes that teach childcare and nutrition, among other commonsense things. It’s all too easy for adults equipped with these skills to simply demand that undereducated parents do things they simply have not been trained to do.
More and more public school administrators, like Gordon, are realizing that total wraparound services for families in need are critical to the success of their mission. And we simply have to figure out a way to deliver such services… mindful of the fact that if we don’t, all of the changes called for in the Cleveland Plan will mean little … it will be doomed to failure.
Canada has been successful because he’s been able to get the philanthropic and business communities in New York City to fund his programs and we have to do the same thing here.
It’s easy to imagine risk-averse funders not wanting to waste money, and the way Cleveland schools have failed to make requisite changes in the past no doubt gives them pause; and the fact Cleveland was one of the nine cities recently mentioned in a report by Ohio Auditor David Yost accusing them of “scrubbing” attendance data certainly doesn’t help. But, in spite of past failures, this time there’s real feeling things are going to be different; success this time is possible if we simply address the totality of the problems that have derailed efforts in the past.
What needs to happen now is for the corporate community, along with government, to come up with a plan to assure that every child born in the county gets off to a good start educationally, similar to how we assure they receive adequate healthcare. If the parent is equipped and capable of doing this, fine, no intervention needed. But the parents that are not as capable (due to a lack of education on their part or whatever the reason) have to be provided with a visiting tutor to make sure the child receives all of the educational stimulation as the children of middleclass parents receive. The result, in the overwhelming number of cases, will be a child that’s ready to start kindergarten and have a successful educational career. This is absolutely critical.
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for “… high-quality Pre-K education to be available to every child in America,” and he recently visited an elementary school to reinforce his message. POTUS is promising that federal funding will available to implement such programming over time, but we here in Cleveland need some investing of our own; our kids should not have to wait.
What needs to happen locally is for Mayor Jackson, Ed FitzGerald, Eric Gordon, Kurt Karakul of the Third Federal Foundation, and perhaps the good folks from PNC (who hail from Pittsburgh but put our local corporations to shame in terms of civic involvement) to step to Greater Cleveland’s philanthropic and corporate communities and press them real hard to get financially involved. Wealthy organizations (even non-profits, like our local hospitals) need to be reminded that the citizens of Cleveland stepped up and did their civic duty by passing a levy … they put real dollars on the table; and organizations that consistently find ways to avoid sharing the burden of providing a quality education to children throughout Greater Cleveland need to do their part, similar to how HCZ is supported in New York.
The recently proposed county plan to give each student a hundred bucks towards a scholarship might sound magnanimous (well-intentioned, but ill-conceived as it might be) but those funds would perhaps be better used to intercede in the child’s life at the beginning by helping to assure, from birth, that no child is left behind.
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available again in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author by visiting http://www.NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com.