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Real school reform starts with a conversation

“When the going gets tough…”

When faced with great adversity, the hope is that we rise to overcome it. That hope extends outward to our schools and communities.

But hope, as they say, is not a strategy.

All one has to do is look at recent turmoil in places such as Chicago and Detroit.  The struggle is real—and schools and families across the country are up against it. Administrative infighting, political posturing, and poor communication make solutions all that more difficult to realistically achieve. Before schools can get better, our education leaders—from the statehouse to the classroom—first must find a better way.

That’s the sort of big-picture thinking that’s going on in Cleveland, where education officials are in the fourth year of a transformational plan to redesign the district’s schools and classrooms in the face of modern hardships, including fewer resources, shrinking enrollments, and competition.

Bold, and, in some ways, controversial, the Cleveland Plan proposed sweeping changes to the ways the district historically operated. As with any large-scale reform, there was risk of discord. But officials were able to push the plan forward by prioritizing parent and community engagement from the outset.

This year, the district is reviewing its progress as it contemplates next steps. Here’s a little more about the plan—and how it works.

The strategy
The Cleveland plan follows the “portfolio strategy” adopted by several major cities, including New York, Baltimore, Denver, and others. The strategy essentially de-centralizes power from the district and gives more autonomy to individual schools.

There are four main steps to this approach:

  • Increase the number of high-performing schools and close failing ones. The Cleveland plan calls for full open enrollment, allowing students to attend whichever school they wish. It also encourages the creation of more charter schools.
  • Transform the role of the district central office. In an effort to fight perceived bureaucracy, the plan gives schools more autonomy based on their performance. It also empowers schools to make budget decisions.
  • Introduce major district-wide reforms. The Cleveland plan calls for major operational and educational changes, including expanded preschool education, a year-round schedule, more support for charter schools, and other additions.
  • Create the Cleveland Transformation Alliance. This private-public partnership is a system for assessing school performance as well as a way to engage parents and community members. Its goal: to include the community in efforts to improve the city’s public schools.

Implementation and collaboration
More charter schools? Less district control? More school choice? Year-round schooling? Strong opposition to any one of these ideas could have sunk the program before it got off the ground.

But that didn’t happen in Cleveland. Why? One word: communication.

Following the plan’s initial release, and prior to any major policy changes, the city asked the school community for gut-level feedback on its strategy. Through a series of online surveys, town-hall meetings, emails, and public forums, teachers, parents, staff, and community members provided valuable insights. Cleveland then re-worked its entire strategy based on their feedback.

The result of those efforts was the 2012 passage of a multi-million-dollar levy to fund the school district’s transformation—a strong vote of confidence for the plan.

At the end of this year, that levy will expire. Community members will have to decide if the Cleveland plan is delivering on its promises.

Education officials and other supporters are again banking on community engagement and input to keep the reforms on track. As the city states in its 2012-2016 implementation plan, “Satisfied ‘customers’ are CMSD’s best ambassadors for creating demand.”

To that end, Cleveland is strengthening community partnerships between its schools and local businesses and organizations. It’s also doubling down on parental engagement through parent liaisons, advisory groups, and increased collaboration between teachers and parents. The schools will report their progress publicly, so that parents and others have a clearer picture of their progress overall.

What steps does your district take to engage community members in its reform efforts? Tell us in the comments.

Want to learn more about the benefits of community engagement and improved customer service? Get the School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Navigating Customer Service.