Investing in the Future of Young People Is Paying Off

In June, I had the pleasure of introducing four recent graduates of the Cleveland School District at the Cleveland Foundation’s annual meeting. We wanted to showcase top achievers to put a human face on the investment we’ve made in the future of Cleveland’s young people. These college-bound students are a fitting example of why philanthropy matters, today and for generations to come. Let me tell you more about these exceptional young people:

  • Manuel Martinez was the valedictorian of his class and is the first member of his family to attend college. He’s attending Cornell University’s College of Engineering on a full scholarship.
  • David Boone refused to let homelessness keep him from graduating as salutatorian of his school. He’s now at Harvard, one of 22 schools that accepted him.
  • Wesley Greiner was one of 52 participants in the new Cleveland Foundation College Now Scholars program who were accepted at some of the nation’s most selective schools. He is studying biomedical engineering at Stanford University.
  • Nichelle Ruffin was the first recipient of the prestigious Joan C. Edwards Charitable Foundation Scholarship, which will cover her undergraduate studies and four years of medical school at Case Western Reserve University.

While these four young people represent the very best Cleveland has to offer, they are among the select few students who go on to college. Out of every 100 ninth graders in Cleveland, 63 attain a high school diploma. Only 33 go to college—and just nine graduate within six years. We cannot silently stand by and sanction this squandering of lives and talent.

Improving K–12 schooling is the primary thrust of the Cleveland Foundation’s education initiative.In the last five years, we have invested more than $10 million to improve the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and associated charter schools. We’re bringing vast resources to bear because our region’s decline is closely linked with the failure to educate our children.

In 2006, we teamed with the school district, the Cleveland Teachers Union, the George Gund Foundation, and other community partners to begin creating a high-performing school system within the old. The schools in this “portfolio” operate with a high degree of autonomy, testing promising new approaches in exchange for accountability. By 2011, the portfolio comprised 13 district schools and seven charter schools partnering with the district.

Focused on innovation and excellence, these schools as a cohort outperform their peers on almost every measure. Largely as a result of this portfolio approach, the number of Cleveland district and charter schools rated “excellent” or “effective” increased from 14 in 2006 to 37 in 2011. (You can read more about four of these high performing schools in the summer 2012 issue of our donor publication, Donor Connections.)

Acute challenges remain. The majority of the district’s approximately 43,000 students do not receive a quality education. Some 55 percent of Cleveland’s district and charter schools were in academic watch or academic emergency last year. In one-third of Cleveland neighborhoods, children have access only to failing schools.

We’ve been tackling this issue in the state capital as well as Cleveland. With our partners, we’ve pushed for changes in state law to improve teacher quality, foster innovation, and strengthen ties between school districts and high-performing charter schools.

We inched toward these goals in 2011. Included in the biennial state operating budget were the framework for a new teacher evaluation system, some limits on seniority as the sole factor in layoffs, an “innovation school” and “innovation zone” designation to encourage new educational models, and authorization for Teach for America to enter Ohio. Funded in part with a $750,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation, this well-regarded program is placing up to 100 teachers annually in schools in and around Cleveland, starting with the 2012 school year.

In February 2012, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson revealed a sweeping plan to take the portfolio school concept to scale, tripling the number of Cleveland students enrolled in high-performing schools and eliminating failing schools within six years. The Cleveland Foundation had significant input in shaping this plan, and we and our partners contributed financially to its development.

After negotiation and compromise, the reform plan gained the support of the Cleveland Teachers Union and ultimately, the approval of the Ohio Legislature and the signature of Gov. John Kasich. Again, the Cleveland Foundation played a prominent role in advocating for passage of the enabling legislation. On Election Day, Cleveland residents passed a school operating levy—the first approved in Cleveland in 16 years—that will provide an estimated $63 million a year for the reform effort.

Among key provisions, the plan mandates a performance-based evaluation and compensation system for teachers and principals, eliminates seniority as the primary criterion in layoffs, creates a panel to review charter school sponsors, and permits the district to share local tax revenues with partnering charter schools to lengthen the school day and year and to intervene quickly in failing schools. We view this bold plan as a watershed in the continuing struggle to educate all of Cleveland’s children.

Ronn Richard is the president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation.

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