CLEVELAND, Ohio – At the height of the pandemic, while students everywhere grappled with remote learning, Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon noted that well-meaning outsiders were recognizing, for the first time, the deep inequities and barriers to education that a childhood. in poverty imposes.
Until then, they could easily look away. They could ignore the food scarcity, lack of internet access, housing instability, neighborhood violence and other trauma that many Cleveland kids face outside the classroom. They could overlook the commitment of educators, who must innovate around those challenges.
But Gordon says he could not let the world turn its back on his kids again.
In a recent interview, Gordon – who is in his final year leading the district – spoke about what he calls the widespread and misguided “mythology” about educating kids in urban environments, and his belief that two reporters from cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. , embedded at Cleveland’s Almira Elementary School for a special project called “Cleveland’s Promise,” can help dispel those myths.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve spoken about the importance of telling the true stories of education in Cleveland. Did there come a moment when you thought, ‘We have to do this project?’
Gordon: It wasn’t something I deliberated. We have this remarkable story to tell of these hidden people who are treasures in our community that are looked over and looked past and assigned value by others by what they perceive of a school district. And what you’re doing, by doing this embedded project and telling these stories, is uncovering these hidden gems of people that deserve their story to be told and deserve to be celebrated for what they’re able to accomplish, despite some just incredible circumstances. . So, there was actually not a moment when I was in — there was never a moment that I wasn’t in on this project…
You know, I’ve been here 15 years, and in those 15 years I’ve come to believe that people fully underestimate my kids and their families and how much they go through to get the education that they get. And so, giving cleveland.com the opportunity to embed in a classroom for now more than a year and see in real time these remarkable young people and their families and the great work our teachers do, it was an opportunity that I’ve been waiting. , frankly, for years to show the truth about who my kids and families actually are.
Q: Many people in our seven-county region haven’t spent much time in Cleveland. This project has the potential to show people the city through the eyes of its youngest generation and the people who are working to raise them. What do you think readers can learn from this series?
Gordon: I think this has seven-county regional impact for an important reason. No one wants to eat an apple that has a rotten core, right? If we do not have a strong Cleveland, we do not have a strong region. So, it is in the best interest of readers, way out in those seven counties, to make sure that we have a strong Cleveland.
The good news is, when you peel back all of the mythology, over a year, and you look at these wonderful people, these wonderful kids and their families and their educators, it’s clear that we do have a strong Cleveland. We just have to stop telling a false narrative about urban communities as fundamentally bad places, just because they’re urban, and start actually telling real stories.
Q: Educators have been in the crosshairs of the culture wars, spurred by opponents of critical race theory and social emotional learning. How do you think this series can help influence the perception of educators and education?
Gordon: Well, unfortunately, we are a really devalued profession in this country. I know what (readers) are going to see in this series is that we have incredible people working really hard every single day, making moves in ways that people don’t even contemplate. I mean, people don’t appreciate that, pre-pandemic, we taught Advanced Placement Computer Science, with teachers sending home computer science homework to kids who don’t have computers. And we found creative, low-tech computer science homework so that they could pass the same Advanced Placement course that kids in the suburbs were taking on their computer at home.
During the pandemic, I had teachers teaching their class on Instagram Live when we shut down, because that was the tool that everybody had. There is more innovation and creativity and just incredible work going on in communities like ours with the kinds of needs that our kids and families face.
Q: In the post-pandemic era, what do you think CMSD has improved upon, and where do you want to see the district go next?
Gordon: I feel like our educators have embraced the notion that we just don’t have to get back to normal, but that we can build something better. And so, we’re really working on a lot of problem-based learning, inquiry kinds of learning, where kids have more voice and choice about their work — where they’re demonstrating authentic pieces of their learning, instead of simply taking a test. Not that tests aren’t important. But if you can produce content, you will pass your language exam.
Also, our teachers are returning to school with incredible energy and enthusiasm in this very tough environment. There’s a national teacher shortage, and yet, thousands of our educators showed up super excited to welcome kids back into classrooms for another year. We hired about 300 teachers, and I was at our new teacher orientation and asked those who are new to the profession to stand up. Only a third were. That means that two-thirds of the people we hired came to Cleveland from another job to teach here. That tells you something about our teacher core.
Q: What’s the number one thing on your mind for the 2022-23 school year? What do you want the district to focus on?
Gordon: I want our educators to start by taking the time to really get to know their kids well. Know their full identity, what they care about, who they are, not just their role as a student. I know you saw that in your reporting — the importance that the teachers place on that space. And then, I want our teachers to use that to really accelerate this move into what we’re calling “Get More Experiences,” where we’re doing more authentic things inside the classroom. It’s the expansion of art, music and physical education — the out-of-school time activities that make school a joyous and adventurous place.
Conversation with Gordon about nurturing college ambitions while kids are still in elementary school and the importance of parental support led Gordon to share this story. …
Gordon: When I was in high school, my eleventh-grade counselor told my mother that I was not college material and that I better start thinking about a trade. My mother, who worked two jobs to put food on the table for our family, never participated in school. She was a very engaged mother. She made me do my homework, all that stuff. But she didn’t have the time or capacity to participate in school. And so that got her mad. She went to the school and said, ‘My son wants to be a teacher, and you’re gonna make it happen.’
I know some of the experiences of our kids, because I’ve lived them. And I know how untrue it is when people say, ‘These parents don’t care, because they don’t show up.’ Well, caring and showing up are different things. My mother was working as a short order cook in a bar in the evenings, so she wasn’t going to be at parent conferences. That didn’t mean she didn’t care.
I can tell you in my 31-year career, I would be hard-pressed to find a parent who really didn’t care for their kids. They’re doing the best they can with the resources they have for the people they love desperately. And our job is to give more resources — both the tangible stuff and the intangible, the mentorship, the social capital — that middle-class communities just experience on a daily basis.
For this innovative series called Cleveland’s Promise, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District gave two reporters unprecedented access to a classroom at Almira Elementary School to show readers the challenges of educating children in poverty and what the school district is doing to overcome them. Students’ names have been changed to protect their identity. Read more about this project here.