At City Club 03.22.05 NOTES: Barbera Byrd Bennett on State of Cleveland Public Schools

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Wed, 03/23/2005 - 01:41.

Clearly there is great interest in education in Cleveland, as the Cleveland City Club 03.22.05 State of the Schools presentation by Cleveland Municipal School District CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett was an overflow event with attendance as diverse and inspired as any in memory. In his introduction of Barbara Byrd Bennett, City Club President Kevin J. Donahue praised her renowned career in education and uncanny ability to work collaboratively with all school stakeholders, all in the interest of improving area education. When Barbara Byrd Bennett was named the Cleveland Municipal School District’s first CEO, six years ago, she challenged the community to rally around the schools and our children. Since then, student performance, attendance, graduation, Internet access, immunizations, and bond funding have all increased significantly. Now, the question is, can these successes be sustained as state funding and property taxes have been dramatically reduced.
 
Barbara Byrd Bennett says the City Club offers a great opportunity to speak of the most important work in the city - educating our children – and this is a unique opportunity for public reflection on where we started, where we're going and how to continue to rebuild our city through helping our children. When the city hired Barbara Byrd Bennett six years ago there was formed a covenant to truly educate our 67,000 voiceless children and those who will follow them into classrooms in the future.

For decades the school system had significant problems that impacted the children. Many years ago, when Barbara Byrd Bennett first stepped up to the City Club podium, she knew there were doubters of her ability to drive improvements but she articulated a vision that each student would be valued, and each teacher and administrator appreciated – schools would again be safe resources for learning – education would involve family and consider non-academic needs. She assured the community our children could succeed and requested that community leaders and residents suspend their disbelief - give change time – believe Cleveland schools and students could be successful, despite the negative image of schools at the time.
 
Today she brings to the City Club a message of urgency, hope and need. She values public education as a value appreciated throughout American history and testament to the American dream - no discussion more important than education - future of Northeast Ohio depends on present quality of our schools and future impact of our scholars - for liberty and justice for all, we must value all our students. Quality public education is a right for each American child.
 
Since Bennett was hired, achievement has progressed to where schools are no longer in academic emergency - graduation rates are over 50% and improving – proper accounting is in place and state has released school from financial emergency. During her tenure we have had change of mayors and government but she is pleased the city has remained supportive of the schools - as victories multiply the community is showing greater support - administrators and teachers are all believers - they've turned the ship around.

Bennett recounts that Cleveland schools have shown dramatic improvement and progress, but because of the state’s continued failure to provide adequate funding the school board has been forced for second straight year to reduce budget - reduced budget by $120 million - now must eliminate $30 million deficit. State eliminated federal Medicaid program – total $157 million cut in a year – as result jobs and programs have been eliminated and children suffer. School Board must reduce security services and eliminate more programs and close schools - will have significant impact on economy - puts us at a critical juncture with funding issues beyond our children’s control.

Bennett asks the audience “do you still believe in Cleveland's children? What are you willing to do to make a difference?� She explains for 6 years we've been going uphill - today the footing is treacherous and the slide down would put us back where we began - junk bond - absences - children lacking food and medical care - graduation rate at 28% - schools missing every target.

CMSD has worked hard and smart to climb that slope and results have been undeniable - reading scores are up 30% - first school district in state to participate in universal meals (breakfast and lunch for all students) - attendance is 95% - comprehensive healthcare plan is national model with eye exams, dental sealants, immunization - 73% of graduates went on to college, advanced schooling or military – significantly fewer dropouts. During steady climb up hill they have developed after school programs - students excel inside and outside the classroom - athletes must be scholars to compete and they've won 6 state championships - they stage and sell-out exceptional arts and cultural events - the schools are safer and better… warm and dry - and in the middle of a massive capital improvement program - three new schools are being opened this year.

Area and national foundations from Gund to Gates have demonstrated their commitment to our children. Despite budget cuts we've maintained progress but cannot sustain progress with just foundation support. When Barbara Byrd Bennett spoke to City Club in 2003 she called our local public school funding model akin to apartheid and she still believes that - separation between haves and have nots has broadened - vast majority of Cleveland's student are succeeding to reach their god given potentials. But with funding cuts they have fewer teachers and academic programs - no money for textbooks - cuts in transportation - summer and after school programs being reduced.

Last month the schools received their most recent audit and it was best in over a decade - but that is not what makes headlines. If news of finances was bad, that would have received more attention.
 
We have an unconstitutional and inadequate funding model overly dependent on property taxes, and Columbus will not fix the problem - people of our community must step forward. Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. She commends Toby Cosgrove and the Dolans for their personal/corporate contributions but that is not enough - we must involve residents – help them understand Cleveland has delivered on its promise to children, who have demonstrate they can learn and achieve.
 
Months ago the media came together to raise money for the Tsunami victims and she cannot help but wonder why we cannot come together as a community for our children here. Our children are victims too . Ladybird Johnson said children live up to the level in which people believe in them. While news in NEO is not all good, results with the school are good – in closing she asks the community – this City Club audience - do you still believe in Cleveland children and if so what are you willing to do for them?
 
Q. We have small schools program in 3 high schools, and research shows that is good, but there are problems of lack of communication across schools - mailbox problems - like pebble in shoe it seems minor but they seem serious on inside.
A. Bennett is well aware of issues and they are not minor - major issue of communication - change can be painful - we need to put on table for major discussion - cannot ignore - will address in upcoming meetings (has school board members stand for recognition).
 
Q. Cleveland Public School senior asks what is the status of the smaller schools?
A. Will continue for next year (High Tech Academy given as example).
 
Q. You must feel you are swimming upstream - what can be done about lack of vision at state level?
A. She served on Governor’s commission on state funding - tried to come up with recommendation - worked hard for 18 months and made 18 recommendation but in the upcoming budget Cleveland schools lose $400 million in state funding – Mayor Campbell has been meeting with other mayors in region – regional problem, not isolated to Cleveland, and regional approaches are needed and being discussed - need to elect people in Columbus who will work for children - before we vote for next governor we need to ask what are you going to do about education
 
Q Can the community pull together?
A. She does not believe the message will be heard - we need to take care of our children first while they make the case as a larger community at the state level - not just an urban Cleveland problem but a statewide social issue - all elected officials need to learn this is important.
 
Q. Attendee is unhappy with how west side voted on levy - there is a gulf between east and west in understanding of funding issues - what can be done to get city thinking better together?
A. Educate people about the problems, reasons for taxes, that we haven't raised taxes for schools since 1996 - study reasons we lost in 2004 and learn and do better. There are issues that are deeper than just communicating a message - share the data. She sees media as not communicating right messages.
 
Q. Attendee says Bennett has done a fantastic job - know you are not a politician - if you decide to stay in Cleveland and we get you the funding - would you ever consider running for governor of Ohio
A. Says thanks - hopes deeds have shown her commitment - no response on running for governor.
 
Q. What about greater volunteerism from professionals and businesses in community – would that help?
A. Volunteerism - tutors, mentors, supplies - we embrace and appreciate but don't believe that is the only support we need - many middle class and suburban schools benefit from such help to make a huge difference and we need it in urban schools but need more funding as well.
 
Q. Attendee says when he reached college after graduating from SF public schools he was unprepared - how are we doing preparing students for 21st century jobs?
A. Believes in no child left behind to enhance and elevate what schools teach – Bennett’s generation was in less equitable system but she now sees that changing - graduation tests are very tough - outcomes are measured at higher level so instruction must be elevated - teachers are sharpening their skills - spiraling upward – preparing students for college and technical jobs
 
Q. Thoughts on charter schools?
A. People should have choice - issue with for profit charter schools is it siphons funding from public schools - not afraid to compete but on level playing field on testing, attendance - and if their data is lower than public schools - if they don't get results - system must look at the outputs. Cleveland schools are looking to develop public charter schools that are held to same high standards as public schools   
 
Q. Attendee who studied urban studies asks are schools top-heavy on admin?
A. We would not have had achievements for students if bloated on admin, but we've reduced class sizes and improved services by developing new programs, which requires additional admin for professional development, health services, budget/audit – and now as they need to downsize they get complaints they are not responsive and they get criticism they aren't effective - but try doing what they have done reducing costs while restructuring in a corporate environment – the accomplishment has been extraordinary..
 
Q. What about using an income tax for school funding?
A. Only tax they can assess is property tax – the message is clear a tax increase is required.