Lita Gonzalez calls herself a “stubborn Spaniard” and then laughs uproariously at herself.
We are standing in the hallway of Cleveland Heights High School on a freezing February morning. Since classes are in session, the halls are empty save a watchful yet relaxed security guard. Gonzalez is explaining to me why she founded PATH, Parent Ambassadors to Heights, a volunteer group that offers prospective parents and students tours of the school: “It upset me when I would tell people I was going to send my kids to Heights High, and they would look at me like I was an abusive parent. I couldn’t believe it!”
Gonzalez gives tours of Heights High several times a month. While walking parents past the cafeteria, art studio and auto mechanics room, her aim is twofold: to change the community’s perception of the school as a scary, chaotic place and to explain that Heights High, once a comprehensive high school of 2,000 students, is now broken into five smaller schools all within the building.
Today, everyone still eats in the same cafeteria, but there are five different principals and teaching faculties, and five Shared Governance teams, each consisting of teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members. The main focus of the Heights’ small-school model is increased personal attention for each student. “Small schools have turned this place around,” Gonzalez tells me. “Now we just need to get the word out.”
You don’t expect a public high school to host tours for prospective parents. But Heights High needs better word of mouth. PATH tours are the inverse of those run by nearby exclusive private schools, such as Laurel and Hawken, which have reputations as well appointed and serene. You are supposed to leave your tour of Laurel even more impressed with the school; you are supposed to leave your tour of Heights High thinking, This isn’t so bad.
Gonzalez, for whom the phrase “boundless energy” must be invoked at least twice a day, spends about 20 hours a week on PATH. (“And I work, too!” she adds, then laughs again. She is always laughing.) She tells me how she got her first convert: “In 2000, my daughters’ best friend was going to move to Solon. I was devastated!” When she asked the girl’s mother why they were moving out of the district, she said, “Because nothing happens at that high school that is any good.” So Gonzalez took her to the high school, and they just stood in the hallway and watched.
“ ‘It’s nothing like what I was told,’ she told me. She didn’t move to Solon. In 2005, her daughter graduated from Heights.”
Gonzalez says she doesn’t “save” all families (the air quotes are hers), but 63 percent of those who take her tour eventually enroll their child in Heights High.
Still, many parents opt out of Heights High without ever taking a PATH tour. The district has seen an enrollment decline of more than 160 students in the last five years. That’s about an 8 percent drop during that time compared to the most recent census estimates, which show the city of Cleveland Heights’ population declining 3.5 percent from 2000 to 2003.
Cleveland Heights is about evenly divided between black and white residents — it is the second-most integrated city in Cuyahoga County — but the high school population is roughly 80 percent black and 20 percent white. White flight has been going on for decades.
“The population of white middle-class people who want their kids to go to integrated public schools is lower than most people dare admit,” says one Cleveland Heights resident whose child is in private school.
When the charter-school movement began, many middle-class blacks joined white flight and opted out of the public schools too, often citing the “Oreo” prejudice as a motivating factor: Among black kids at Heights, people say, it’s not cool to do well at school.
People tend to contrast the “decline” of Heights with a distorted memory of glory days. In 1964, it was ranked the No. 1 high school in Ohio, based upon the number of graduates who eventually earned Ph.D.s. But in 1964, lots of things were different: Man hadn’t been to the moon, women couldn’t attend Princeton University, and blacks, who numbered only 1 percent of the city’s population, were often illegally prevented from moving into Cleveland Heights by blockbusting, redlining and other unfair housing practices.
In those same years, there were several racially based bombings in the city.
Also glossed over is an earlier era of discrimination. In the ’40s and ’50s, people worried the school was going to be “overrun” by Jews moving into the area; anti-Semitism contributed to a failed bond issue that would have opened a second high school.
The truth is Heights has always managed to be a good high school despite — or because of — also being central to many defining demographic, social and political trends. It has long served as a microcosm of larger national currents, a place where the major issues of the day — immigration, race relations and, now, the fate of public education — are played out.
By converting to small schools, Heights is again in the vanguard. Small schools are the latest attempt to reform urban public education, which may soon reach a tipping point. Soon it may become akin to public transportation, something chosen only by those who cannot afford otherwise and those few making a concerted, values-based choice.
“We can’t give up,” says Joy Henderson, Heights High parent community liaison. “What happens if we give up on the idea of public education?”
While much of the upper-middle and middle-class want out of urban public education, the uberwealthy want in. In 2003, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $20 million to the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, which is supported by the Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation and the Ohio and U.S. departments of education. A total of $40 million was invested to “respond to a lack of engagement, low achievement, and low graduation rates in our state’s urban high schools.”
It is easy to roll one’s eyes when a superintendent or president or Silicon Valley billionaire announces yet another education initiative. It is particularly tempting to want to stay away from the latest newfangled idea on the block if you are at Cleveland Heights High School, where, in the early ’90s, a similar reform, Model Schools, not only failed but had its failure chronicled in Diana Tittle’s “Welcome to Heights High: The Crippling Politics of Restructuring America’s Public Schools.”
The small-schools movement — founded in 1984 by Ted Sizer, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University — argues that the comprehensive high school model is bankrupt, that large schools with eclectic arrays of courses and tiered tracking systems fail children. With a smaller size, schools can accomplish greater collaboration among teachers, administrators and students (a principal knowing the name of every student is an oft-cited goal); encourage innovative curricula and foster a democratic structure within the school.
In Northeast Ohio, the Gates Foundation has funded transitions in many districts, including Lorain City Schools, the Cleveland Municipal School District and Euclid (which recently announced it will cease using Gates Foundation money for its small schools).
When KnowledgeWorks approached Heights High, the district went through an arduous self-assessment. Superintendent Deborah Delisle dug deep into student data and realized how many kids were failing to achieve. She decided to transform Heights into small schools based upon instructional models — how material is taught in class — rather than the easier-to-grasp theme-based models, such as science or business, adopted by other schools.
“I hate it when people say we’re ‘doing’ small schools,” says Delisle. “It sounds like it’s a box, something with a beginning, middle and end, something you just do. It’s not. It’s an evolution. It’s a wholesale rethinking of what education should mean in the 21st century.”
The process of selling small schools to the community was not easy. Many, usually referred to as the “AP parents,” feared the college-level curriculum would be reduced, that any effort to “bring up the bottom” would necessarily lower the top. But after many design-team meetings involving community members, students, parents, teachers and administrators, Heights High launched the first three small schools in 2004 for ninth- and 10th-graders; last year, the remaining two began with no cuts in AP courses.
These “neighborhoods within a city” are supplemented by a “citywide curriculum” — courses that cut across all schools — retained from the old comprehensive model, such as advanced placement, college prep and music courses.
“When you have a smaller group of kids and staff, it’s physically and logistically easier to talk about kids,” says Melissa Egbert, a teacher in P.R.I.D.E., one of Heights High’s five small schools. “Kids appreciate it when we teachers are a united front. They’ll say, ‘Why are you bothering me about Ms. Chang’s homework?’ They complain about it, but they like it. You can’t do that in a bigger place.”
Teachers and administrators receive enormous support from the district.
Robert Swaggard, Egbert’s Teacher Leader in P.R.I.D.E. — a job for which he receives a reduced teaching load under the small-schools model — says the professional-development opportunities, such as attending national conferences, are “unbelievable.” The district, which raises about $6 million a year in outside grant money, supports teacher-led initiatives: Swaggard is writing a grant to purchase flash drives for all ninth-graders, for instance. For him, though, the best thing about small schools is that students receive a better curriculum: “We meet the Ohio content standards, but we don’t stop there.”
Delisle is singled out by everyone I talk with as being singularly responsible for the success of the small-schools conversion and increased morale at the high school. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district has gone from a rating of Academic Watch to Effective (a step below Excellent in the Ohio Report Card ratings), an enormously impressive leap to make so quickly.
Crystal Maclin, who has worked in the district for 10 years, admits that Heights was on a losing streak before, but now she “feels a winning streak.” Swaggard, Macklin and Egbert all cite the superintendent’s motto — “Every student, every day. Some success, some way” — as meaningful.
“I never have a doubt in my mind that the reason people do things in my building is with the best interests of the kids in mind,” Egbert says.
“I’m a hands-on guy,” says Tyrone Connor, a junior. He is explaining the difference between the five small schools, whose names — Mosaic Experience, Legacy, P.R.I.D.E., R.E.A.L. and Renaissance — are so generic they washed over me upon first hearing. “If you give me a lecture, I’m not going to learn anything. So I chose R.E.A.L., because it focuses on the application of ideas.”
Tyrone is engaging and confident, a successful singer who performs in Heights’ choirs and plans to major in accounting (“or maybe music”) in college. He likes that he got to act instead of take a test for one of his classes.
Alana Ryder, a freshman in Mosaic, the school that focuses on art and technology, pipes up that she got to make a game for a project in one of her courses.
Victoria Williams, a junior who goes to Renaissance, rolls her eyes. “Yuck. Acting. Games. If someone told me I’d have to act for a class, I’d laugh. I’d say, ‘Give me a test.’ ” She attends Renaissance, known for its Socratic approach to learning.
I ask them how they decided which school was right for them. Alana chose Mosaic because she likes the arts: She is currently taking photography and a Web-based history course and singing in the women’s chorus. Justin Munford, a junior, initially enrolled in R.E.A.L., but he didn’t get along with his teachers or the principal, so he transferred to Legacy. He likes Legacy, and though he doesn’t consider himself an academic star, Justin has taken on a leadership role he would not have achieved in the “old” Heights High. Bianca Vann, a junior, wants to open a hair salon and chose P.R.I.D.E. As a part of Heights High’s career-prep program, she can take cosmetology and entrepreneurship classes.
I ask the students what stereotypes accompany each school. They are reluctant to divulge. I look at Justin, who sits back in his chair with ease. He is dressed up, as he does every day, in a striped button-down shirt under a powder-blue sweater on which hangs a small gold chain.
“R.E.A.L. and P.R.I.D.E are the black ghetto,” he dishes. “Renaissance is for the smart kids; it’s the white people’s school. Mosaic, we’re not sure yet; it’s too new. Legacy has both: Kids who are high achievers and kids who don’t want to achieve at all.”
Victoria, who plans to go to Georgetown or Howard and who could easily have a future in politics, adds that she and Bianca aren’t divided by school. “You may go to P.R.I.D.E. and I go to Renaissance, but I’ll see you on the weekend and go to the mall.”
Tyrone jumps in. “You guys go shopping? I’d like to get in on that. Let’s talk.”
Victoria is bothered by how the school is portrayed in the press, when most kids are “going to class every day doing what they’re supposed to do. Doing the right thing.” Bianca says when there’s a problem, the “media finds out about it before I do. I’m like, ‘There was a fight in school today?’ ”
Small schools are helping improve disciplinary problems: There were 71 expulsions in 2004-’05, an average of 35 a semester. But the fall 2006 semester saw only 12 expulsions. The number of suspensions has dropped as well.
There was a shooting in the parking lot in the fall, but the perpetrator was not a student at Heights High. Many attribute the sensational coverage to racism, and to the fact that the school happens to be located at a busy commercial intersection.
I ask if they think small schools has further segregated the black and white students. Tyrone thinks so. He’s frustrated that he is one of the few black males in his honors courses, which he takes at different schools, since they are not offered within R.E.A.L.
In lower-level classes, he says, it’s “teeming with black guys.”
Justin points out that for him and other blacks, “upper-level courses are intimidating. They can make or break you.”
Victoria, who is involved in the Minority Student Achievement Network, does not think small schools are to blame for the segregation: “You choose it because that’s what you want.” She is frustrated, though, at the demographics of Renaissance. “In a school that is 80 percent black and 20 percent white, why are over 80 percent of the students in Renaissance white?” (Actually, only about 46 percent of Renaissance students are white.)
Everyone I talk to, from the superintendent to parents, agrees that the schools could be more racially balanced, which is a coded way of admitting that Renaissance, despite the theoretical equality among schools, attracts the largest number of whites. Given the numbers, the other four schools are disproportionately black.
Egbert has one white student this year. But except for Tyrone, people do not blame small schools for the disparity. “It’s just like adults,” Gonzalez tells me, echoing the same phrases others used, “we choose to go where [our] friends go. It’s natural.”
What no one goes on to say, though, is that we all assume our friends will be of the same race. Social segregation is “natural.” Add to this the fact that Justin uses “smart” and “white” as if they are synonyms in his characterization of Renaissance students, and you slam against the limits of any one school reform in altering entrenched habits of thought.
In English III at P.R.I.D.E., desks are arranged in groups of four. The students are copying an SAT question from an overhead transparency. The teacher walks around checking if they did their study questions from Friday. Then the students, all black, take out their books.
I ask Bianca what they are reading.
“We’re reading this book, it’s a novel. It’s about racism. This guy, the author, got into trouble for using the word ‘nigger’ in it.” Then, Bianca tells the two other students in her group to go to the page they stopped on last time. She begins to read out loud from “Huckleberry Finn.” She reads the scene in which the duke and the king parody Shakespeare.
The student next to me fills out a permission slip. The boy across from me follows along. When it is his turn, he reads aloud, stumbling over some of the difficult words.
All the tables contain kids muttering quietly, since there are six groups all reading aloud in the same room. Few pay attention. One student gets angry with the teacher for only being worried about who is tardy and for accusing her of not doing the reading and asks to go to the office. Some do homework due last week. A few boys, one dressed in a suit, talk about how excited they are about that night’s music program at Severance Hall, which features singers and ensembles from Heights’ impressive music program. The teacher never talks to the class as a whole.
“It’s all we’ve been doing since winter break,” says Bianca of “Huck Finn.” “We’ll be reading it until May at this rate.”
Bianca wishes they could just do the reading at home, and then they could discuss it in class. She has already read the chapter they are reading aloud and completed her study questions, but because the other students in her group were absent the week before, they all have to backtrack to catch up. She wishes her teacher would discuss the difficult parts of the book with her.
When Bianca goes to her cosmetology class, I join Victoria in Renaissance. Her Honors English III class is made up of four black girls, four white boys and 10 white girls. There is a substitute that day. When we enter, the sub is sitting in a chair, dressed in a velour tracksuit.
When the students arrive, she puts on her glasses and reads the notes the teacher left: “Please have the students discuss in groups of three or four the following question: ‘Do you agree with Lionel Trilling’s claim that the Mississippi River is a god in ‘Huckleberry Finn?’ Why or why not?’ ”
I expect the students to ignore these orders, but witness an extraordinary thing instead: They do what was asked of them, independently and astutely, working as a group and pushing each other to better understand the teachers’ question and each other’s interpretations of the novel.
“The Mississippi controls the emotions, the plot of the story,” says one student. “I thought Trilling’s essay made a lot of bold claims, but he doesn’t really support them,” says Victoria.
Victoria asks the rest of the class if they could have a large-group class discussion instead, because she likes to hear everyone’s views. Another student says she prefers small groups, because more people can participate. The students decide to do small groups for the first part of class and have a large group discussion afterward.
The substitute dozes at the front of the room. After reading the discussion question at the beginning of class, she never speaks again.
After a while, the small group discussions turn to other issues: Barack Obama is speaking that night at a nearby college, and some students are planning to attend; they think it is cool and weird that they will be able to vote in the 2008 election. Then Victoria decides to get a large group discussion going.
A girl sitting on top of her desk asks the rest, “Is ‘Huck Finn’ the same as the ‘Odyssey’ or not? The ‘Odyssey’ was about leaving home; this book is about trying to get back home.” Others respond. After a while, one girl wraps things up: “Good discussion, guys! I feel like we should do a collective cheer.”
But another girl, who had been quiet thus far, asks if she can say one more thing. The rest of the class listens and agrees to her thoughtful point about why Twain chose to make his protagonist 14 years old. “That’s the age when you’re old enough to lie to others, but not yet old enough to lie to yourself. He couldn’t write this book if Huck were younger or older. He has to be 14.” The rest of the class agrees.
As wildly impressive as the college-level, entirely student-run Honors “Huck Finn” discussion was, the contrast between it and the dolorous regular English classroom is distressing.
The new instructional models the school adopted require teachers to lecture less and provide more small-group and individualized instruction. It’s a pedagogy that has proven to raise the level of student achievement for all learners, and clearly the kind of teaching Bianca wants and deserves. However, it also requires strong teachers who can “relearn their roles, too,” Delisle admits, a challenge the district is still working on.
There is a sub in Honors Physics too, and the students are told to spend the first half hour copying down PowerPoint slides with equations that I cannot decipher, having never advanced to Honors Physics myself. Of the 20 students, 14 are white (though with absences there is about an equal racial and gender division on this day). They come from all the five schools, since the course is not offered at each school. They ask the sub some questions about the equations, but it’s clear they know more physics than she does, too.
After they are done copying, they are told to do some problems on their own. A boy sitting in front of me, Eli London, turns to me, sitting in the back, and asks if I would take over the class. I tell him no, and explain why I am there. Eli and his friends are eager to be interviewed. Before I can even pose a question, they ask me to write down all the great things about Heights High: They extol the music program, the volunteer opportunities, the collegelike array of course offerings and the diversity.
They tell me the small schools aren’t really that important for them, but they do think they are helping the lower-achieving students; that there are fights in the cafeteria, but kids fight, and they never feel threatened or scared; that their physics teacher is really funny. They brag about how they could graduate from high school with more than 20 college credits under their belts, something that their friends who moved out of the district or go to private schools cannot say.
Daley Baker, a goalie on the hockey team, tells me he turned down St. Ignatius because he didn’t test into the honors courses there, and once you start in the regular track you can’t move up. “Now he’s one of the smartest kids in the junior class!” says Colleen Quinn, who sits behind him.
When the bell rings, Sam Miller, a junior from R.E.A.L., asks if he can tell me things for my article. It is important to him, as it is the others, to get this message out: “Most people see Heights as a bad school because we’re on the intersection of Cedar and Lee. But in the school, cops aren’t needed. Heights is one of the most diverse schools in Ohio. Going here will give you a feel of what’s going on in the real world. I would take it over private school any day.”
At the end of my PATH tour, Gonzalez tells me she hopes PATH will wither away: “I hope in two to three years, when small schools are better known, PATH won’t be necessary anymore. It’s like a group formed to eradicate a childhood disease; when the disease is cured, you don’t need the group anymore.”
Childhood diseases, though, can take longer to cure than anyone anticipates. But deciding to form the group in the first place — deciding to do the hard work required to better reality for all — is often more impressive, albeit less newsworthy, than finding a cure.
“I will not deny that there is a lot of work left to be done,” says Delisle. “What’s encouraging is that there are pockets of excellence.” She is also patient. Over the next five years, she would like to see “more observable ways to commit to kids, more students achieving at high levels and more minority representation in AP classes.”
Students are already taking advantage of the school’s more democratic structure, a telling sign of the school’s health. One group crafted a proposal to the administration asking about off-campus lunch. Another lobbied to change the weekly time allotted for one-on-one conferences, so to better prepare them for tests.
There is energy at Heights High. Unlike with Gonzalez, that energy is not always positive. Sometimes it is born of frustration, sometimes of the strain it takes to change expectations and perceptions. But sometimes it feels like an adrenaline rush, caused by refusing to give up on a worthwhile endeavor.
Justin, the junior who was worried he “might not make it” in ninth grade, is proud of the scholarship he received from Ohio Technical College. He’s not completely satisfied, though, and thinks he might go to Northwestern instead. He plans to apply there next year.
Marc Engoglia, principal of Legacy, tells me of a student who used to have a 0.33 grade point average and now has a 2.33. He says the press would never cover a story like this, because “it’s not a very glamorous success story.” He recognized the student’s improved grades at a recent Legacy awards ceremony. Everyone was surprised to learn this kid was succeeding, and the boy was thrilled to be singled out.
At Heights High, they celebrate the small victories.