Every time Audrey Altieri, a teacher turned education policy advocate, helps facilitate research, her favorite part is the post-implementation. She loves when the time comes to analyze the findings, make inferences, and deliver recommendations based on reliable data. The conclusion of the September 2020 Cleveland Transformation Alliance Family Listening Campaign, which Altieri co-facilitated with Notre Dame student Hailey Oppenlander, was no different.
From the outset, this was a project designed to impact future programming and services for Cleveland public school students and their families. The project was based on a direct service approach to school choice and acknowledging that the people who make decisions about public education are not always representative of the communities they serve.
The research partners were pleased to identify specific and consistent findings in some areas, with powerful differences based on race/ethnicity — particularly regarding access to technology in a season of virtual learning. Altieri notes, however, that the current research isn’t externally valid. “These results can’t be applied to other contexts and years. If you’re trying to predict future trends or guess about a typical school year, this is not the data to use,” since it was completed during a very non-traditional school year, complete with masks and social distancing. But the first round of research is complete, and the project deliverables include a guide for future research, with a plan to collect data regularly to guide decision making for Cleveland Transformation Alliance and its 24-person board, led by Mayor Frank Jackson.
One of the most common and straightforward responses to the Family Listening Campaign was a repeated request for “one place to call” when questions and issues come up about school choice and school programs/services. However, the way people like to receive information, on an ongoing basis, varied considerably. There was also a trend of responses indicating that families would like all of the information housed in one place (online) and they want that information to be reliable and current. This serves as a clear call to action for collaboration between school leaders and Cleveland Transformation Alliance.
Another issue that came to the surface during focus group discussions was the ethics of school choice, a relatively new conversation in Cleveland, as more privileged families engage with the city’s portfolio of high-quality schools, some in gentrifying neighborhoods. Parents voiced a desire for real access to diverse school settings and openly talked about racial disparities in national, and local issues.
For Oppenlander and Altieri, this dialogue was an indicator that we are beginning to shift the conversation to emphasize parents as stakeholders. They see the research commissioned by the Cleveland Transformation Alliance as an authentic way to deepen the organization’s connection to the families they serve. The researchers see this as the beginning of a new era for public education in America. Collaborations and partnerships like The Cleveland Plan will serve as a model for other cities. While they recognize the interplay between research, history, and public policy — they assert that parent narratives and personal stories are equally important in this context, and the Cleveland Transformation Alliance is leading the way.