In Slavic Village, a purple chair, roller skates and parental outreach help turn around a troubled school
By Justin Glanville Photos by Julie Van Wagenen
Kids actually like hanging out with Sharra Wimberly.
To eat lunch with her is considered a privilege, even though she’s at least their parents’ age, has the very adult-sounding title of wraparound site coordinator at Fullerton School of Academics in Slavic Village, and sits in an office right across from the principal’s.
And students seeking solace get to sit in her Purple Chair.
It’s a low-slung, luxuriously upholstered throne in the corner of her office, surrounded by a burst-piñata’s worth of toys and books.
In short, it’s kid heaven.
“Oh, the Purple Chair is known throughout the building,” Wimberly says with a smile. “Kids can feel safe there, tell me about stuff that’s bothering them.”
It’s empty at the moment. But just a few minutes before, a second-grader was sitting here, sobbing after an argument she’d had with her friends at lunch.
“I had her sit and read a book and just breathe until she was ready to tell me what happened,” says Wimberly.
The story that emerged was typical kid stuff: Somebody had accused the crying girl of saying something about somebody else, the girl felt she’d been wrongly accused, no one wanted to be her friend.
Wimberly brought in the group to talk. After everyone was done telling their side of the story — no interrupting allowed – Wimberly asked if they wanted to be friends again. Everyone nodded.
Turning around a troubled school
Negotiating the fever-pitched dramas of youth is a big part of how Wimberly spends her days. Her job is to make sure the school’s 240 students, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, do three important things: show up for class; learn; and treat each other and their teachers with respect. But the challenges Wimberly and her colleagues face go beyond helping students navigate school dynamics.
Her position is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Community Wraparound initiative, which includes a range of strategies to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools. With added resources and staff, Community Wraparound schools have three years to improve student performance or face possible closure.
Improving struggling schools is a central goal of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, which seeks to ensure every student in Cleveland gets a quality education.
But improving academic performance at a school like Fullerton, located in a neighborhood hit hard by economic decline, is a Herculean task. The impact of poverty on everything from children’s health to their cognitive skills has been well documented.
When Wimberly started at Fullerton a year ago, it was one of the city’s most troubled schools. Daily attendance averaged 83 percent in 2013-14, according to Wimberly, among the lowest rates in the district. One in seven students were suspended at any given time, and fights routinely broke out as kids were leaving the building.
Changing the school’s culture has required ingenuity on the part of Wimberly and the rest of Fullerton’s staff.
Overall, the idea is to move away from a system of discipline for bad behavior and toward rewards for good behavior. For example, the school recently hosted a roller-skating party at USA Skates for students who had good attendance. And it holds raffles to give away bicycles to students who come to school every day.
Then there are Wimberly’s lunches. She hosts groups of up to five kids in her office for “Lunch Bunch.” Other teachers and the school’s principal, Kevin Payton, do the same.
The idea is to show kids that their teachers and supervisors are allies who want to support them in their education – not adversaries who mete out punishment.
“We try to celebrate the good things kids do,” Payton says.
Every Friday, he or a teacher does a “shout out” over the school’s PA system, praising kids who showed kindness or responsibility during the preceding week.
Beyond incentives, Wimberly and Leslie Bates, Fullerton’s Dean of Engagement, host a dinner every Wednesday night to help build relationships with students’ families. Parents, students and teachers eat a hot meal together at the school, then play games and make crafts.
“Slavic Village is a high-poverty neighborhood, and the families we serve are transient,” Wimberly says. “That makes it especially important to make sure we’re staying in touch with them, keeping them engaged, so they keep their kids coming here.”
The work is getting results. Today, attendance has improved to 93 percent, just under the district-wide goal of 95 percent. Suspensions are down, too, with fewer than one in 20 students on suspension at any given time.
That’s largely because rather than suspending students, staff follow a protocol that includes sending them for specialized instruction and attention in the school’s Planning Center, and calling parents to find out what’s going on at home.
Wimberly spends about 25 percent of her time working with parents to address some of the obstacles that might distract them from making sure their children get to school. For example, if parents are having trouble paying their utilities, she’ll connect them to the Cleveland Housing Network, which sets up payment plans for past-due bills. If they need transportation to get their kids to school, she’ll arrange pick-ups.
Reaching out to families, and not just students, is where the “wraparound” part of her title comes in. It’s also why she’s employed not by CMSD but by University Settlement, a nonprofit based in Slavic Village.
All wraparound site coordinators are employed by a lead agency in their home school’s neighborhood. The idea is that the lead agency can help make connections to resources outside the school.
“What’s so great about Sharra is that she’s not afraid to link to us,” says Krissie Wells, University Settlement’s development manager. “She helps us reach parents with our programs, and that in turn keeps kids coming to class.”
A personal connection
Sometimes Wimberly encounters resistance and distrust from parents.
“When something’s been a certain way for so long, you assume it’ll stay that way,” she says. “Maybe they went to a CMSD school themselves and didn’t have a good experience, or they didn’t like the last administration at Fullerton. So we have to make sure we let parents know things are different now.”
What helps her bridge that distrust is her own backstory. Although Wimberly is a longtime resident of Maple Heights, she’s been through some of the same struggles that many Fullerton parents face.
She relied for years on cash assistance and food stamps, working two jobs as a single mom to make ends meet. Her son, now 22, was expelled during his senior year at Maple Heights High School. She had to find an online program for him to complete high school and be able to attend college.
“I can tell them what they need to do because I was there, I’ve maneuvered through the systems,” she says. “I tell them, ‘you can do this. You can figure this out.’”
Not unlike what she tells the kids who end up in the Purple Chair.