Illustration courtesy of Jo Byrne

Last month, Eric Gordon, CEO of Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) inspired a sold out, fully-masked crowd of students, City Club guests, community members and educators with a bold and CMSD State of the Schools address. 

We highly recommend watching or listening to Gordon’s vision for a more fair, just and good educational system for every child, the full video is available online here, but we’ve also outlined some key takeaways below. 

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, CMSD celebrated record growth and improvement: 

    1. Ranked in the top 15% in Ohio for improvement in kindergarten – 3rd grade literacy

    2. Reached top 4% in Ohio for improved reading and math test scores

    3. Recognized as top 1% in Ohio for improvements in graduation rates, with an 80.1% graduation rate, making CMSD the fourth fastest improvement district in Ohio, with most notable gains for African American and Hispanic students 


      With the onset of COVID-19, however, Gordon went on to describe how those academic gains were challenged by the layered traumas of job-loss, food insecurity, and the digital divide which CMSD worked hard to overcome, but which continues to separate many Cleveland students/families from vital resources and supports. 

      “As the leader of one of the most important institutions serving the people in the ninth most racially segregated city in America, I knew we needed to not only address the enormous impacts of the public health pandemic on the students we serve, but also the massive added threat of continued economic and social injustice that was playing out in disadvantaged urban communities across our country, including right here in Cleveland,” said Gordon.

      “Let’s face it,” he went on to say, “even in the best cases, the school systems that many are striving to return to in America were built for an agrarian society in an industrial age, not for a global society in the digital age.” 

      Why then, Gordon asked, should we try to rebuild or return to a system that isn’t built for our students’ modern-day needs? Instead, he challenged us to consider the question “How do we emerge from this pandemic and position the Cleveland Metropolitan School District for the future?” 

      Gordon called on federal, state and local leaders to eliminate the digital divide, insisting that affordable internet access should be considered an essential public utility as important as heat and water. He also called on school leaders and educators to use the lessons of the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink “old tools” such as classroom seat time, learning in brick-and-mortar buildings, course grades and grade-levels. 

      A more “just and good” educational system of the future, beginning today, should be designed for competency-based learning, anywhere/anytime, and individualized learning with a focus on the whole child, including their social, emotional, cultural and physical wellness. This new vision for CMSD learning includes both students and adults “in a curious organization of dedicated people who are always learning and improving together.” 

      Illustrating his point by describing the once unimaginable science fiction of Star Trek’s touch screens and intergalactic phone calls, Gordon encouraged the audience to let go of our old ideas about what’s possible for our schools and community, reminding us that we have to be willing to try and fail (and try again) in order to reach our most ambitious goals. 

      Using American Rescue Plan Funds, Gordon intends to invest deeply in a whole-child, innovative math, arts, music and technology focused approach to anytime/anywhere learning, with full-time health care professionals, laptops for every student and modern media centers with increased access before and after school. In closing, he said, “if we’ve done nothing else, in my last ten years as your CEO it is to prove what’s possible if we envision the future and build it together,” inviting us to believe in a bright new future for our students, our schools, and our city. 

      Three weeks after Gordon’s state of schools address, the release of the 2020-2021 state report cards reinforced the urgency of the work ahead of us. As expected, CMSD report cards confirmed the setbacks from last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns and more than a year of remote/hybrid learning. In a statement sent to parents by phone and email just hours after the report cards were released, Gordon said “The Cleveland Metropolitan School District made great progress in the last 10 years, but that momentum could not stand up under relentless battering from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

      Gordon went on to say that Cleveland schools have “clearly proven what they can accomplish under better conditions,” making reference to several years of growth and progress fueled by The Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, which was recently to reflect updated goals and a strengthened commitment to equity in education. 

      Prior to the pandemic, Cleveland was being recognized nationally for “beating the odds,” for it’s  progress and growth, including a report released by the Council for Great City Schools posing the question, “How well do public schools in large cities overcome the effects of poverty  and other barriers?” and an Education Week report, “The Fastest Improving City School Districts Aren’t the Ones You Might Expect.” 

      Students have lost learning time, and it will take an ongoing commitment from the community for students to get back up to speed and likely several academic years for this catch-up to occur, said CTA Executive Director, Meghann Marnecheck.  Parents will be able to access updated data at mycleshool.org after the holiday season to learn more about their school’s progress and to help navigate the upcoming 2022-2023 school enrollment season.