School Belle

The best public high school in Northeast Ohio is a Cleveland school. Surprised? You won't be once you meet principal Carol Lockhart, whose demanding leadership and nurturing ways have made Early College High School at John Hay a model for transformatio

Carol Lockhart stands before her students gathered for a September assembly. They're rambunctious and loud, until their prim, polished and color-coordinated principal taps the microphone and they fall still and silent.

"Mama" Lockhart, as the teenagers call her, has taught her children well.

"Our school is a team," she says to the crowd at Early College High School at John Hay. "And in each team, there is a focus. You are the bull's-eye in this team. It's because of your work, it's because of your attendance" — she pauses to allow a roar of applause to wash through the two-story auditorium — "it's because you are doing what is necessary to get the job done that we are here today."

What they've done, why they are here is break-the-curve significant. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District academy is celebrating a state-issued Performance Index score that surpassed all but four of 3,500 Ohio schools, one-upping districts such as Solon — which ranked ninth — Aurora and Independence.

This is an A-plus-plus in the center of a district plagued by poor academic performance and poverty, positioned squarely as the second-worst achieving school system in the state.

In a district where just showing up can be viewed as an achievement (the overall attendance rate has been the worst in the state the last two years), Early College High School's kids have demonstrated that academic success is absolutely possible.

Now in its 11th year, Early College High School exemplifies what the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools hopes to achieve throughout the district — converting crummy schools into model academies where citizens would choose to send their children over local, even global competitors.

And that's exactly why Lockhart is here.

"I believe real change, real, lasting change, change for posterity can occur in Cleveland. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?" Lockhart muses. "I just believe."

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Early College High School has advantages over its Cleveland Metropolitan School District peers: Its 238 students are academic achievers by design. A 3.5 GPA is required for entrance to the three-year college-track school, which sheds electives in favor of a rigorous core curriculum of English, French, science, social studies, math and music, and optional postsecondary work.

While the district faces a 59 percent graduation rate, the second-worst in the state, there's no question whether Early College High School's students will graduate and go to college. Every one of its graduates has been accepted to universities since its first graduating class in 2005. The only question is where they'll land.

"A lot of people immediately think Early College has the results that it has because of the students it enrolls," says Eric Gordon, Cleveland Metropolitan School District's CEO. "And certainly they enroll a student who is highly motivated and likely to perform well.

"But I would say that under the current leadership and faculty, we have seen test scores rise dramatically," he continues. "So I credit the success of Early College to the principal and teachers."

The school's Performance Index — a number from 0 to 120 that measures the academic achievement of each student who takes the Ohio Graduation Test — hung at 104 when Lockhart took the helm in 2010. It was a two-point drop from the previous year, but still 30 points higher than the district's score.

By letter grades, Early College High School scored an A. The district received an F. The high school had exceeded most every district expectation, but not Lockhart's.

"The opening year was very challenging," she reveals.

The 13 teachers believed they'd done enough, because, Hey, it's hard to beat an A.

"They had to adjust to my leadership style," says Lockhart.

"Failure is just not in the way I operate," she continues. "Have I failed? Sure. But that's not something I choose to think about."

The teachers bickered and they whined. But they also followed their new principal's directive to meet at 10:45 a.m. each day in teams organized by grade level to discuss the individual successes and shortcomings of their shared students.

Lockhart wanted the science teachers to care about more than teaching science, the math teachers more than just math. Previously, she says, "the doors would open and the students would move on to the next class, and no one would care about the individual."

The teachers were no longer allowed to instruct in silos — they were forced to structure a curriculum that included other subjects, other staff members, for the benefit of the students.

"We were much more disconnected from each other," admits Steven Danklef, an 11th-grade social studies teacher. "The principal encouraged us to work together and emphasized why it is important to work in a cross-curriculum way and make connections between our subjects. It's true — everything is connected. Everything is dependent on something else to be successful."

As Lockhart continued to track the reasons behind the school's two-point fall on the Performance Index, she realized students were struggling with the test's writing and reading sections.

"I thought, How is that possible when English is your native language?" Lockhart says. She set a writing-across-the-curriculum rule: Each teacher now must find a way to work writing into the syllabus.

"One of the math teachers was probably one of the most troubling of them all, because, you know, This is a numbers game," Lockhart recalls. "No, it's not. This is problem solving. This is understanding that if I am going to get a word problem, I need to be able to read. I need to know what sum really means."

So now in a senior chemistry class, students explore elements of the periodic table not by memorizing notecards or drawing diagrams — though certainly they have and will — but by designing a magazine based on the elements of the periodic table. Its contributing editors are scientists who made elemental discoveries. Its articles and ads are based on the 118 squares represented on the table.

"Have you ever needed to escape from somewhere? Police?" a student reads from one of his ads, a sales pitch for an at-home smoke bomb kit, during an October class presentation. His classmates snicker as he continues, "Do you want to know what it feels like to disappear out of thin air?"

"Words matter," Lockhart concludes, "and once we were able to get that moving, we really saw gains."

Within one year, Early College High School raised its Performance Index from 104 to 112.

"After the teachers saw that, they had this wow effect," Lockhart says. "But when you arrive at No. 1, you have to maintain it. It's easy to get comfortable and say, 'OK, we did it.' But now you have to do it again. Because some people will say it happened as a fluke. And I always say if you are doing intentional work, and you are doing the work for the right reason, then the payoff will be the proof."

Last year, the number was 113.32.

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Lockhart arrived in Cleveland in 1974 — fresh off a plane that flew from Jamaica into a hailstorm. "We'd never seen snow," recalls her younger sister, Sandra Harris, of their family's trek from a tropical island and into Cleveland Heights during a time when civil rights and race still divided the city.

"We didn't fit in with the white kids, and we didn't fit in with the black kids," says Yvonne Conrad, Lockhart's older sister. They were the third black family to live on their street, smack in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood. "But you make the most of it," she says.

Lockhart graduated high school at 16. "Carol was the fighter of the family — very bright — and also a bookworm," Harris says. She attended Indiana University and pursued a law degree, until "she got bit by the education bug," Harris recalls.

While her family was shocked, the transition made sense to Lockhart. Teaching held powers that other pursuits did not.

"I used English as a tool to awaken lives," she says of her days teaching high school in Kent and Bedford. "Some of our kids would never have an opportunity to travel outside of their community, but boy, if you could read about it and then begin to think about it and begin to see that possibility — I enjoyed that."

She joined Cleveland schools in 1999, a year after Mayor Michael R. White took control over the troubled district. As Glenville High School's curriculum principal, Lockhart shifted the school from 45-minute classes to an 80-minute block schedule.

With the district under the direction of CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Lockhart was moved to East High School — "the ultimate challenge of a lifetime," she recalls.

The area surrounding the school's East 79th Street address was impoverished and infested with drugs. In 1999, 26 percent of Cleveland residents fell below the poverty line, climbing to 32 percent by 2007, according to a report released this year by the Ohio Development Services Agency.

East High School's principal was harried and overworked and looking to unload on Lockhart. "She said — I will never forget my first day with her — 'Here is a grant that they want me to write, and I am going to give it to you to get you out of my hair,' " Lockhart recalls. "And I thought, Oh boy, I think I died and went to hell."

In 2002, based on Lockhart's application, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and KnowledgeWorks awarded the Cleveland Metropolitan School District $2.5 million in money earmarked to improve urban education throughout the country.

That year, a foundation representative visited two places to better understand education systems in impoverished areas: Senegal and Cleveland.

Less than a month after the district had its check in hand, Lockhart was reassigned to Rhodes High School. "I felt as though, Wow, I am really in the process of making something happen in this community. And then I was moved," she sighs.

The pattern continued from Rhodes High School to South High School.

"What I have learned about change is that you have to be resilient," Lockhart says. "The things that will appear to break most people — you have to put things in perspective. Because sometimes they are designed to break you, and either you succumb to them and break, or you use them for stepping stones toward greatness."

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Walk the gray and sage halls of Early College High School — contained to the second floor of the John Hay campus — and you'll find Lockhart-isms, as the staff calls them, on posters hanging on the walls.

Failure is not an option because it's not a choice.

We rise together or we fall together.

There is greatness in you.

"She hasn't changed the school," says French teacher Sara Bekhouche. "She has changed the people in the school."

Bekhouche speaks from experience. The teacher was a wallflower when she arrived five years ago, but she hardly disappeared in the crowd. She was morbidly obese, by her own description.

"She has these little phrases that she uses with the kids, but she uses them with everybody, and I don't think she realizes it," Bekhouche says of Lockhart. "My favorite from her is 'Make it happen,' because she'll just look at me and say, 'Bekhouche, make it happen.' "

She credits a nearly 200-pound weight loss to Lockhart's support.

"Every time I wanted to put M&M's in my mouth, she would threaten to kick me with her pointy shoes," Bekhouche laughs.

Lockhart asked each day: Had she eaten something green? Was she drinking enough water? How many pounds had she shed this week?

They're questions she also asks of her students, who come from communities where fresh produce doesn't always make it to the table. Students are studying The Omnivore's Dilemma and A Place at the Table — books that explore where food comes from, and who has access to it — as part of a yearlong cross-curriculum project.

"I know what it means to be a teacher now because of her," Bekhouche says. "I learned to believe in myself. Every aspect of who I am, professionally and personally, has changed because of her."

Lockhart has also launched a staff book club, focused on reading texts that would enrich teachers' skills and prepare the academy for statewide shifts, such as the scheduled 2014-15 move from the Ohio Graduation Test to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. They also peek into other global education systems, such as the International Baccalaureate model.

"What's the takeaway here?" Lockhart asks at an October meeting to discuss the seventh chapter of Understand Common Core State Standards, a text designed to identify the knowledge and skills students must possess to succeed in college, careers and in a global market.

"It made me think about the children who really don't get a chance to compete — so many, tens of millions, who don't get access to education," Danklef, the social studies teacher, laments.

"Which, I think, is what drives some of those international students to do so well," says science teacher Kristina Bernosky. "Because you can't take your education for granted. It may be the only way out of the situation you're in — you're not guaranteed that right to education."

That's exactly why Lockhart requires the same commitment from her students. "She pushes them to no end. She expects the best," Bekhouche says. "Her expectations for them — I can't raise my arms high enough."

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During her year at South High School's ninth-grade academy, Lockhart was put to the ultimate test when her husband, Carl, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

"I would go to Cleveland Clinic, shower in the community area and go to work," Lockhart recalls. "Nobody knows what you have been through just to get here this morning."

In the midst of her personal crisis, Lockhart was reassigned yet again, to reopen John Adams High School. The original 1923 building had been closed for nearly a dozen years, torn down and rebuilt.

On the night before the school reopened, Aug. 23, 2006, Lockhart's husband died.

Yet she was there for the grand reopening the next morning, joining crowds and news crews for the new building's unveiling. "I still cannot believe even now, just reflecting on it, what that day was truly like," she says. She'd suffered a serious loss, but the world continued on. "Don't they realize that something happened to me?" she says.

It didn't get any easier. Although the Martin Luther King Boulevard facility was new, it combined students from John F. Kennedy, South and East high schools.

"It was a rough situation," recalls Randolph Hicks, a district retiree who returned in 2006 to reopen John Adams High School with Lockhart. "You have three different communities coming into the school — gangs that had been rivals for a couple years — and then you have new teachers, also coming from different schools."

Lockhart, a slender woman, held meetings with gang leaders and task force coordinators, Hicks says. "Once they found out she meant business, they settled down and school ran smoothly," he says. "They said ... that too many of their young brothers and sisters were dying in the community, and they agreed that whatever problems they had, they would keep it out of the school."

When Harris visited John Adams High School, she recalls her sister walking up and down the blocks, getting the kids off the buses. "[She was] yelling down the street with a bullhorn to tell them to come on in," Harris says. "It was so her."

Lockhart also hit the streets, handing out fliers to neighbors, asking them to call the school if they ever had a safety concern. No one ever called, she says.

She was at John Adams High School for one year, before administrators moved her back to East High School, where gangs and issues of urban schools still existed. The year before Lockhart arrived, the school experienced more than 90 false fire alarm pulls, recalls Rene Godbold-Anderson, who worked as a small school principal under Lockhart at East High School.

"[Lockhart] implemented a safety plan, and by that first year, we had reduced the number of fire alarm pulls to less than 10, and the year after that there were only a couple," she says.

The district closed East High School in 2010. "It was a letdown," Godbold-Anderson says. "We had finally started to see the school growing."

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Beneath trees on the steps nearest Early College High School's security entrance, several students huddle unprotected from raindrops pelting them in the 37-degree cold. It's 7:45 a.m. on Saturday, and they're here to attend a weekly writing workshop that will prepare them for the Ohio Graduation Test.

"I've been out here since 7 a.m.," one girl says to a friend who dares to complain about the cold. "I took the early bus by mistake."

At 8 a.m., a security officer opens the doors, and the students rush in with Bekhouche, who's brought doughnuts and orange juice for breakfast, paid for out of her own pocket. She questions why some students are missing, and finds out the Rapid isn't running. They'll be late today because they have to take a shuttle bus.

Saturday tutoring sessions began shortly after Lockhart arrived at Early College High School. They focus on preparing students for state and national tests. Students don't have to come, but each weekend, Bekhouche says, dozens do.

"Saturday morning, 8 a.m., in a blizzard, you will find these kids huddled up by the door, freezing, waiting to get in for Saturday tutoring — and you are slipping and sliding down the road trying to get here knowing that these kids are waiting for you," Bekhouche says. "Because that's the environment that [Lockhart] created here."

Last year, the school's budget was slashed under the pressure of districtwide cuts, and the Saturday sessions — which require paying a security guard and custodian each four overtime hours — were threatened. But rather than cancel, Bekhouche moved the sessions to a back room of the city's main library.

"We didn't have any computers or projectors to use," Bekhouche recalls. "So teachers bought whiteboards to hold up for the students."

The teachers and students resumed Saturday sessions inside Early College High School after a 15-mill tax levy — the financial backing to the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools — passed by a 57 percent vote last November. The vote served as reassurance that the community was desperate and ready for change, says Ann Mullin, the George Gund Foundation's senior program officer for education.

"I think the Cleveland Plan is really instrumental in the public's hope and expectation that there really is going to be significant and dramatic change," Mullin says. "The plan, which was sold on the notion of great schools in every neighborhood for every child, really does set this district up for success."

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Sixteen-year-old senior Ryan Cartwright takes the RTA from Garfield Heights to get to school each day. The commute is uncomfortable — "There are times when I am like, This is scary, I don't want to do this again," he admits — but he believes it's worth it for the education he receives at Early College High School.

He wanted an environment where students were focused on academics, and where he didn't have to worry about teachers taking time from learning to discipline other students. So Cartwright chose Early College High School — which is significant, because the Cleveland Plan would have every student, every parent, making a choice about where to go to school.

Under the plan, the district hopes to develop a portfolio of self-sufficient schools, each with its own mission and strengths, while eliminating or repurposing the lowest performers.

It breaks down a one-size-fits-all mentality that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has adhered to for decades, despite financial crises, massive layoffs, superintendent and CEO shifts, academic failures and decreased enrollment that demanded change on an epic scale.

"Breaking down that assembly line approach — that's what the portfolio strategy is all about," says David Abbott, executive director of the George Gund Foundation, which backed the Cleveland Plan. "So over time ... you're not thinking about this disastrous bureaucratic mess that for many decades descended into failure — you're thinking about this incredibly innovative, wonderful approach to education that is represented by this whole array of wonderful, shiny options."

Under the plan, a 31-member advisory panel of corporate executives, nonprofit directors, pastors, parents, principals and teachers, dubbed the Transformation Alliance, will serve as the third party that monitors and reports on the district's progress.

"When I grew up and went to school, I was basically assigned to my neighborhood school," says Transformation Alliance executive director Megan O'Bryan. "A lot of us are acculturated to think that way — that the best school for my kids is the one down the street. And in Cleveland, we really want parents to think carefully about what the needs of your children are and what school will best meet those needs."

Helen Williams, program director for education at the Cleveland Foundation, which also supported the Cleveland Plan, believes there is hope for great change in Cleveland schools because of schools like Early College High School.

"[Lockhart's] work at Early College and the consistency of that school's performance ... has been a highlight and sort of a guiding star and a hope for the whole district," says Williams. "If you can do this in one school, you can do this in many schools and if you can do this in many schools, you can do it in all schools."

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"She is the school mother,"Cartwright says of Lockhart. "She is the only principal who looks at our data and keeps track of it. And when she sees something not right, she will call you into her office."

This semester, when Cartwright fell behind in a statistics class, he didn't wait to be called into Lockhart's office. "I wanted to go to her myself," he says. "She asked me, 'How many times have you stayed after school?' "

He'd gone just once for tutoring. "One time?" she replied. "Your teacher can't help you if you come only once. What I want you to do is go camp out by her door."

Cartwright did. "Doing things like that is helping me become a better person," he says. "Ms. Lockhart is the kind of person who I can go to about anything, whether it's something at home or at school. She cares genuinely about us, and she really tries to take care of us."

Back at the assembly celebrating an unprecedented Performance Index for a school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, there is more cheering. More congratulatory speeches. Photos are taken. Parents and teachers are honored. There are sweet treats.

And then the students are sent back to class. There is more work to be done, Lockhart says.

"We are never chasing titles. We want kids to succeed. This is a residual effect of the staff doing collective work," Lockhart says after the assembly, her hands waving, dismissing any credit she might deserve. "This is not about me. It's about the teachers and students who believe."

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