It didn’t take long this spring to realize that schools would not be doing business as usual. As educational institutions across the state began shutting their doors against COVID-19, John Zitzner, founder of Breakthrough Public Schools in Cleveland, and his staff did a bit of statewide research.
It was determined that less than half of the schools in Ohio were delivering distance learning to their students.
“It’s a real problem,” says Zitzner, identifying Breakthrough Public Schools as a nonprofit management organization for 12 public schools serving those in kindergarten through eighth grade in partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. It is dedicated to delivering excellent education to Cleveland’s students. “We heard from some families who said the only thing they got from their school was a packet of information on March 13. Others said, ‘We all have computers, the kids are learning online, and our schools are doing a great job.’”
Determined not to let his 3,500 students lose momentum and fall into that first category of forgotten students, Zitzner pressed on. Knowing there was a huge need to help students get connected to Breakthrough teachers online, it was time for the next step.
“We bought 500 hot spots — internet connections — for families who did not have it,” explains Zitzner, an entrepreneur and founder, as well as former president and CEO of Bradley Co., a Cleveland software company that was acquired by Xerox Corp. in 1998. “Believe it or not, there are places in Cleveland where you cannot get internet access even if you want to pay for it. It’s just not on all streets.”
The charter school network worked with a private service provider, as well as Digital C, which Zitzner describes as a “nonprofit in Cleveland with a mission to make sure a cloud of wireless connectivity expands over certain neighborhoods.”
A thousand Google Chromebooks also were distributed so “every single one of our families who wanted or needed technology has it,” explains Zitzner, describing his students as 99 percent minorities and 79 percent at the poverty level.
“If a family had three kids, they got three Chromebooks,” says Zitzner. “Now, 88 percent of our families are engaged in online learning. It varies from school to school — from 70 percent to one school with 99 percent. But it’s a terrific percentage.”
Breakthrough’s 350 educators had three weeks to essentially transform a curriculum taught in brick-and-mortar buildings to an online classroom. Although the school year officially ended in early summer, students were allowed to keep the devices so they could voluntarily continue lessons before the 2020-2021 school year begins. Breakthrough recommends students supplement their learning this summer with Khan Academy, an online school providing lessons for every grade level in every subject. Zitzner says his family takes advantage of the lessons, and even he is “working his way through biology” because he wants to improve his knowledge of that topic.
Mary Apelian is a second-grade team teacher at Village Prep Willard, a Breakthrough school located on West 95th Street in Cleveland. Apelian teaches math and reading and will be starting her fourth year as an educator this fall. Although certainly computer literate, Apelian says the quick leap to distance learning was somewhat of a challenge for her. But she appreciates learning new technology skills that she might not have used when teaching in a classroom to younger children.
“I knew I had to do this for our students so they wouldn’t fall behind,” says Apelian, who taught 29 children this past school year. “Having that mindset was the way I got through it. And the students learned new technology skills, too.”
Apelian says the remote learning experience actually provided “more time to meet with kids to do some one-on-one teaching.” If she knew a student was struggling with a part of a lesson, she could zero in on that student and that need.
However, not being able to respond immediately to a student’s incorrect homework or quiz answer meant the “in-the-moment, student-to-teacher connection” was lost because Apelian reviewed students’ work sometime after it was turned in. Still, except for a few students and their families who were difficult to connect with because of schedules, job responsibilities, etc., she calls the distance learning a success.
Students were not given grades for the last grading session. According to Zitzner, students, parents and teachers were “under enough stress already.”
“We just wanted everyone to try,” says Zitzner. “We want to be the best in the area at delivering this kind of distance education.”
As a public school network, Breakthrough is free to students and includes breakfast and lunch. It is funded primarily by state and federal sources and “a tiny percent of local property tax, which may go away in November if it is not renewed,” according to Zitzner. Philanthropy makes up about 10 percent of the assets.
“We spend about $12,000 per kid and get funding for about $10,000 per kid. The difference is made up by what we raise in philanthropy,” says Zitzner. “Other school districts spend about $16,000 to $20,000 per student. We get about two-thirds of the funding that other [traditional] public schools get.”
Breakthrough teachers and administrators (like many employees of charter schools) receive lower salaries than educators in many traditional school districts. But Zitzner says the staff’s shared philosophy of education and dedication to students is impressive. That united front has helped the school to rank No. 1 overall in Ohio among 277 public school networks studied nationwide by Stanford University’s Center for Research of Educational Outcomes (CREDO) in 2017.
One goal of Breakthrough Public Schools is to have at least one high-quality, public K-8 school in every Cleveland neighborhood.
“The students want to come back in the fall and see each other and their teachers,” says Apelian, who created Google Meets for students. “That would be best. But if we can’t come back completely, we have at least all learned new skills through distance learning.”