Eric Gordon sits a little hunched, fixed on a television in the front of the room, fidgeting with his orange tie. Inside the union hall of Steelworkers Local 979, the mix of music, beers and chicken wings fits the predictive model of a victory party.
But the Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO keeps a hand clenched around his jaw, his face drawn and serious. Occasionally, a well-wisher interrupts. Gordon greets each one with a wide smile and warm hug, but then he’s back to the vigil.
Beside him the district’s communications chief, Roseann Canfora, refreshes the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website over and over as if each click multiplies the “Yes” votes.
At the front of the room, with his hands folded in his lap and eyes focused on NBC’s Lester Holt, Mayor Frank Jackson waits for the local news to break in from the network’s coverage of what has the early makings of a Donald Trump upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
But the main source of their tension is below the TV on an orange-and-blue poster for Issue 108, the Cleveland schools renewal levy. Gordon sports a shirt and tie in the same colors, like a math-teacher-turned-cheerleader.
If it passes tonight, the 15 mill property tax levy that supports Cleveland’s school reform effort — the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools — will be re-upped for another four years.
A complete reimagining of the city’s 106 district schools, the Cleveland Plan emphasizes the quality of a school, not who manages it.
It means principals have more control over budgets and staffing, if they can increase performance. Teacher raises are based on performance too, instead of the old seniority system. And parents, instead of sending their kids to the building down the street, can place them in any school in the district. Charter schools are invited to the party too, partnering with and even being sponsored by the district. The goal? Triple the number of district students in high-performing schools.
Since the levy supporting the Cleveland Plan was passed in 2012, graduation rates and attendance have ticked up. But academic results continue to be a mixed bag, the promises of sweeping reform complicated by constantly changing state tests. And after a summer of contentious negotiations, the threat of a teacher’s strike still hangs in the air like a 10-ton school bus.
During that time, a clock on the district’s website has counted down to this day.
As the results begin to trickle in, Gordon scurries back and forth to the mayor with updates. Issue 108 is up.
At about 10:30 p.m., it becomes obvious. WKYC’s Sara Shookman and Russ Mitchell call the results to cheers. The light of day will show it passing with 68 percent of the vote.
Jackson and Gordon, the architects of the plan, head to the front of the room. On the TVs behind them, Trump wins Ohio.
“Four years ago, we came to the community and promised that if we improved Cleveland’s schools, they would get to judge whether or not we deserve to continue to do this work,” says Gordon. “We have shown improvement and the voters of Cleveland have given us four more years to continue this work.”
The crowd claps and cheers. But Gordon isn’t done — here or with his mission.
“We need to make no mistake that while we have seen improvement, we are not where our kids and our community deserve our schools to be,” he says. No one claps. “This is another four-year challenge to continue the improvement at, or faster, than we did in the last four years.”
Just as quickly as it takes for the crowd’s clapping to die out, the clock begins counting down again.
The sun rises on Eric Gordon. His corner office on the 18th floor of 1111 Superior Ave. has an eastern view. Gordon delves into what he calls “the work” early each day. Most mornings he has been in the office for the better part of an hour by the time the sun nuzzles over the horizon.
“Today was too hazy to really enjoy it,” Gordon says, about a week after the Issue 108 party.
He’s in for a light day, by Gordon standards, dominated by a school visit and workshop at John Marshall High School with young professionals from the Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship program.
At 8 a.m., he fishes around for his coat and heads down to the garage, where he gets into his red Jeep. In contrast to previous district CEOs who had drivers and extravagant car allowances, Gordon drives himself everywhere. Once, a Plain Dealer reporter even sighted him with the hood up, trying to fix his own stalled ride.
Erin Randel, a Collinwood resident who has three children in the district and campaigned on behalf of the 2012 levy, recalls how she’d see previous CEO Eugene Sanders wearing sleek suits and waiting for his staff to open doors for him. Gordon, by contrast, showed up alone to a meeting she attended for Tremont Montessori parents shortly after he become CEO. He was lugging a briefcase on one shoulder and a banker’s box full of documents on the other.
“He schlepped the box in, didn’t have an assistant with him, was taking his own notes and had driven his own damn car,” she says. “I just thought, This is someone I can relate to.”
The Jeep starts into a constant low-frequency whine as Gordon revs out of the garage. On the ride to West 140th Street, Gordon outlines his latest crisis. The state Board of Education is weighing changes to the graduation standards, replacing the Ohio Graduation Test with seven subject exams. The state estimates that 29 percent of current Ohio high school juniors would need assistance to get their diplomas under the new standards.
Since Gordon became CEO in 2011 and the Cleveland Plan was implemented, the city’s high school graduation rate has taken a notable upward slant. Sixty-nine percent of the class of 2015 graduated in four years, compared with 56 percent for the class of 2011. But if the state standards change, Cleveland’s graduation could fall back into the 50s, effectively erasing one of the Cleveland Plan’s most notable successes.
The Ohio 8, a coalition of managers and union representatives from the largest urban districts in the state, is working on a proposal to address the problem, says Gordon. While changing the graduation yardstick will feel like a hard whack on the knuckles for many suburban schools, the effects will likely be more severe in urban districts.
A former math teacher and principal, Gordon has traveled both sides of the vast gulf that separates urban and suburban districts. Early in his career, he taught and managed in the 50-school Toledo district and adjacent suburban Oregon schools.
From 2002 to 2007, he worked in Olentangy, a rapidly growing suburb north of Columbus where he opened Olentangy Liberty High School and eventually rose through the ranks to oversee all middle and high school academics in the 23-school district.
“My Olentangy kids were great kids. I still know a lot of them. But they were going to be fine whether I was there or not,” says Gordon. “I don’t think the same is true in urban communities. The stakes are high. It really matters that we get it right.”
In 2007, he left Olentangy and came to Cleveland, where he became chief academic officer. Nine days after he took the job, a student at downtown’s SuccessTech Academy wounded two students and two teachers before turning a gun on himself. Later reports showed that 14-year-old Asa Coon was mentally ill, had been bullied and felt wronged after failing a history class.
“That was a disruptive event right away,” Gordon says. “It shaped a lot of what my early work in the district was.”
After the shooting, the district installed metal detectors in all its schools. Gordon and the district worked to complement them with the Humanware program, which provides anti-bullying services and social support. Kids are encouraged to be emotionally self-aware, so they can learn better. “All of that came out of that first 10 days,” he says.
“We still talk about the SuccessTech shooting today,” Gordon adds. “No kid should feel that desperate again.”
Gordon strolls excitedly across the parking lot at John Marshall, which reopened in 2015 after a wholesale renovation.
Out front, benches made from the parapet of the original 1932 structure create a hangout area for 621 students and teachers.
Gordon passes through the metal detectors and stops in the library to ditch his coat and black portfolio. Upstairs, he meets up with a gaggle of Cleveland Foundation Fellows, a group of hip-looking recent college grads immersed for a year at institutions such as MetroHealth Medical Center and Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
They peek into a science class and then find seats in an empty classroom with Apple computers arranged in clusters. Diagrams of keyboard shortcuts — undo, copy-paste, control-F — hang above the dry-erase board. Part of the West Side high school’s IT academy, the programming class is led by Briana Guevara, a peppy teacher with an oval face.
Sitting in a rolling chair up front, she fields questions from the fellows.
Guevara explains to them that she has several students who do not speak English as their first language, so the programming tools they use can be configured to their native tongues. But there are other obstacles too.
“Many of my students don’t have Wi-Fi or internet that’s fast enough to do the things that we need to do,” she says. The computer labs remain open after-hours so her students can work on big projects. But homework presents a particular problem when students have limited or no computer access.
“Other schools can give homework online. That’s not something we do,” says Guevara. “It’s a lot of what we call ‘unplugged,’ a lot of the same computational thinking ideas they can do in an unplugged setting.”
In other words, she assigns written homework for a programming class.
“I don’t want us to leave this room without you fully appreciating the amount of creativity that all of our educators do in order to deliver the education that a lot of people take for granted,” he says. “A lot of people look at a district like Cleveland and say how bad we’re doing or how bad we must be. And I just need to call out what you’ve been listening to, the millions of ways that teachers and principals find workarounds for things that most kids, families and teachers don’t even consider thinking about.”
Think about what this job takes, he says. In a district with 39,000 students — who all are provided with federally subsidized lunches — socioeconomics must be accounted for. Schedules must be flexible to give students extra time in the computer lab. Sometimes, it’s more parenting than teaching.
“There’s this work going on to make it happen in the same way for our kids that would be taken for granted in a lot of other communities,” he says.
It’s a note Gordon strikes often. Teachers shoulder too much of the blame for the shortcomings of urban school districts. They are suffering under the weight of too many tests and deserve credit for improvement despite the daily hardship of bettering students who have been dealt a disadvantaged hand.
Despite his admiration for the district’s teachers, conflict remains between Gordon and the union. Sore feelings continue from the early days, when Gordon signed onto a letter to state lawmakers that advocated for putting strict merit pay language into a budget bill rather than the seniority-centric system the district used before.
“That angered a lot of teachers,” says Cleveland Teachers Union president David Quolke. “We got off on a rocky start.”
However, the relationship improved to a level where the union lobbied in favor of the Cleveland Plan, which was something of a middle ground. The plan based teacher pay on a hybrid of evaluations, education level and other factors. The union approved a contract in 2013 that solidified the compromise.
The calm was momentary.
“You can’t say the last three years haven’t been challenging,” says Quolke. “All of that has to do with how the Cleveland Plan has been implemented.”
In spring 2016, as the union’s contract was set to expire, the truce between the district and union waned. Negotiations broke down without an agreement.
“We’re fighting to get more of a voice in [the school reform process],” says Quolke.
The new school year began without a new contract and a strike looming. But at 5 a.m. on Aug. 30, after a 21-hour bargaining session, the union leadership and the district reached an agreement. The tentative deal dropped the use of evaluations in determining raises for all but the very worst teachers, a blow to one of the pillars of the Cleveland Plan.
But union members voted down the new contract by a narrow margin. The deal was good, says Quolke, but his members wanted a better one and are still working under the previous contract.
“I’ve experienced probably 16 different superintendents and CEOs. Every single one of them had their own Cleveland Plan,” says Quolke. “The most successful ones are where the staff, and that’s from the principals down to the teachers, paraprofessionals and service providers, everyone at the school level, is working together.”