Eric Gordon Eric Gordon
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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. 

Gordon stands. 

“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.”

Gordon and the Cleveland Foundation Fellows sit in a circle of red couches in the John Marshall library listening as Helen Williams, program director for education at the foundation, lays out the history of the Cleveland Plan. 

“All of you are in public institutions for your internships and fellowships,” Williams tells the group. “But you’re seeing up close and personally how entrenched many of these bureaucracies are.”

The city schools have been in decline for decades. In its heyday, 150,000 students were enrolled. Attempts to pull them out of a perpetual tailspin were hampered by a revolving door of superintendents. Between 1976 and 1998, there were 12. Instability was the norm.

Williams does not mention the effect the superintendent’s chair seems to have on those who have attempted to fill it. Many have tried to right the district. All, thus far, have failed. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO from 1998 to 2006, recently pleaded guilty to a fraud charge arising from her time as head of Chicago’s schools. 

Or consider its first African-American superintendent, Frederick Holliday. A proponent of strict discipline and high academic standards, he was buffeted from all sides by the black community, the business community and The Plain Dealer. In 1985, after seven years of trying, he concluded that the schools were permanently broken, writing that ‘‘the purpose seems to be lost.” 

Shortly after he wrote those words in the principal’s office at Aviation High School, Holliday took his own life with a .357 pistol. “Use this event to rid yourselves of petty politics, racial politics, greed, hate and corruption,” Holliday wrote in his suicide note. “This city deserves better.’’

Arguably, Holliday’s dying wish for an academically rigorous, high-performing urban district in Cleveland might never be fulfilled. 

But that hasn’t stopped Gordon from trying. In 2011, after the abrupt retirement of CEO Eugene Sanders, Jackson and Gordon put together a plan of their own. They marshaled the support of Cleveland’s public-private triumvirate — the Cleveland Foundation, Gund Foundation and Greater Cleveland Partnership — and the plan flew through the Republican-controlled statehouse. 

Gordon has tied his own fortunes to the Cleveland Plan. He earns $239,200 each year, less than both of his most recent predecessors. But most tellingly, he’ll get bonuses if he can bump attendance, third-grade reading scores and enrollment at high-performing schools while decreasing the number of low-performing schools. 

There are some promising signs, such as the improved graduation rate. After decades of free-fall, enrollment has actually increased over the last two school years to 39,125 after bottoming out in the 2013-14 school year at 37,966. And attendance is up slightly too, to 91.5 percent in the 2015-16 school year, from 89 percent in the 2013-14 school year. But sweeping academic achievement has been harder to come by.

The 2015-16 district report card shows straight F’s. Constant changes in state tests — three times since the Cleveland Plan was enacted — mean measuring academic progress year to year is like comparing apples to fire trucks. And despite small gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test taken every two years that does not include charters, Cleveland remains near the bottom of the 21 urban districts it ranks. 

As Williams wraps up, Gordon shifts into teaching mode. He lights up. To illustrate the difficulty of enacting the Cleveland Plan, he tells the parable of the polar bear. 

The bears are open to change. In the wild, they’ve even learned to avoid poachers by lying in the snow and covering their black noses with their paws. But if you watch polar bears in the zoo, you’ll notice them swimming in circles. Normally free-ranging, the bears struggle to change in a system that boxes them in. The Toledo Zoo, he says, is trying to solve the problem by moving the bears between three different paddocks.

“That’s the truth. We are both adaptive and adapted, all of us,” says Gordon. “There is a growth mindset where we can change and grow, and a fixed mindset where we can’t.”

Gordon is shifting the paddock. But each bear has to choose whether to change. The question hangs in the room, the same one that seems to hang over the whole district, as much mission statement as it is ultimatum. 

Which will you choose?


Gordon shifts out of storyteller mode and begins explaining the nitty-gritty work that’s been the better part of his life for the last 10 years. The fellows nestle into their couches.

He compares the Cleveland Plan’s schools model to that of a financial portfolio. Money gets moved around as the market changes to get the best return. Schools that don’t get the best return are slowly being phased out. 

“Schools shouldn’t be in the same place for 200 years, just because they were that way 200 years ago,” Gordon says

So far under the Cleveland Plan, the district has closed the low-performing Buckeye-Woodland and Revere elementary schools. It also broke up three high schools to create smaller, more specialized programs. 

John Marshall, where the fellows sit, is one. Instead of one-program-fits-all, four schools operate in the building: an engineering school, a business and civic leadership school, the IT school and the traditional school, which is being phased out. 

Gordon says people have to be OK with closing schools, even the new ones at John Marshall. “If we’re really going to be adaptive, in a portfolio mindset, we should already be clear that there will come a day that at least one of these three schools no longer serves our needs, and it too will phase out and something else will phase in,” he says.

Gordon was an early adopter of that change. As chief academic officer, he helped establish the MC2 STEM science, technology, engineering and math school, where students learn at Great Lakes Science Center, GE Lighting’s Nela Park and other campuses. 

Since, the new portfolio model has continued with schools such as Bard High School Early College, where students can earn an associate degree along with a high school diploma, and the Lincoln-West School of Science and Health, which features an immersion program at MetroHealth. In December, the district announced the launch of the Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School, a partnership with the aviation nonprofit Phastar. It will share a building with the Cleveland High School for the Digital Arts, where kids make films, music and video games.

Since the Cleveland Plan, the district has also embarked on an ambitious partnership program to flesh out their portfolio with charter schools. This year the city schools partnered with 18 charters, including 11 directly sponsored by the district. The district helps finance these 18 schools with a portion of the levy, an arrangement that’s rare outside Cleveland. It is the only school district in Ohio to do so. In exchange for access to his pocketbook, Gordon can exercise greater control over some of the more than 50 charters that continue to pop up in the city. 

The district is making efforts to boost its own low performers too, called “investment schools.” For the 2016-17 school year, the district has selected 23 of them. At investment schools, the district dangles the carrot of extra resources, such as special teacher training, but uses the stick of hard and fast statistical benchmarks. 

For instance, at Kenneth W. Clement Boys’ Leadership Academy, a pre-K through eighth-grade school with a chronic absenteeism rate of 23.5 percent for 2015-2016, the district is demanding a 1.2 percent increase in attendance this school year, along with a 7.3 percent increase in reading proficiency. To hit that reading goal, it has contracted with the Center for Student Achievement Solutions to coach teachers there one-on-one. 

Gordon is talking fast. He tells another parable about “the swamp.” Change is a high-stakes game. You have to draw people into the swamp far enough that they get dirty. But not too far, or else they drown. 

“Part of my job is to go too far, so that other people will go far enough,” Gordon says, “to go so far ahead that other people will at least come halfway, and I can say, ‘Really, that’s where I was trying to get you in the first place.’ ”

A chuckle goes around the circle. Gordon is, thus far, above water.

Back in his office, Gordon flies through emails, schedules and requests with three members of his personal staff. 

Albert Ratner, one of the city’s business leaders, co-chairman emeritus of Forest City Realty Trust and an early Cleveland Plan supporter, left a message. So did developer Dick Pace, intent on building a new city school on the lakefront. 

Gordon will respond to them later. Right now, there’s a kid in trouble.

A straight-A senior at John F. Kennedy High School hasn’t been showing up for school. She is, the message says, pregnant.

Gordon lets out a belly-deep sigh. He assigns one of his staffers to track the girl down. “Go visit her, get her back engaged, either at JFK, or in some other program,” he tells the assistant. 

It’s Thursday. He wants her back in school by Friday. “If it’s not solved by tomorrow, I want her address for Saturday,” says Gordon. “I’ll go by her house.”

It’s not an empty threat. Gordon is known to pass out his work cellphone number to students and has mentored many others over the years. One of his mentees is, in fact, now his neighbor. Gordon and his wife, Dawn, have no children. But, he likes to joke, he can practically see into the cafeteria of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in Ohio City from his dining room window. They’re so close, they might as well be his.

Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel that Gordon would be more comfortable in a classroom than the 18th floor office. He tries to close the gap by visiting schools several times a week. It’s an instinct that dates to his early days as a principal in Olentangy, when he set up his desk in the reception area rather than his brand-new office. 

“His point was, If I need to have a private conversation, I can go into a conference room,” recalls his supervisor at the time, Jen Hooie. “I want to be in the middle of where the kids are.”

He tries to make sure even his executives aren’t insulated from a student-teacher relationship. Gordon has recently hired a coach to have one-on-one sessions with the district’s high-level staff. 

He’s scheduled one for himself tonight.  


After wrapping up some other business, it’s into the Jeep for the drive back to John Marshall. On the way, Gordon reflects on the whiff of scandal that’s plagued him over the past year and a half. 

In 2015 the Bond Accountability Commission, a watchdog organization, revealed that the district had passed up just more than $8 million in federal technology rebates during the reign of Gordon’s predecessor. 

Gordon commissioned a private law firm, which cost about $700,000 more, to track down what went wrong. They found incompetence but no criminality. Another investigation by Ohio auditor David Yost found nothing that rose to the level of fraud. “This was a combination of poor management, weak policies and a lack of communication that resulted in huge losses,” Yost said in a news release. “It’s not criminal, it’s stupid — a very big ‘stupid.’ ”

In February 2016, The Plain Dealer unearthed emails between Gordon and the commission that suggested Gordon knew about the failed rebate collections prior to when he said he did. Gordon, the newspaper insinuated, knew about the problem in 2013 and failed to correct it. When the commission came calling, he filled their requests. He thought the inquiry was routine. 

“That’s one of the very few instances where I believe the press coverage was unfair. I don’t say that word easily, and I don’t think probably I’ve ever said it,” says Gordon. “It is what it is and we’ve moved on, but there were many instances in which the BAC was talking, and the district was not given the courtesy of a response, or because the BAC said it, it must have been true.”

The rebate collection system has since been fixed, although the district cannot recover most of the lost funds. “At no point did we excuse ourselves of responsibility and say, ‘Well, that happened under someone else’s watch.’ We owned it,” says Gordon. “That part, I think we did right.”

Gordon pulls into John Marshall.

“If that had happened after people had seen example after example after example, we would not have survived it,” he says as he strides to the door. “People said, ‘Hmm, this seems like an anomaly.’ They weren’t happy about it, but we were able to move through it. That’s why I think we have to be so intentional about how we lead every single minute.”

He greets the security guard. “Hi, John,” he says, then steps through the metal detectors.

The Cleveland Foundation Fellows have been sitting for hours, listening to panel after panel of leadership, teachers and parents. But Marcy Shankman, a leadership coach and strategist for the district, gets them moving for an informal straw poll. 

Gordon and three of the district’s top officers, including chief academic officer Michelle Pierre-Farid, stick around too.

In the library, Shankman maps out a human-sized scale of change: All the way on the right is a little, all the way to the left is a lot. Stand in the spot correlated with your opinion, Shankman tells the group.

First question: “How has the Cleveland Plan impacted the culture of those working at the district?”

The group lines up shoulder to shoulder in a straight line between a little and a lot. Shankman asks one of the fellows, near the center at about a five, to explain.

“If you had asked me at the beginning of the day, I would have been down there,” the young woman says, pointing toward the left. “We heard from the principals first. But then hearing from a teacher in the last panel really made me step back, because it made it seem like there hasn’t been as great an impact when you went down to the level of teachers.”

Gordon is a little to the right of center. “It’s young,” he says. There’s still time, and the district is at a predictable place.

Next up: “From today, how much does the leadership have to change?” Shankman asks.

Most of the group is standing to the left. Pierre-Farid and the other two administrators stand near the very end, indicating a lot of change is needed. Gordon is standing a little left of center. 

“I’m the only one of the four of us that was here prior to the Cleveland Plan. The reason I’m not as far there,” says Gordon, waving a hand toward Pierre-Farid’s end, “is I know how far we were, and who we are now.” 

In the absence of sustained academic results, measuring the success of the Cleveland Plan is a matter of one’s perspective. People who have been here see much improvement. New arrivals see years of work still ahead.

But Gordon sees the distance traveled. When he gut checks the Cleveland Plan, he sees progress. 


The foundation fellows drift off to their cars as Gordon sits down in an empty room for a conference call. A text flashes across the screen of his phone. The pregnant student will be back in school tomorrow. 

“Off my plate,” says Gordon, as he lets out a small laugh and smile.

After the call Gordon makes a beeline to his car, but is waylaid by members of the school’s alumni association. He listens dutifully, taking down a bulleted list in his portfolio, complete with telephone numbers. 

He is due back in the office for his coaching session with Shankman, which will stretch until after 7 p.m. After spending a good deal of today talking, Gordon will listen. Like each of the teachers and students in his district do every day, he will try tonight to measure the immeasurable. 

“I don’t know if, in education, you get to claim success because you always have a new set of kindergartners starting and moving through a system. Was the Cleveland Plan successful? I would say, ‘Yes,’ because a system that was fundamentally dead is no longer,” says Gordon as he pilots the Jeep to the highway. “And yet, we would all clearly acknowledge that there’s way more to do. I don’t think there’s an easy answer.”

There is one thing, though, that he knows for sure. “I’m never satisfied.”

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