Right now in Cleveland, Ohio we can watch the latest battle in a war that has spread across the nation’s big city school districts. It is a fight about the definition of a high school—a misunderstanding between the technocrats who have imposed something called “portfolio school reform” school choice and the families who want their children to have a high school experience in a neighborhood where they feel comfortable.
Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood was defined through much of the twentieth century by the huge New York Central railroad yards. And today’s high school battle in Cleveland is between a mayoral appointed school board and the families, teachers, and community residents who understand a neighborhood high school tradition defined by the football rivalry between the Collinwood Railroaders and the Glenville Tarblooders. Glenville, one of two remaining comprehensive high schools in Cleveland, is the school into which today’s mayoral-appointed board of education is folding Collinwood.
Portfolio School reform was formalized in Cleveland in December of 2012 in a four-year transformation plan that emphasized school choice, innovation, and student-based budgeting. High school in Cleveland is all about school choice—with the money following the students who choose a particular school. Cleveland’s high school choice book advertises small schools featuring specialties:
- New School Models—early college, international high school, aerospace & maritime, college & career, and environmental studies.
- Academies—business careers, tech, and environmental studies.
- New Tech—four schools which are part of a national New Tech Network.
- Two comprehensive high schools.
Cleveland’s high school choice guide identifies 18 of the high schools across the these categories as innovative. These schools are designated by their specialization: early college, digital arts, architecture & design, science & medicine, the arts, problem based critical thinking, civic & business leadership, engineering, information technology, global studies, science & health, STEM, and leadership. Collinwood High School and the other three New Tech high schools do not make the list of innovative schools. Neither do Glenville and East Tech, the two remaining comprehensive high schools in the Cleveland school district.
Collinwood and Glenville represent very different neighborhoods on the city’s northeast side, the traditionally black side of town. Both neighborhoods were devastated by the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Today, the students in the Collinwood and Glenville areas are among the city’s poorest.
Portfolio school reform, the essence of the Cleveland Plan, formulates school district management around the idea that schools are like the investments in a stock portfolio. The district imposes student based budgeting, and as students carry their funding to the most popular schools, the district will shut down the losers. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes what Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon recommends as the future of Collinwood High School under portfolio school reform: “Gordon’s plan would close the three-story, 228,000-square-foot building at East 152nd and St. Clair Avenue after 93 years of serving a once-thriving neighborhood. But enrollment at the school has declined over the years and the school now has about one-tenth of the 3,500 students it had when it opened in 1926. All of the unused space, with about 300 students remaining, makes it emblematic of a large problem facing the district… ‘We have all of these extra seats and you can’t make the building shrink to match the community,’ Gordon said at a community meeting this week.”
Residents of Collinwood have been protesting. In an extensive Plain Dealer report, Jordan Heller examines the peer group issues of suddenly mixing students across three high schools—Glenville, MLK, and Collinwood—as Gordon has proposed. Heller raises an issue which has emerged in Chicago when the students in one school have been collapsed into another as he describes the worries of Collinwood football player Velonte Paul and his mother: “But to Paul, his teammates and their parents, it was not a population problem, but a people problem. Collinwood, MLK and Glenville high schools serve many different neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods host many different gangs. Bringing them together in one building seemed to be ‘not even an option,’ said Paul’s mom… ‘Now you’re meshing kids from Hough, Wade Park, from out of the projects—including a number of gangs like the Heartless Felons—and they already have beef from these neighborhoods.'”
A Cleveland City Council member representing the Collinwood neighborhood has spoken eloquently at recent public hearings. O’Donnell reports: “City Councilman Mike Polensek asked the district to keep Collinwood High School open, and also give the school the vocational and other innovative programs it has sought for years. Instead, he said, the district is breaking promises made a few years ago to keep the school open… ‘What is the game plan for the East Side?’ Polensek asked. ‘Is it more school closures on top of school closures?'”
The members of the school board in Cleveland are split as the district debates the closure of Collinwood. While most of the board members—all appointed by the mayor—are expected to support the plan presented by the mayor’s appointed CEO, Lisa Thomas has spoken out against the closure based on the fact that, in a school district with universal high school choice, the school district itself has located attractive programs elsewhere, thereby drawing students away from Collinwood, whose programs have languished. In a recent report, O’Donnell describes Thomas’s concerns: “For board member Lisa Thomas, closing the mammoth but almost-empty school would amount to the district giving up on the neighborhood at Cleveland’s northeast corner. Too many businesses and other institutions have abandoned that neighborhood, she said, and left ‘gaping holes’ in a once-strong community. ‘We didn’t start the fire, but we’ve got to put it out… If we close Collinwood High School, we are part of the problem.'”
There is now a body of academic research examining the effect on the community when schools are closed. In Chicago, after Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”
In a profound 2018 book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students. Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it? What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)
The Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The school board will meet at 6:30 p.m., Tues., Nov. 19, at East Technical High School, 2439 E. 55th St., to vote on the school consolidation plan. The meeting is open to the public with time for comments.”