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Community Holds High Expectations For New Cleveland Schools Chief

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:55 PM

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This week, a search committee interviewing candidates vying to become the next Cleveland Schools CEO recommended three superintendents to the last round. Now it’s up to the school board and the mayor to decide which of the finalists they want. No matter what the decision, expectations are very high. ideastream’s Michelle Kanu reports the Cleveland community’s expectations fall just short of the new leader wearing a cape and wielding superhuman powers.

If there’s one thing the Cleveland community can agree on, it’s that the next CEO of the Cleveland Schools should be:

Nina Turner: “Strong, motivated, determined, totally focused on what is in the best interest of Cleveland’s children, and the impact of educating them will have on our region as a whole.”

State senator Nina Turner represents Cleveland and is a product of the schools. 

Like so many other community members, Turner’s expectations for the next CEO make for a tall order: dig the district out of its financial hole, boost the graduation rate well above its current rate of 54%, keep the schools safe, push kids to go to college, and articulate a vision for what the district should look like in twenty years.

The Cleveland Schools have been searching for a permanent chief ever since Eugene Sanders unexpectedly announced his retirement last December.  After receiving 126 applicants for the job, a local search committee—with the help of a Chicago based national search firm—narrowed the choices to three.  All have fairly conventional backgrounds for the post, and all are currently superintendents in other districts.

That disappointed some observers like Stanley Miller, president of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP, who worked with former Mayor Michael White in the late ‘90s when he put the schools under mayoral control. Miller says by selecting applicants with similar work experience, the search committee missed an opportunity to hire someone with management skills outside of the education field.

Miller: “I was very concerned that more people with broader backgrounds weren’t in the pool, and I think we had a great opportunity to fix that and didn’t do it.”

Miller says the Cleveland Schools need a leader who has previously managed a complex organization like a major corporation.

Others disagree.

McShepard: “We need someone who is more of a turn around expert, a change agent.”

Randell McShepard is the co-founder of Policy Bridge, a Cleveland based public policy group. 

McShepard: “Whether they’ve led a large corporation, a university, a non-profit or a school, the characteristic inherent in that is how do you handle change, how do you manage large systems.”

McShepard says the transformation plan that Eugene Sanders developed to restructure the district and convert low-performing schools into specialty ones is finally leading Cleveland in the right direction. 

In addition to supporting more specialty and charter schools, Eric Wobser, executive director of Ohio City Incorporated, wants the new chief to work on education policy issues that impact more than just Cleveland.

Wobser: “It’s critical that the CEO look to policy at both the state and federal level to adopt innovative practices that have taken place in other states or to partner with the federal government.”

Community leaders agree that making the schools better is an important part of improving Cleveland’s image, retaining and attracting business, and reversing population decline. And Wobser says, and the new leader needs to court the city’s growing population of middle-class young families who will soon be shopping around for high performing, innovative schools for their kids.

The most important constituents of the Cleveland Schools—the students themselves—also have high hopes for the new CEO.

Aminah Vargas is a tenth grader planning to attend Cleveland School of the Arts this fall.  She says the new leader should talk to students directly about policies that will affect them—like curriculum changes and teacher layoffs. And, she’d like to see the new CEO make an effort to:

Vargas: “Be at the schools more often, come talk to the students more often, maybe even start a blog where the students can directly interact with him and have something where we can all put our input on the internet because everyone’s on the internet, especially my age group.”

In other words, Vargas wants the new superintendent to engage with students as if it’s a conversation, not a lecture.

African-American businessman Randell McShepard cautions everyone not to expect too much from the new CEO of schools or any other single education administrator.  Success, he says, will depend on the entire community. 

McShepard: “Now I know where they came up with the title of that movie Waiting for Superman, because I think we’re all waiting for someone with supernatural powers to be able do all of those things; no one is good at everything.”

The Cleveland School Board plans to visit the home districts of each of the finalists before asking Mayor Jackson to sign off on the next CEO.  They hope to have a new leader in place by June.

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