by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, December 2014) On November 15th, Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU) President David Quolke and CTU First Vice President Tracy Radich met with parents and other community members to discuss school policy and to address parents’ concerns about their child’s education. Quolke tackled some tough questions and concerns of parents and brought up some issues related to educational policy in the State of Ohio. Radich came armed with information about the new Common Core curriculum adopted in Ohio, the new tests that will accompany it and some tips to make children into “Life-long Learners.”
The breakfast meeting, organized by Common Good Ohio, is the first of what Quolke hopes will be an ongoing opportunity for community members to dialogue with the Cleveland Teachers Union leadership. The meeting was held at Phillippi Missionary Baptist Church in the John Adams school neighborhood. Common Good organizer Rowena Ventura plans a second meeting for December 13th, to be held in the Lincoln West High School neighborhood. A site has not yet been confirmed.
Quolke told the twenty people in attendance at the meeting that he hopes to learn from community members “what types of information you don’t get from the district, that you should get.”
Parents of an eighth grade child in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District brought a whole range of issues for Quolke to address. They wanted to know which high schools in their neighborhood would have the Closing the Achievement Gap Program they wanted their child to participate in when he attends high school next year. Quolke also talked with them about their concerns and dissatisfaction with the Individual Education Program designed for their son. Quolke offered to connect the parents with Jessica Baldwin the Cleveland Metropolitan Schools District’s new Executive Director of Special Education to seek her help in resolving the issue.
Several requests from the community were put forth and Quolke promised to bring them to the attention of Cleveland Metropolitan School District Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon at their weekly meeting.
Following a presentation by CTU First Vice President Radich on the Performance Based Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – the series of tests that accompany the Common Core Curriculum, one parent asked for a hotline to help her assist her son with preparation for the tests. She wanted to be able to ask someone “Can you explain this question, so I can explain it to my child?” She also asked for a place where parents could access a computer to work with their children in studying for the test. She noted the lines at the library for computer access often resulted in a long wait to use the computer.
Quolke promised to bring the issue to CEO Gordon’s attention and he suggested that retired CTU members may be a good source for the CMSD to tap to help with this effort. Common Good Ohio Organizer Rowena Ventura said she saw it as Common Good’s responsibility to find resources “where you can get assistance as parents.” She also urged parents to work with the organization to pressure the state of Ohio to place dollars in the budget to offer assistance to parents.
Radich offered those present some helpful websites where students could practice math, science, reading and social studies.
Bishop Eugene Ward brought up two areas of concern to Quolke. He expressed concern about the gutting of the tech preparation programs in the school district such as wood shop, cosmetology and cooking. He said he would like to see the district restore programs where all students were introduced to Cleveland’s cultural amenities such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra. He said he would also like the school district to offer music education to its students.
Thanking Ward for his comments, Quolke said, “When our voice is echoing your voice it means more.” He said when he brings up the issue with CEO Gordon it won’t look like just the Cleveland Teachers Union looking for more positions for its members, but he will be bringing a concern from the community. Quolke said it is important to expose students in their K-8 years to a variety interests to help them find their niche in life. He said, even for those that believe every student should go to college, an exposure to carpentry may be a gateway to a student discovering the need to know math to be a good carpenter.
Quolke spent some time talking about educational policy in the state of Ohio. He said in recent years the CTU has spent a lot of time taking on “bad legislation and making it less bad.”
Citing some “glimmers of hope” on the educational horizon, Quolke said the single most important thing that gives him hope for improvement in the Cleveland Schools is the expansion of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Pre-Kindergarten program to reach three and four year olds. He said when the State of Florida created the Third Grade Guarantee they also funded universal pre-k to give kids a fighting change to pass the third grade reading requirement. He said, while Ohio stole Florida’s idea for the third grade guarantee, they failed to fund universal pre-K with it. He urged efforts to get the state to fund such a program.
Despite the lack of state funding, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is moving forward with the pre-K expansion. Quolke says the program helps schools to connect with families early on. It helps parents to vet neighborhood schools and develop a relationship with them, he said.
Quolke talked about the Cleveland Teachers Union’s joining with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s Administration in negotiations with Ohio Governor John Kasich’s Administration to avoid state takeover of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. He said while the result wasn’t perfect, the involvement of the union helped to avoid legislation passing that was really bad and replace it with something the community could rally around.
In an analysis of the recent election where over 60% of Clevelanders going to the polls supporting a bond issue for building, renovating and repairing Cleveland schools, as well as, the previous passage of a levy to support educational programs in the schools, Quolke said he saw that as evidence of a “renewed belief we can make things right.”
“You are here because you want things to change and you want to be part of that improvement,” said Quolke speaking of the union’s willingness to join with the community to work for an agenda of positive change.
Quolke cited as another example of positive change, the effort to bring Wrap Around community services to Cleveland’s Investment Schools and to make schools like John Adams and Lincoln West into community centers that are the “heart and soul of their neighborhood.”
The discussion shifted to the impact of high stakes tests on the schools, the meaning of the third grade reading guarantee, the shift to the Common Core curriculum and the increased testing that is accompanying the Common Core.
Quolke criticized the high stakes tests as resulting in teachers being “less focused on being creative and more focused on being rigid.” Quolke then asked Tracy Radich, First Vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union to talk about the Common Core.
Tracy Radich, also a teacher at Gallagher School, offered some insight into the role out of the Common Core Curriculum and the array of tests that will accompany it.
Radich described the Common Core as a new curriculum that sets a set of standards for teachers to teach each year. She said the curriculum’s intent is that fewer topics will be taught, but each topic will be delved into in more depth.
Radich says she believes the new more rigorous standards set by the Common Core are a good thing. However, she said the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) testing that is supposed to evaluate student and teacher performance on the Common Core will have many people upset.
This year, for example, eighth grade students will take eleven PARCC tests in between February and May – five in reading, four in math and three in either social studies or science.
Radich says she is warning parents that the test is different and more difficult. She said students that usually score well on tests, may not do as well. She said in New York State, where the Common Core was rolled out early, only 31% of students passed the test.
While both Radich and Quolke would like to see less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on teaching, they acknowledge the reality of current law. Quolke says training of teachers to teach the Common Core is going well. Progress is also being made in what he calls “Scope and Sequence.” He explained that this means that schools throughout the district will be teaching the same subjects in the same time. This is important in a school district with a mobility rate of 31%, where some students change schools two or three times a year.
Responding to a parent, who said she dropped out of school because she couldn’t pass the Ohio Graduation Test and now wanted to make sure that her son finishes school, but was concerned about the not being able to help with an even harder test awaiting him. Quolke said that when Mayoral control of the Cleveland schools began 12 years ago, the graduation rate was 32%. He said many of those who did not graduate at that time, are now parents with children in the Cleveland schools. He said, one of the discussions at the CTU is how to engage with parents in her position.
Church pastors in attendance at the meeting Pastor Aaron Phillips, Pastor Kevin Byous Jr., and Bishop Eugene Ward all asked what their churches and community members could do to help offering to set up study sessions in the community and help students to navigate using a computer for test taking. Reverend Byous expressed concern about the loss of teaching hours to test taking.
Radich urged parents to ask their students what they learned in school each day. She noted that when students discuss what they have learned it increases their retention. She also offered a handout to help to prepare students for life long learning and with preparing for tests. Some of the websites parents and students can access to help with studying included in the handout are: PARCC Practice Tests at www.parcconline.org; practice tests for science, social studies, math and reading from preschool to middle school at www.sheppardsoftware.com and Practice Flashcards at www.multiplication.com.
For more information about future meetings contact Common Good Ohio at 216-795-5375 or visit their website at: www.commongoodohio.org.