The Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools initiated its relationship with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) during the 2011-12 academic year by offering consultation and training on the early design of its Community Wraparound Schools Initiative. Following the implementation of a pilot project involving six Community Wraparound Schools (CWAS), NCCS continued to work with CMSD and its lead partner—the United Way of Greater Cleveland—as the work expanded to 25 Cleveland public k-8 schools and high schools, with the active participation of other local investors and a wide array of other community partners.
Research and best practice in the community schools field both point to the importance of long-term strategic partnerships in building and sustaining school improvement efforts. The work in Cleveland, Ohio offers a rich example of two major institutions—the school district and the United Way—choosing to join forces and align their complementary resources in ways that benefit children, families, schools, and neighborhoods. Examined in the national context, the Cleveland initiative is considered an important effort, by virtue of its size and scope, the speed at which it developed, and the demonstrated commitment of the district and its lead partner. Lisa Baskin-Naylor (CMSD) and Joyce Daniels (United Way) are nationally recognized as the co-leaders of the Cleveland initiative—and their work is nested in the commitment of their respective organizations.
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has benefitted from the strong and stable leadership of Eric Gordon, who has served as Chief Executive Officer since 2011. Gordon is a veteran educator, having worked in other districts as teacher, assistant principal, and principal. He also served as CMSD’s chief academic officer for four years before becoming the district’s CEO. Gordon brings a “whole child” perspective to his work, and has been an active proponent and early pioneer of integrating social and emotional learning into school improvement efforts. Early in his tenure as the district’s leader, Gordon partnered with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and other business, philanthropic, and educator leaders to advocate with the Ohio state legislature to pass the Cleveland Plan, a comprehensive package of education reform legislation that was signed into law in July of 2012.
Meanwhile, the United Way of Greater Cleveland—under the leadership initially of president and CEO Bill Kitson and, more recently, of his successor August Napoli—established education as one of its core outcome areas. As both a community planner and a fund aggregator, United Way was well positioned to provide direct support for the Community Wraparound Schools Initiative and related education efforts, such as kindergarten readiness, grade-level reading, and afterschool and mentoring. And, as a further indication of its commitment to education and its willingness to partner with the district, the United Way recruited Eric Gordon to serve on its board of directors.
It was against this backdrop that the Cleveland CWAS took flight. The initiative’s designers selected the lead agency model as their preferred approach, and then cast a wide net in choosing an interesting mixture of lead agencies and in matching those lead agencies with specific schools and principals. The array of lead agencies in Cleveland includes youth-serving organizations (such as the Boys & Girls Clubs), universities, mental health agencies, other human service organizations, and arts organizations (such as the Cleveland Play House). This diverse array of 16 organizations adds richness to the initiative that is unusual, if not unique, in community schools practice nationally. Through the implementation experience and shared professional development (including monthly “learning circles” and quarterly gatherings for lead agency supervisors), participating schools and community agencies have learned about the unique competencies of each organizational partner, and several groups have extended their programmatic reach beyond the school(s) in which they serve as the lead agency.
Another strong feature of this collaborative effort is the clear results framework that keeps all of the stakeholders focused on the overarching goal of promoting student success. Consistent with this results framework, the initiative has started to produce impressive results—around such important indicators as reducing chronic absence, increasing graduation rates, and improving school climate. Recent reports from the district and the United Way (using district data as well as United Way-generated survey data) indicate that many of the CWAS—while starting at a much lower baseline than other Cleveland public schools—are showing greater gains than the district as a whole:
- For example, CWAS serving k-8 students moved the needle on reducing chronic absence from 2013-17 while other Cleveland k-8 schools showed a small increase in students that were chronically absent during that same period. The Community Wraparound high schools showed a more dramatic decrease in students that were chronically absent than other Cleveland high schools, although both groups of schools showed statistically significant reductions in chronic absence during this period.
- During this same period (2013-17), the five Community Wraparound high schools showed increases in graduation rates that were consistently higher than the district average (ranging from increases of 26.4 percent to 3.7 percent compared to the district average of 2.6 percent). It is important to note that CWAS started at dramatically lower graduation rates at the outset of the initiative and therefore had (and still have) a much greater gap to close.
- The CWAS saw greater increases (than other Cleveland schools) in the percentage of students who reported feeling physically and emotionally safe—an important indicator of school climate. Students at CWAS also reported feeling supported by teachers and other school-based adults at higher rates than other Cleveland public schools; rates of change in the k-8 schools were similar while the difference was more pronounced at the high school level.
- Last but not least, the district’s most recent data show an array of positive academic results for the CWAS. For example, 19 of the 20 elementary schools showed significant improvement in literacy in the early grades (K-3); several CWAS increased the percentage of third graders passing the state test and moving to fourth grade, with one school showing an increase of 60 percent over the past three years and having 100 percent of their third graders passing the 2016-17 literacy test.
Against the backdrop of these results, the leaders of both organizations—the district and the United Way—offered their observations to Partnership Press. Superintendent Gordon, during his 2017 State of the Schools address to the greater Cleveland community, spoke about the importance of changing the conditions in schools and communities that interfere with student success. In reflecting on how CWAS change conditions for students and families, Gordon observed that “CMSD’s partnership with the United Way of Greater Cleveland and several local community partners has allowed us to bring community resources into 25 of our schools. By providing both universal services and meeting individual needs, these community schools have begun addressing real challenges our students and their families face, thereby allowing both our kids and their caregivers to more fully engage in school. As a result, we have seen increases in student attendance and dramatic increases in family participation in their children’s education."
In a similar vein, United Way president and CEO Napoli talked about how the CWAS partnership helps his organization achieve its mission: “Our Community Wraparound Initiative is directly correlated to our mission of ensuring those in greatest need can overcome the harsh effects of poverty, by tackling one of its root causes: a lack of education. By providing programs that ‘wrap’ around students and their families, we can give them a better chance to learn, through removing the many barriers to becoming productive citizens of our community – from making sure our children have healthy food on the table to keeping them safe at home and at school.”