CLEVELAND — Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, delivered his 12th and final State of the Schools address before a packed crowd at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel on Wednesday afternoon. In his final address, Gordon likened his planned departure at the end of the school year to a relay race, saying the time is right to pass the baton.
In his hourlong speech, which was hosted by the City Club, Gordon touted the district’s turnaround over the past decade, the collaboration that resulted in The Cleveland Plan, and the significant gains made in numerous categories from graduation rates to the district’s financial outlook. Admitting that he knew he could have stayed on longer as the CEO of CMSD, he assured the crowd that one of the most difficult and important moves that a leader can make is knowing when to hand off the baton and, equally as important, to do so in a way that best ensures the district’s success.
The district’s financial outlook, strong public support and organizational strength should serve his successor well, Gordon said.
“Those key indicators… are a few examples of why now is the right time to hand off the baton,” Gordon said. “I know that I could have stayed on longer with CMSD. I am confident that if I had done so, I would have continued to garner the strong support that I enjoy today from so many of you in this room and across the district. But this is not a sprint. It is not a marathon; it’s a relay race.”
Upon taking the helm of the struggling district in 2011, Gordon had a jumbo jet to fly but little runway to work with. Signed to a one-year contract, Gordon inherited a district that was in grave financial trouble and at risk of state takeover. Hundreds of employees had been laid off; art, music and physical education courses had been cut; the school day had been shortened. The district was quickly running out of money to continue modernizing its buildings, Gordon said. Busses were aging and the district’s IT infrastructure was lacking.
“When I was passed the baton in 2011, CMSD was the lowest performing district in Ohio. We were facing financial bankruptcy and we had lost all public trust,” Gordon said. “Like the runners before me, I had to hit the ground running at optimal speed. On only a one-year contract as CEO, I didn’t have a second to lose.”
Through community collaboration and public-private support, the so-called Cleveland Plan came into focus: grow the number of high-performing district and charter schools in the city while also ensuring that every child has access to a quality, individualized education.
By dramatically changing the academic landscape in the city, the district under Gordon’s tenure was able to instill public trust, eventually leading to successful tax levy efforts that ultimately helped to shore up the district’s eroding financial footing while also maintaining positive labor relations, including three-year contracts that were recently signed with all eight of the district’s labor unions.
“Our current financial forecast shows that CMSD is forecasted to be financially healthy through at least 2026 and probably longer,” Gordon said. “What does that mean? It means the district won’t have to consider a new levy for at least four more years. Through innovative contract language with the Cleveland Teachers Union, we were able to ensure that every Pre-K through 8th-grade school not only has a full-time art, music and physical education teacher, but is also able to expand the K-8 day to provide more art, music and physical education opportunities.”
Gordon also highlighted in his speech the district’s recent success at attracting and retaining talent, resulting in the district’s current staffing at 98.5%.
Last week, the Ohio Dept. of Education released its district report cards, which were the first to use a new star-based scoring model instead of the previous A through F rating system. The star-based scoring system makes measurements in five categories.
Achievement: This represents student performance on state tests and how well students performed on tests overall.
Progress: This category examines student growth based on past performances.
Gap Closing: This is a measure of the reduction in educational gaps for student subgroups, including ethnicity, income, disabilities and other cohort groups.
Graduation: This measures the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and the five-year adjusted cohort graduation rate.
Early Literacy: The early literacy category measures reading improvement and proficiency for students in kindergarten through third grade.
CMSD earned two stars in achievement; four stars in performance; four stars in gap closing; one star in graduation and one star in early literacy. Gordon said the shortcomings in graduation and early literacy essentially confirmed what the district and the public already knew: the pandemic hit CMSD hard, but the district can recover.
However, despite the shortcomings in those categories, CMSD still ranked as the highest rated district of the state’s eight urban school districts — a significant improvement from the failing district that Gordon inherited a decade ago.
“While CMSD’s new state report card shows that Cleveland and other districts struggled significantly during the pandemic, I am pleased to report that the data also shows that our scores are improving,” Gordon said. “In fact, in a number of areas on this year’s report card, CMSD has returned to pre-pandemic levels. It didn’t happen because of me or even just the district, this is Cleveland’s plan for transforming schools and the new person has to understand the value of that.”
After the conclusion of Gordon’s speech, the crowd at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel gave him a rousing, 56-second standing ovation. Gordon then fielded questions from several CMSD students, including John Marshall senior, Nariel Rahmon, whose entire primary education has been under Gordon’s tenure.
“Ever since I was a little girl, he has been doing an amazing job. I’m so sad that he is leaving but I am also grateful that he is here,” Rahmon said. “I hope the new CEO does an amazing job as well.”
Rahmon is a member of the John Marshall School of Information Technology’s robotics team, a program that would not have been possible without The Cleveland Plan.
“I am so grateful for this because I was on a different path before [information technology]. Now I get all these opportunities for me,” Rahmon said.
Rahmon, who is also the senior class president, also had the opportunity to ask Gordon a question and, naturally, she asked about future expansions of the district’s computer science offerings.
“There is state data now around students that have taken advanced placement computer science classes and the number and percentage of those students that are women and people of color,” Gordon said. “CMSD blows it out of the water.”
Lorenzo Staley, a sophomore at Glenville High School, was able to ask Gordon after the Wednesday address about one of his main concerns: student safety at and around the campus.
“There's a lot of crime in the community, a lot of people that actually went to our school have died in the area. Actually, someone died right outside of our school. It makes a lot of people want to transfer because of those problems like that. It’s unsettling,” Staley said. “I actually really liked his answer because he said he was working with the mayor to fix this problem. He was working with some of our staff in the school on training new security guards to come into more schools to help out and to keep us safe. He is actually listening to the students that go to his schools and that are actually around it and hears the stuff. He is trying to fix it. It shows that he’s trying.”