Urban districts are often among Ohio’s lowest rated schools. So many parents who can afford to, head for the suburbs once their children reach school age. But one group of parents in Cleveland decided instead to open their own school.
David Hovis doesn’t feel like the guy who opened a charter school in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
But, in fact, he did.
It all started a couple years ago. Hovis’ son kept getting in trouble at school, kicking and speaking out of turn. Eventually a therapist diagnosed him with behavioral disorder and told him to change teachers. The school wouldn’t switch his classroom.
“It was gut-wrenching,” says Hovis. “The worst part is to look back and realize all the places where I was getting blamed for things that were not my fault at all. One of the things I’ve learned is that in some ways I can be as positive and reinforcing as I want outside the classroom, if the teacher decides to pick a fight with my child I have no control if I’m not in the classroom.”
After 18 months of that, Hovis started looking for other schools in the area, but found nothing he liked.
Hovis says many of his neighbors in Ohio CIty, on the west side of Cleveland, were in the same situation.
“If you look at this area of Cleveland, there’s been this long tradition of young couples moving to the neighborhood, love it, buy an old house, fix it up, have a child – still good. And then, once the child starts getting to the kindergarten age, they start looking around at schools and then they start looking for an exit strategy. ‘What suburb am I going to move to?’”
Hovis and a group of other young Ohio City parents decided the only way they would get the type of education they wanted was if they started their own school. In this case, a charter school. In Ohio, that means a school that gets public funding but operates independent of a public school district. In exchange for less state funding, charters have more autonomy in how they teach and run their schools.
Hovis notes that less regulation does not exempt the schools from all regulation. It quickly became clear that the parents needed help to get their school started because, as Hovis says, “it is a mess of regulations and red tape so having people that know what they’re doing in dealing with compliance issues is so important.”
The group finally approached Breakthrough Schools, a coalition of some of the area’s most successful non-profit charters including Citizens Academy and E-Prep. The state rates all of the Breakthrough schools as either excellent or excellent with distinction.
Hovis’ group decided to copy its Intergenerational School.
At Intergenerational, classes are broken up into age ranges. Students are encouraged to work with children of different ages. High-school kids, adults and older community members are invited to come in to the school to work with the children.
The idea is to progress at the students pace, instead of focusing on grade levels.
Breakthrough took over the process of opening the school, including figuring out where the school would be located. That was one of the most elusive answers for Hovis early on in the process. He says people would often ask him where the school was going to be, he’d say “we’ll know that real soon, but it will be somewhere around here-ish.”
Near West Intergenerational school is now open for business on Cleveland’s near west side. Students like 5-year-old Mia share their classroom, and do the same work, as other 6 and 7 year-olds. On this particular day, they were all drawing the outline of their hands using the primary colors.
Given the animosity between Ohio’s public schools and charter schools, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is sponsoring this school.
Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon says he’s tired of the us-versus-them attitude between charters and public schools. He says Hovis, Breakthrough Schools and everyone else involved with Near West Intergenerational really impressed the folks at CMSD. So, “not only did Cleveland sponsor them but we actually created a lease agreement where they are co-located in one of our buildings.”
Gordon says many other groups approach Cleveland schools to sponsor them, but Cleveland turns away those that fall short of its standards. Gordon says those schools then look for more lenient sponsors and open anyway. And the bad charter schools get in the way of working with the good ones.
“It’s competition that’s actually not driving the very best performance, but is driving competition among the very worst in many cases,” Gordon says. “It’s really prevented us from having a strong collaborative relationship where we can say putting all these systems together we could really have a lot of better choices for kids.”
Collaborations like Near West Intergenerational are good news for parents like Lisa Lee. Her two young boys were not doing well at Village Prep, another one of Breakthrough Schools charters in Cleveland.Lee says she would often cry at how her younger boy struggled at his previous school, especially because he was also dealing with a speech impediment. She says she often wondered “what am I going to do? That’s what made me put the feelers out, but when I found out about this school it was a sense of relief.”
Last year, Lee says her two boys struggled to come up with reasons not to go to school in the mornings.
This year, she says, they are all out of excuses.