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CEO tells Humanware story as conference opens

CMSD will never forget lessons learned from shootings that tore apart SuccessTech Academy seven years ago, and to make sure, preventive steps taken in the aftermath are protected by a binding contract, Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon said Thursday.

Gordon opened a two-day international conference brought to Cleveland by PATHS Worldwide Education, a nonprofit company that trains schools in a curriculum designed to help children manage their emotions.

PATHS is the foundation of the comprehensive Humanware initiative launched after suspended SuccessTech student Asa Koon returned to the downtown high school in October 2007 and shot and wounded two teachers and two fellow students. The 14-year-old then killed himself.

Besides PATHS, taught in prekindergarten through fifth grade, Humanware includes student support teams and mental health services in schools, bullying-prevention programs and planning centers, a constructive alternative to in-school suspension.

Other features include a team of specialists who defuse crises and a citywide advisory committee of high school students who share concerns with the CEO. Surveys are conducted three times a year, from second grade up, to determine whether students feel safe, supported, respected and challenged in their buildings.

Gordon told more than 100 people gathered at the Marriott at Key Center that he and the Cleveland Teachers Union, partners from the start in Humanware, are so committed to students’ “social and emotional learning” that their labor agreement provides for Humanware’s survival, even if the administration changes. The reason for doing so is simple, he told the group.

“Students who exhibit social and emotional competence exhibit high levels of achievement and will be successful,” he said.

The CEO laid out the history of Humanware, a compelling narrative that prompted PATHS Education Worldwide to make Cleveland a conference site.

Gordon, who was chief academic officer at the time, had joined CMSD just 10 days before the SuccessTech shootings. He recalled that then-Chief Executive Officer Eugene Sanders immediately decided to deploy security guards and metal detectors in all the schools but declared that the District also needed to “reach the hearts of our children.”

The American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., was hired to audit “conditions for learning.” The behavioral and social scientists found educators overwhelmed by needs in the community, harsh and inconsistent administration of discipline and expulsion and suspension policies that simply shuttled problems elsewhere.

Instead of experimenting with a pilot, the District launched PATHS across all of its elementary schools, which numbered 75 at the time. The curriculum went to second grade in the first year and expanded to third through fifth grades the following year.

CMSD stuck with PATHS even as declining enrollment and budget problems caused teachers to be shifted or laid off. In another city, Humanware might have been a victim of tight finances, Gordon said.

“This is not something that stays high on the radar like it should,” he said. “It falls the way of art, music, physical education, media and other things that actually make education rich and important.”

Cleveland was among the nation’s trailblazers in trying to help children manage their emotions and focus on education, said Roger P. Weissberg, chief knowledge officer of the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Weissberg praised CMSD for integrating the components of Humanware. He also commended the District for making the program sustainable, describing the labor agreement’s provisions as groundbreaking.

“They’re doing a wonderful job,” he said. “Cleveland can set an example that a lot of people can learn from around the country.”

Patsy Beattie-Huggan traveled from Prince Edward Island, Canada, to learn more about the CMSD story. She is a consultant on a project researching the benefits of PATHS in Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba.

Beattie-Huggan said the effects appear to be positive, but questions remain how to keep the program going long term. She said she was impressed by what she had seen at the conference, including the partnership between the CMSD administration and the teachers union.

“They’ve got a great story to tell,” she said.