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District, charters move toward collaboration

CMSD and charter schools are close to forming an alliance that will work together to benefit students.

The Cleveland Education Compact, a once unimaginable partnership between competitors, will explore collaboration on matters such as advocacy, special education, turnaround strategies, training teachers, using facilities and sharing student records.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, gave CMSD $100,000 last year to work out the agreement. Cleveland is one of 26 “Gates Compact” cities in the country.

CMSD and charters are on course to finalize the compact agreement before a Dec. 31 deadline. Charters would have until Jan. 31 to formally join, though the window would reopen for the month of June each year.
A 12-member steering committee has worked on the compact for months.
"We've come a long way in terms of relationship building just within our steering committee," said Christine Fowler-Mack, who as CMSD's chief portfolio officer oversees work with charter schools. "This is not easy work, and building the trust we need to become true collaborators doesn't happen overnight. We know we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish in year one. But when we keep the focus on the kids, we are able to find common ground and agreement."
The committee includes six representatives of the District and one each from six charter-school organizations: Constellation Schools, I CAN SCHOOLS, Breakthrough Schools, Ohio Connections Academy, Virtual Schoolhouse and HBCU Preparatory Schools.

The board’s makeup ensures the committee will have input from nonprofit and for-profit charter groups, small operators and online schools, said Stephanie Klupinski, CMSD’s executive director of charter schools. Before joining CMSD last year, Klupinski was a manager for Hawaii’s charter school commission and before that served as vice president of legal and legislative affairs for the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The District started sponsoring charters, which are privately managed public schools, in 2005 and expanded cooperation three years ago with adoption of The Cleveland Plan, a citywide blueprint for education reform. The plan calls for giving children the best possible education, regardless of the provider.

CMSD works with charter schools that meet standards for quality. The District currently sponsors 10 charters, partners with seven others and shares a slice of levy money with all 17.

Eight of the 10 charters that CMSD sponsors are affiliated with Breakthrough Schools. The charter organization shares one District building, leases another and purchased four after CMSD schools closed.

The agreement will be just a framework for collaboration. Subcommittees will still have to map out areas where District and charter schools can assist each other.

But Breakthrough co-founder John Zitzner said an air of mistrust has dissipated since the steering committee first met.

“We’ve come a long, long way,” he said. “We believe if we work together instead of against each other, that will be good for kids.”

Richard Lukich is president of Constellation Schools, a network of 17 Northeast Ohio schools, most of them in Cleveland, with more than 5,000 students.

He said he remains wary about working with the District but believes CMSD Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon “is definitely in this for the kids.”

Lukich said Constellation could benefit from a smooth system of transferring new students’ records from the District and would like to take advantage of the social services that are at CMSD’s disposal.

“Everybody that’s participating is hoping some good will come out of it,” he said. “We all recognize we have to do better for the kids of Cleveland.”

By participating in the compact, the Virtual Schoolhouse can tap into CMSD’s expertise, Assistant Principal Ray Southard said. He said that is key because the school often serves as a “proving ground” that loses teachers to higher paying traditional public school districts.

“We can talk to people who are more seasoned, who already know best practices,” he said.