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Mobilizing for Cleveland schools -- and for the next Cleveland Connects: Joe Frolik

No story line during 2012 was more important to Cleveland's future than the year-long effort of Mayor Frank Jackson, schools CEO Eric Gordon and their allies to lay new groundwork for how children are educated in the city.
The mayor and the superintendent: Set forth their ideas for changing how the schools operate in February. Got approval for reforms from the Ohio General Assembly in June. And, most impressively, persuaded 57 percent of Cleveland voters to impose a 15-mill property tax increase on themselves in November.

Along the way, Jackson and Gordon built a broad coalition that included the Cleveland Teachers Union and Gov. John Kasich, parents and neighborhood development groups, business leaders, clergy and the educational entrepreneurs behind most of the city's most effective charter schools.

Those were huge accomplishments. Now comes something even harder: delivering visible results and doing so in relatively short order.

Gordon understands that he's now on a tightrope: "There are a lot of skeptics who've earned the right to say, 'There you go again,' " he told a group of editors and reporters just before Christmas.

Time matters for two reasons. If a school -- any school, urban or suburban, public, private, parochial or charter -- is to make a difference in a child's life, the window of opportunity is relatively short. So meaningful reform can't take forever. And by asking voters for only a four-year levy, Jackson and Gordon have promised a quick turnaround to a system that's been flailing for more than a generation. They have put enormous pressure on themselves and on the system to deliver and to do it now.

What they do -- and how well they do it -- will be the most important ongoing story in the city this year. It also will be the most important story in the region. Make no mistake: If you live in Northeast Ohio, you have a stake in this.

There are loads of promising signs for Cleveland's future, from bricks-and-mortar projects such as the new medical mart and convention center and the building booms around Cleveland State University and University Circle to the surge in residential living downtown and the continued rise of revitalized neighborhoods and entrepreneurial businesses. But unless the schools can nurture a next generation of engaged, creative, productive citizens, all that momentum will falter.

Given that imperative -- and the stupendous opportunity born of last year's hard work -- The Plain Dealer and PNC Bank, in partnership with the public broadcasters of Ideastream and the Cleveland Leadership Center, are going to devote the next installment of our Cleveland Connects community conversation series to what's ahead for the schools. The forum will be Monday, Feb. 11, in the Idea Center at Playhouse Square. As always, admission's free, but you must register for tickets by calling 216-999-4079 or clicking here.

Jackson will lead off the evening by talking about why the work of transformation is so important to everything the city and its people hope to do. Then Gordon and a panel of stakeholders will discuss the nuts and bolts of changing schools and creating a culture of high expectations and success for children in Cleveland.

Gordon is the first to admit that the blueprints for transformation still are being developed and probably will vary from building to building and neighborhood to neighborhood. He's been holding community meetings and insists that they are more than window-dressing or the all too familiar "stand-and-screams" that too often have passed for public feedback in Cleveland. He's also mapping out a campaign-style plan to let voters -- whether or not they have school-age children -- know what the district's trying to do and if it's working.

"We really are trying to behave differently," Gordon said. "We are not going to get it right every time, but we really are trying."

Gordon's also keenly aware that last year's mobilization has given him something that many of his predecessors never had: a coalition that stretches from the boardroom to the beauty shop. One of his challenges is to keep that diverse base involved as tutors, fundraisers, loaned executives, cheerleaders -- and as demanding watchdogs.

"My fear is that people are now going to wash their hands and say, 'Good luck,' " said Gordon. "We're hoping people will bring us capacity to help us build our capacity."

Join us on Feb. 11 to hear how.