Return to Headlines

Cleveland schools partner with museums, the zoo and others to strengthen science education

It's time to touch the live snake.

Second-graders from Charles A. Mooney School in Cleveland swiftly queue up to Nancy Howell, a Cleveland Museum of Natural History educator whose arms are intertwined with the 6-foot specimen.

Taking turns, students stroke and lightly poke the black rat snake's brown, leathery skin. One clasps the animal's circumference, as if searching for a pulse.

They are exploring, like countless other students before them.

But this is no ordinary field trip. There's a full school day of activity to come at the museum, including a chance to hold real dinosaur teeth and bones, learn about extinction and identify carnivores from herbivores.

They'll also have follow-up lessons with their teachers and a day to bring their families back to the museum to show what they learned.

It's all part of Inspire, a program its creators call a living, breathing attempt to get Cleveland School District children so interested and so accomplished in science that they'll start beating a path of employment to places such as Cleveland Clinic.

Statistically doubtful?

It might seem that way. Only one-third of Cleveland students pass their science proficiency exams. Nationally, the United States ranks 48th among nations in science education, behind some Third World countries.

But school officials, local donors and an army of cultural institutions centered around University Circle say they are using fresh ideas, energy and unprecedented cooperation to eventually create a sea-change for every one of the 43,000 students in the district.

The natural history museum, Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Greater Cleveland Aquarium, Cleveland Clinic and Northeast Ohio Sewer District have started, or plan to start, their programs this year.

District teachers are being trained in a curriculum jointly developed by the school district and each institution, and geared to state standards and exams.

Cost to the district: not a dime. That includes chartered buses, since district vehicles are not always available.

"Cleveland has really stepped up to the plate for the city's school children," said Terri Wade-Lyles, who runs the district's science programming with Kirsten Mahovlich.

Something more than rush-job field trips 

There is a history of cooperation between Cleveland's cultural institutions and the school district, but not on this scale. Historically, field trips to the natural history museum were arranged by individual teachers, and shortened to about an hour because of demands on the district's bus system. Only about 5 percent of students got to go, compared with Shaker Heights schools, which send most of their students.

All that started changing in 2011, when new Cleveland schools chief Eric S. Gordon restructured his staff and asked for science education reform. When officials at the natural history museum showed up to offer collaboration, they were asked to expand their effort to work districtwide.

"They were the first organization not to run screaming from the idea," said Wade-Lyles.

Evalyn Gates, who runs the natural history museum, gives much credit to Gordon.

"We now have the ability to go in and talk to the superintendent of a public school system and have him say, 'Great. How can we make this happen?' without just seeing all the hurdles," she said.

"This is something all Cleveland institutions hunger for -- a meaningful relationship with the school district," said Carin Miller, director of education for the natural history museum. "Terri and Kirsten are amazing go-getters. They helped all the pieces fall into place."

Miller said Inspire has inspired University Circle organizations to work more cooperatively. Representatives share curricula so that one grade's lessons dovetail with the next grade's. They openly discuss whom they will pursue for funding, so that no two organizations are mining the same source.

Finding the funds for a long-term impact 

Additional donors of all stripes are stepping up, from Target department stores to Cleveland City Council. The Cleveland Foundation contributed $80,000 to the natural history museum program in large part because of the continuity of its program, and for the benefits to both students and teachers.

"We love that this affects every school in the district," said foundation program officer Nelson Beckford. "The cherry on top is the family day at the natural history museum, when the students get to be the teachers for their family. It really deepens their experience."

Wade-Lyles, the school district administrator, said teacher training is crucial at a time when their competency is being more closely measured and in a district where cutbacks have forced teachers to work in a less familiar specialty.

Inspire's effectiveness in improving grades will not be measurable for another five years, she said, and only one-fourth of all funding is in place for the first full year. About $1.5 million a year is needed.

"It's not really a lot of money," said Wade-Lyles. "Not when you look at how deeply academic this is, and not when you look at the millions being used for outside cafes on West Sixth Street or Public Square beautification."

Gates of the natural history museum agrees on its importance.

"We need to do something with science education in this country and we need to do it now," she said. "We're losing kids every year who don't get a taste of real science, something that will set them off on a path for continued learning their whole lives."

Wade-Lyles said while experience is the foundation of learning, studies have shown that too few Cleveland students have the opportunity to experience life outside of a six-block radius of home. She remembers teaching in the St. Clair Avenue area near the Rockefeller Greenhouse, just beyond an overpass from the lake.

"It was the first time I was taking a group of tough eighth-graders on a trip to NASA," she said.

"You should have seen their faces plastered against the windows when we turned west on the Shoreway.

"They had never seen the lake."

And certainly not a living, breathing black rat snake.