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Cleveland schools leaders lay out broad transformation ideas, but invite stakeholders to help fill in the details: editorial

It's taken a while to get here, but there's a lot to like in the first draft of the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, which aims to turn around 13 failing schools next academic year.

Instead of forcing all 13 "investment schools" to undergo the same reforms, it treats them as individual entities with their own strengths and weaknesses. It also recognizes the importance of input from parents, teachers and the community.

Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon wants to finalize the plan by June 5, the end of the school year -- but only after hearing from stakeholders, highlighting the importance of a series of community meetings between now and then.

Backed by a hefty 15-mill tax increase, the transformation plan can count on millions of extra dollars from taxpayers -- although the state has yet to ante up.

A potential stumbling block is the expiration of the Cleveland Teachers Union contract next month. The district needs to settle contract talks quickly, without trying to buy labor peace with an overgenerous pay hike.

Voters passed the November levy to serve students, not adults.

District meetings to help plot the reform of the 13 investment schools began last week. Readers can find a list of community meetings here.

Community participation is vital.

The first 13 schools were all rated in academic watch or academic emergency, the state's two lowest academic ratings, last year. All are either elementary or high schools.

Gordon and his chief academic officer, Michelle Pierre-Farid, have sketched broad outlines for how to turn these schools around but left room for parents, principals, teachers and others to flesh out the rest, capitalizing on their intimate knowledge of the children and the buildings.

The community meetings also will help parents understand the challenges in the schools their children attend.

For instance, "readiness to act" schools are in so much academic distress that they have to change principals or find a new approach to learning. These schools include Collinwood, John Adams and Lincoln-West high schools and elementary schools such as Anton Grdina and Carl & Lewis Stokes Academy.

"Readiness to teach" schools -- Case, Robinson G. Jones, Walton and Franklin D. Roosevelt elementary schools -- need help with specific learning and teaching strategies, such as instructing students with limited English skills.

Given the stakes, it's critical that all community stakeholders contribute. The United Way, for instance, has already set up a program to recruit volunteers to help schools when they open in August.

And while the citizens of Cleveland have generously contributed levy dollars, now it's the turn of Gov. John Kasich and GOP lawmakers who supported Cleveland's school turnaround plan as it wended its way through the state legislature last year.

As the Ohio Senate ponders a state budget that seems heavily weighted toward charter schools and voucher programs, it needs to make sure that urban public school districts such as Cleveland that are trying to turn themselves around can depend on a funding formula that supports lasting reform.