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CMSD Student Advisory Committee members speak their minds; CEO applauds

CMSD brought together 250 high school students Friday to get their recommendations on improving the schools, and Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon gave them strong assurances that the advice would not go in one ear and out the other.

The occasion was a meeting of the Student Advisory Committee, which was established this school year to meet one of the requirements in The Cleveland Plan, a state-approved blueprint for reform. The students represent a cross-section of grades and personalities from 26 high schools.

Gordon told the assembly that superintendents across the country set up such committees, but the panels are often tokens convened to make adults feel good. That, he said, won’t be the case in Cleveland.

“This is really important work; we need your help,” he said during the meeting at the District's Barbara Byrd-Bennett Professional Development Center in Bratenahl. “We can’t do this alone. I can’t do this alone.”

The teenagers sifted through the most recent “conditions for learning” surveys administered three times a year in each school to evaluate the instruction, safety and level of respect, both among their peers and between adults and students. Teams presented lists of needs in their schools.

Recommendations were many and pointed: more spirit-building activities in schools where those are scarce; new computers and books; counselors to help get through life’s rough spots; teachers who teach instead of just talk; more electives; cooking, typing, cosmetology and other courses like the adults present had access to in their day.

Angelica Elder, a junior at John F. Kennedy High School, complained that teachers are so focused on the Ohio Graduation Test that they gloss over what awaits on the ACT. CMSD sets aside one day a year so juniors can take the college admissions and placement test in their schools -- the latest was Wednesday.

“Instead of a little bit of information, give us the whole information,” she said later. “I felt like I wasn’t really prepared.”

Damonta McClendon, a junior at Lincoln-West High School, said he saw merit in Angelica’s argument but made a case for personal responsibility.

“What are the students in the school going to do?” he said in an interview. “We can’t always throw the blame on the District.”

Gordon applauded both students for speaking their minds. “I need these meetings to be real, to be honest, to be legit,” he said.

In December, Gordon pledged to schedule four meetings in 2014-15.

The CEO also asked students to “change the District” by volunteering to sit with adults on committees dealing with subjects like the CMSD Code of Conduct and the graduation rate. He also called on them to help plan strategy for raising low “college readiness” rates, underscored by data presented to the committee.

Between citywide summits, delegates meet in their own schools. They were to huddle with their principals to analyze the new conditions for learning results and help draft plans to resolve problems, said Denine Goolsby, executive director of the Humanware program, which includes the surveys.

“If we would listen to them we would move a lot faster,” Goolsby said. “They are the ones who are experiencing school.”