Outgoing Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon shakes the hand of Ryan Rasul, 10, a brain cancer survivor who founded a basketball program with his father. Mayor Justin Bibb shared Ryan's story during his second State of the City speech.
Outgoing Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon shakes the hand of student Ryan Rasul, 10, a brain cancer survivor who founded a basketball program with his father. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

At his final school board meeting on Tuesday, the outgoing CEO of Cleveland schools, Eric Gordon, shared news that next year, the district will expand yellow school bus service to 7th and 8th graders. 

It’s another move by Gordon and the school board that brings the experience of Cleveland’s students closer to that of those living in wealthier districts such as Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Shaker Heights, Parma, Fairview Park and others.

Earlier Tuesday, Gordon sat down with Signal Cleveland to discuss how else he has used his position as CEO over the past 12 years to close the gap between “two Clevelands” that are largely separated by race and class.

Read part one of Signal Cleveland’s exit interview with Eric Gordon, where he discusses the need for a “youth agenda,” student voices, and community partnerships.

In part two of the interview, Eric Gordon shared his thoughts on what he believes are some barriers facing the district today: a stubborn state legislature and a sense of pessimism over post-pandemic academic recovery.

“Unhealthy” state legislature doesn’t understand the experience of students and educators in Cleveland 

If you had one or two minutes alone with Ohio House and Senate leaders, what would you say to convince them to invest more in urban schools?

“You know, in my career, I’ve always been the one to caution people who say, ‘They’re out to destroy public education.’ And I’ve always pushed back and said, just because we disagree does not mean that they’re out to destroy public education. I will say I am more worried today than I’ve probably ever been. 

“I’ve just seen and heard more rhetoric that I don’t think is always supported by fact. I hear people saying more and listening less. I see more, not just in education, but in policy overall, an attitude of ‘All we have to do is wait out the opponents and when we’re done, we’ll pass it anyway.’ So I just think our country is just in an unhealthy space. I’m not a doomsday guy. I don’t think that the end of democracy is tomorrow, but I do think it’s unhealthy.

Outgoing Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon speaks with Jae Williams of WOVU at the 2023 State of the City event.
Outgoing Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon speaks with Jae Williams of WOVU at the 2023 State of the City event. Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

“If I got the chance to have the [State House] speaker and the Senate president in, I would just ask them to give me one day to let them visit and see how hard our kids and families and educators are working despite the conditions. And that often, what looks like the failures of the system are actually the experiences that kids and families and educators have in the larger ecosystem. 

“We all know when we put the report cards down on the table that you can line them up by wealth and get a better, accurate reporting than on effort. If not, we wouldn’t have such high effort scores and still be struggling with literacy and graduation scores. So I would just ask them to give me one day to show them what I know and then use that when they’re considering their decisions.”

Would you be disappointed if charter school voucher eligibility continues to expand?

Well, our voucher program has been in existence for decades now, so it doesn’t have a lot of practical effect on [CMSD] because everybody in the district was eligible anyway. It’s more of a policy issue for me. I actually have made a career here talking about choice. 

“My problem with choice has not been choice per se. It’s been that some people can take advantage of choice without accountability, while others of us are in a choice system with this ever-changing accountability. If choice is going to be universal, so should accountability.”

(Editor’s note: Pieces of legislation known as “backpack bills” are making their way through the Ohio Legislature, calling for a system where any Ohio student, regardless of income or which district they live in, can use state funds to attend any school of their choice, even if it is an unregulated, non-chartered private school or a homeschooling program. Unlike public schools, private schools don’t have to tell the state how students are performing.)

“But my point of view about choice is that if you take the money, you take the test, we should all be measured in the same way. It should be all visible in the same way. And then parents can choose. They were choosing anyway before we admitted it. 

“I also am concerned that vouchers are going to families that have the resources to pay for the education they want for their children. We’re seeing fewer and fewer of the people that choice was originally meant for actually taking those choices, fewer people in poverty and more people who already have the resources taking those state resources anyway from public schools.”

A “deficit approach” can be dangerous

Knowing the scale of learning loss that students had following the pandemic lockdown, would you have done anything differently in your handling of the school closures and reopening? 

“There’s so much I would have done differently, I’m sure. You know, Gov. DeWine said at one of his press conferences when he was being criticized, ‘The next time there’s a global pandemic, I will know more.’ I have not spent a lot of time looking back and autopsying. 

“We weren’t alone in this situation, but we faced a really unique set of circumstances other school districts didn’t. We’re the poorest community in the country, we’re 86% people of color.

We had people who, when we were all home, they were the ones that went to work, actually. So they were afraid of getting sick in a way that we weren’t. They were afraid of getting vaccinated because of the atrocities of the past. And, you know, I would feel that way, too, if I were them. 

“And so safety played such a pressing role here compared to, you know, there’s been comparisons to rural parts. I grew up in rural areas. When there’s not a home near you for miles, it’s different than when you live in an apartment building, you know. So we took a very cautious route. 

“I think the thing we all have a responsibility to remember is that we didn’t lose learning. We lost time. It is true that kids are not at markers that we adults want them to be at, but that does not mean that they can’t get to those markers. And so we’ve got to stop this notion that if you didn’t get to what we consider third grade ready by June 1st, then all is lost. And we’ve got to continue to make sure you do get to your literacy goals. 

“I think if we look at not a deficit, but an asset—where are you and how do we keep you moving toward your goals? Over time, we’ll catch up, but only if we don’t take a deficit approach. Unfortunately, I see in policy a deficit approach bigger than us, and that concerns me.” 

Do you believe that the Say Yes Cleveland program is delivering what it promised when it was introduced? Is the program getting Cleveland kids through college graduation?

“So, first of all, persistence rates [the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year] for Say Yes kids are up. And I’m actually waiting on data points right now, but [CMSD] grads who have gone to college have higher persistence rates than the national rate. Not the national persistence rate for urban poor minority kids, but the national persistence rate. So, yes, it’s working.

“The pandemic, of course, plopped right in the middle of it and was a disruptor. So we lost ground on first-time goers. But the ones that are there are staying. And that’s great news. And we’re already seeing more four-year graduates, and many, many two-year graduates. I just went to 25 graduations where half to two-thirds of the class stood up when we asked who is a Say Yes scholar. More are wanting to go to school. 

All 62 CMSD Salutatorians and Valedictorians from the class of 2023 pose for a photo with the school board and outgoing CMSD CEO Gordon.
CMSD Salutatorians and Valedictorians from the class of 2023 pose for a photo with the school board and outgoing CMSD CEO Gordon. Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

“The thing about Say Yes is that it is a two-generation strategy that everybody wants to see having succeeded today. We are in year five of a 25-year strategy. So what it hasn’t done yet is, you know, reverse the course of poverty because we have one generation of better educated students. That will come over time as more and more people go to college on Say Yes scholarships and come back to Cleveland.

“And the other part is, we know how many times our family support specialists have intervened with things that might have kept a kid out of school, food scarcity or basic needs, or if we don’t solve this problem today, you’re going in the foster system tonight. I mean, urgent things.” 

Advice to parents

What have you learned specifically from parents? What would you encourage your successor to do when working with parents of CMSD kids?

“Well, I think first of all I want to remind every adult in Cleveland that every parent is sending us the best kid they have. And they didn’t keep the good kid home and send the bad kid to us. Kids are kids. They sometimes ask for love in some really unlovely ways, but our parents are sending the best kid they have, and they’re doing the best job that they can as parents. 

“As is true for all of us. Many of us have a lot of different resources to address the things we do as parents, but we don’t offer less love in an urban community or in a minority community or a poor community. And so just starting with respect and appreciation for who our parents are.

“And I want our parents to continue to be advocates for their children and not to be put off when people don’t like the advocacy. Because in suburban communities—I worked in a suburban community—parents don’t think twice about being an advocate for their children, whether you like it or not. But here, our parents often feel like if they get pushback for advocating, there must be something wrong with being an advocate. There’s nothing wrong with being an advocate. It’s your child, right? And just giving themselves permission to be the full parent that they know they are and want to be.”

Signal background

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covered K-12 education for Signal Cleveland until August, 2023. Paul joined us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.