Most Cleveland Metropolitan School District students attend a school outside of their neighborhood. About two-thirds of CMSD students attended a school in a different ZIP code from where they lived, according to district data that reflected enrollment for a single day in November of 2022.

Families pick those schools, and have for about a decade now. Many appreciated the option to choose the school that was the best fit. But barriers remained for some. Parents said there’s sometimes not enough information about each school to help them decide. And for many, transportation — or safe transportation — is still an obstacle to attending the school of their choice.

Read a transcript of the podcast below

Paul: Today, Cleveland families have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a school. And picking the right school for your kids can be tough. Over the last decade, choice has expanded both inside and outside the public school system, so the process can be confusing. I’m Paul Rochford. I’ve covered education for Signal Cleveland for about a year and I’ve taken a close look at what students and parents go through when identifying and enrolling in a school. Students are no longer automatically enrolled in the public school closest to where they live. Starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, parents have the options to send their kids to a public, charter, or private school on the public dollar. And even if they choose public school, there’s a variety of options to pick from. That choice is what I’ll focus on in this story. 

Paul: What I wanted to know was how the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s school choice system is working for families. How did these families navigate the process? What are they thinking about when making their decisions? How do they weigh the transportation options, especially if it means crisscrossing the city or putting a child on a public bus? And what would they change to make the system better? 

Paul: With the help of Cleveland Documenters, we put these questions to nearly 30 CMSD caregivers and parents. Most families liked having the choice to pick a school. A little over three quarters of people said they were able to send their child to the school that was their top choice. 

Paul: But, many also said there’s room for improvement. Lack of transportation prevents some students from attending their top choice. Safety on public transportation also remains a concern. It’s something on the minds of many as students head into a new school year. 

Paul: To start, let’s hear from a few parents and caregivers who have enrolled their children using CMSD school choice portal: 

Stacie Walker, Collinwood-Nottingham: “I am very pleased and I’m very grateful that they did allow the choice for choosing high schools. And, I probably would have been in a different position because the district that I live in, I’m sure I wouldn’t have sent my sons, either one of them, to the school. So, I definitely would have had to do something different.” 

Keena Robinson, Collinwood-Nottingham: “I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t work. I think that is a great thing to be able to choose the school that your child goes to with the different opportunities that the school offer.” 

Paul: You just heard CMSD parents Stacie Walker and Keena Robinson, both from Cleveland’s Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood. 

Paul: Robinson is the mother of two daughters. Both of her kids got the chance to attend schools that fit well with their interests. 

Keena Robinson, Collinwood-Nottingham: “Cleveland School of Arts was simply my daughter was into the arts. She was into writing the stories, and singing, and dancing. So, that was a no brainer. And, Cleveland [School of] Science and Medicine… Well, I had a daughter who from the second grade said she wanted to be an obstetrician/gynecologist. So, you know, [Cleveland School of] Science and Medicine just fit right into where she probably needed to be to start her journey.” 

Paul: But, some parents Documenters spoke with also saw room for improvement.  Lothario Marchmon is a resident of the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood. His son attends Ginn Academy, CMSD’s all boys high school in the Collinwood neighborhood. His main priority in choosing was the school’s quality, its success rate, and its reputation for training young black men to become leaders. Marchmon, like many parents, wanted to send his kid to one of the top performing schools. But, he also wanted to know why all the schools weren’t top performing, why they couldn’t all provide equal opportunities for success. 

Lothario Marchmon, Buckeye-Shaker: From a curriculum standpoint, not all the schools are performing the same levels of, you know. So, I would want to know why, you know? In my mind, I felt like “why” means a number of things. Not, “Why is the school not performing well?” But, what are you providing if the school isn’t performing well? What sort of service are you providing so that you can turn it around?” 

Paul: The Cleveland Transformation Alliance, a group that monitors quality of district and partner charter schools, has a school quality guide that shows these differences. The most competitive schools are most often the ones with the strongest academic track records. 

Paul: Parents also said they wish they had even more information about the schools before being faced with the choice. 

Debbie Cater, Ohio City: “I think they don’t give enough information about the schools themselves, each individual school: about their programs, about extra options that the students have, and transportation and guidance counselors.”

Keena Robinson, Collinwood-Nottingham: “Honestly, the principals. I wish that when you’re choosing your school, it came with your principal, a bio on the principal. I do wish that there was a public report on the people who actually run the school.” 

Paul: That was CMSD parents Debbie Carter of Ohio City and Keana Robinson, again from the Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood. 

Paul: Another parent, Jeanna Kenney from the West Boulevard neighborhood, told Documenter Seanna Jackson that her daughter has an interest in the arts, but there aren’t any arts focused schools on their side of town. 

Paul: This issue came up a lot. A family may find a school that seems like a good choice, but because of location or transportation barriers, it’s not really an option. Nearly 85% of the interviewees rated transportation as a very important factor for choosing to where to send their students. 

Paul: The district’s transportation policy can be pretty confusing. Up until this year, the district transported kids from kindergarten through sixth grade who live between one and three miles from their school. This school year, that expands to seventh and eighth graders, as well. Students living farther than three miles from their school of choice do not get transportation, except for the elementary schools the district considers to be district-wide draw schools, like the Montessori schools or any of the single-gender schools. 

Paul: The district does also provide transportation on a case by case basis for students with disabilities and students with individualized education plans, or IEPs. 

Paul: Meanwhile, since 2021, state law has required districts to offer transportation to all K-8 charter school students. 

Paul: Kinsman resident Jennifer Love said she appreciates that the school choice system allows parents to pick schools outside their neighborhoods, but she wishes the district provided more transportation options. 

Paul: Love told Documenter Robyne Williams she didn’t want to keep her kids in the neighborhood school, AJ Rickoff. She said it wasn’t a good fit, but she couldn’t get transportation to another public school in a different part of the city. So, she sent her kids to a charter school, Broadway Academy, which offered school bus transportation. 

Jennifer Love, Kinsman: “Me and my husband both work, so we need to make sure that our kids have transportation back and forth, outside of just us.” 

Paul: For Love, transportation was the deciding factor where she sent her kids. When Broadway Academy couldn’t provide transportation for a few months, Love sent her kids back to A.J. Rickoff. 

Paul: Then, when the state law required districts to bus charter school students and Broadway Academy resumed bus transportation, she re-enrolled her kids there. 

Paul: CMSD high schoolers must walk, drive or use passes the district gives out to ride greater Cleveland RTA buses or trains. Safety on public transportation was also cited as an issue in Documenters’ interviews. 

Paul: Debbie Cater, the Ohio City resident we heard from earlier, chose schools for her kids based on the availability of a safe transit ride. To Cater, that meant a direct public transit route that would deliver her kids right to the school building, without a transfer, and without a long wait time. It took some work to plan out the trips ahead of time, and for the kids to learn how to navigate the system safely. 

Debbie Cater, Ohio City: “It wasn’t all the time convenient. However, had I had a busing system that I could have engaged along the way, I think it would have been better.” 

Paul: Clevelanders have been vocal about student safety on public transit. Earlier this year, high school students shared their experiences at a school board meeting of being harassed on public transit on their way home from school. 

Paul: In 2017, 14-year-old Alianna DeFreeze was kidnapped by a stranger after getting off a public bus. The man assaulted and murdered her. This January, Pierre McCoy, a John Adams High School student, was shot and killed at a bus stop in front of his school. 

Paul: Parents shared how they think the district should approach high school transportation in this district of choice. A few suggested that school bus transportation should be provided, or at least some safer alternatives. 

Paul: Tamika Range, a Buckeye-Shaker resident, told Documenter Kellie Morris the following: 

Tamika Range, Buckeye-Shaker: “It would be nice for them to flood resources [and to] to have city school buses partner with these schools, and say, “We’re going to have a pick up location, and a drop off location on all four corners,” so that all the students that want to attend these schools and partake in the sports activities that are afforded to them, they can do so.” 

Paul: Find our other stories in this series at, including a timeline about how school choice has evolved, and a guide to the process of picking a school. You can also share your own experience and submit any questions you have about the process. 

Special thanks to the following Cleveland Documenters who contributed interviews for this project: Alfreda Williams, Michaylah Burch, Mildred Seward, Kellie Morris, Angela Thomas, Denise Lykes, Robyne Williams, Marquesa Stephens, Dorothy Ajamu, Seanna Jackson and Marvetta Rutherford. 

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Cleveland school choice

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.

Cleveland Documenters pays and trains people to cover public meetings where government officials discuss important issues and decide how to spend taxpayer money.