Zhariya Phillips, an 11th grader at Garrett Morgan School of Leadership and Innovation welcomed Mayor Bibb to the stage at the 2023 State of the City address.
Zhariya Phillips, an 11th grader at Garrett Morgan School of Leadership and Innovation welcomed Mayor Bibb to the stage at the 2023 State of the City address. Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb gave extra credit to the Cleveland schools and its outgoing CEO Wednesday night during his second State of the City speech.

In his speech nearly a year ago, Bibb hardly mentioned Cleveland schools, but this time, education and school district leader Eric Gordon were front and center.

The 2023 address, which he delivered from an auditorium at East Technical High School in the city’s Central neighborhood, highlighted city partnerships with Cleveland Schools, efforts to involve students in policy-making, and the mayor’s role in selecting a new school district CEO this spring.

Bibb began his speech by praising Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon, who will be leaving the district this June after 11 years in the job. He lauded Gordon’s accomplishments: the launch of the Cleveland Plan in 2012, the passage of four school levies, bringing the Say Yes scholarship program to Cleveland, and creating an afterschool city-civic partnership.

  • The Cleveland School for the Arts choir performed at the start of the State of the City event.
  • John Marshall High School marching band played for guests as they entered East Tech High School for the 2023 State of the City Address.

Making Cleveland a safer place for students

Bibb then dedicated the first portion of his speech to public safety. A key focus, he said, is to keep young people safe on their way to and from school. 

Bibb said his administration is focusing on “data-driven policing” that can be achieved through partnerships between the city, the school district and others. He mentioned the Safe Passage partnership with MyCom, the Safe Routes to School program, and recent coordination between the school district and Cleveland police to increase safety measures for students as they arrive at and leave school each day.

He also said his administration is working to provide summer programming and youth job opportunities to keep students occupied during the break. 

Bibb also mentioned the city’s investment to recruit more young people, including graduating CMSD students, to public safety careers.

Bringing in student voices

Bibb highlighted his efforts to bring more student voices into City Hall. This was something he promised Garrett Morgan High School student Felix Ocasio during a Q&A session following last year’s State of the City. He also promised Ocasio that he would try to visit schools at least once a month during his time as mayor.

The mayor’s calendars show that at least once each month since the last address Bibb has visited a public or private school, either for an event or just a routine visit.

Since last November, Bibb has met quarterly with members of the district’s Student Advisory Committee and has invited groups of students to speak with him on specific topics.

These meetings have all been closed to the media. City Hall has informed Signal Cleveland that no official notes are taken at these meetings.

These student groups have met with the mayor to discuss the city’s new violence prevention strategy, the effects of gun violence on Cleveland youth, and mental health support in schools. 

Zhariya Phillips, the junior at Garrett Morgan School of Leadership and Innovation who welcomed Bibb to the stage at the start of the event, was among the students invited to speak to officials at City Hall. She said she appreciates Bibb bringing students to the table on serious matters.

“I think it was very generous of him, and a very smart idea,” she said. “Once you actually start listening to the people and what they have to say and how they feel, what they are experiencing in the community, that gives you a different perspective than being the mayor or a council woman or councilman.”

Addressing the effects of the pandemic on Cleveland youth

Bibb emphasized the effects the pandemic had on students, particularly as it relates to student mental health. He spoke specifically about the student panel discussion he had earlier this month with the U.S. Surgeon General.

He quoted a John Hay High School student who took part in the discussion.

“I felt as if the world was moving, but I wasn’t,” the student said.

Bibb said this student’s words stood out to him. 

“So many young people across the city are experiencing this…. We must ensure that we are meeting our young people where they are with the support they need.”

The city’s main response to this, he said, was to coordinate with the state and county to ensure that CMSD can keep the Say Yes support specialist program in schools. This year, the city contributed $600,000 of ARPA funds towards closing a funding gap in order for the program to continue through this school year.

A sustainable model to fund the program in coming years is still in the works.

Bibb also described the plan for CMSD’s Integrated Health Initiative, a partnership between the city, healthcare providers, local foundations, and CMSD. The goal is to create school-based clinics where students and their families can access affordable mental and physical healthcare services.

Following the speech, an audience member asked Bibb how his administration would protect the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth specifically. 

“We as a city must do whatever we can to partner and create more safe spaces in the city for the LGBTQ community,” Bibb said. He added that the city needs to not only identify safe spaces, but also to publicly speak out against anti-LGBTQ hate.

Choosing a new CEO

While his speech praised Gordon’s work, Bibb only addressed the search for a new CEO when asked about it during the Q&A session.

He said that as one of only a few mayors across the country with control over a school district, he sees his leadership and management of CMSD as a “special moral obligation.” 

Bibb didn’t offer much detail about his role in the search but assured the audience that he is “very, very involved in the process.” He and the city’s Chief of Education Holly Trifiro have been working closely with the school board.

Bibb said his priority is finding a candidate who can build on Gordon’s legacy, doubling down on the Cleveland Plan — a 2012 document that laid out a strategy for improving quality across the district — and working to solve the problems caused by the pandemic.

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.
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. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

CEO Gordon responds

Following the address, Gordon, the outgoing CEO, told Signal Cleveland he thinks the mayor’s priorities are aligned with the Cleveland Plan. Gordon said he’s pleased with the way the city has used ARPA funding for these priorities as well. He also praised the mayor’s strategy to link education and other initiatives for youth.

“I think youth development is it, actually,” Gordon said. “[Former Mayor Frank Jackson] put a spotlight on the need to improve education. As he should have at the time. Mayor Bibb is now rightly shifting to a youth agenda. Education is the job of the youth, but the youth are citizens of our city and we have to think more holistically. I think that is exactly the right move. We’ve made the gains we’ve made despite the fact that so many other social determinants for children have not changed. Now we’ve got to change those other things in order to continually accelerate education.”

Gordon also said he hopes that a new CEO will be able to build a strong relationship with the mayor, just as he has built one with Bibb over the past two years.

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.