In Eric Gordon’s view, there are still “two Clevelands.” In one Cleveland, choice abounds and students can take advantage of hundreds of great opportunities to thrive from grade school to career. The other, what he calls a “hidden Cleveland,” is distinguished by poverty, the effects of lead poisoning, housing instability, and other issues showing the persistence of systemic racism that holds students back from reaching their potential.
As Gordon completes his final tasks as CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District this week, the thought weighs heavy on his mind. And it’s a large part of why he’s not ready to retire from the world of Cleveland education. He’ll take a few weeks of vacation, then begin a new position as the senior vice president of student development and education pipeline at Cuyahoga Community College on July 31.
The 52-year-old has been a leader in the district for 16 years. Gordon came to Cleveland schools in 2007, when he was hired as the chief academic officer. Four years later, he became CEO. He began his career in the classroom, teaching in schools in Toledo and New Orleans.
Reflecting on his 12 years in the top leadership position, Gordon told Signal Cleveland about the reality of “two Clevelands” and his desire to “unlock” for everyone the Cleveland experienced by wealthier people and by suburbanites. He said those are the driving forces behind the work he has done and the change he has made.
He feels he has taken steps in that direction and hopes his successor, Warren Morgan, will work to achieve the same goal. Gordon hired Morgan as a district administrator in 2014, and he said he is encouraged by the time they’ve spent catching up in the past few weeks.
“I think because we know each other and we trust each other, that he’ll still let me support him in the background when he needs me,” he said.
When asked what “unfinished business” he would like to see completed, Gordon pointed to initiatives that have already shaped his legacy— the Say Yes Cleveland scholarship program and its wraparound support program in K-12 schools, and the PACE career-planning curriculum.
Signal Cleveland sat down with Eric Gordon to talk about how his time at the district has shaped his understanding of the biggest issues surrounding K-12 education in Cleveland. Gordon’s responses have been edited for clarity.
Cleveland needs a citywide youth-focused agenda
What is the biggest thing holding back the school district or the success of students right now?
“I think what we’ve proven over the past decade is that we can improve education for kids in Cleveland, but that doing it in the face of the other conditions that kids and families face makes it difficult.
“The gains that I made were on an education agenda, but the gains that are going to be made next have to be on a larger youth agenda. We need to be tackling poverty that affects housing instability and safety in the neighborhoods. Those are the things that make it hard to go to school. If we make those things a lot easier, school itself will be a lot easier.
“Going forward, Morgan, the mayor and this community have to have a youth agenda and really get serious about the things that make it hard to be a kid so that kids can be good at being students in school.”
Trusting in student voices is key
Of the relationships you have built, which have had the greatest impact on the trajectory of Cleveland schools?
“I mean, the best relationships for me are kids. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve trusted kids to help me know what we need. And I really hope that Dr. Morgan and the leadership will continue to authentically trust and listen to kids, because some of the best learning has come from them.”
Where do you get your inspiration for your vision for CMSD?
“I’ve listened and talked to kids. I’ve trusted in kids. I hope that when I leave, the kids still have what I believe is the right voice, but in most organizations is a huge outsized voice. But I’ve just trusted that what kids tell me is true. And then I’ve tried to deliver on what they are telling me that they want and need. And I mean, I have, too, listened to lots of other people, but at the end of the day, I’ve always come back and just pressure-tested it with kids.”
Cleveland’s community partnerships are crucial–and unique
There are so many organizations, non-profit and otherwise, working with the district. How have these partnerships helped kids?
“You know, when I came to Cleveland, people didn’t want to partner with the district and the district didn’t want to partner with people. And now almost everything we’ve done depends on partnership. And so maintaining those healthy relationships that this is truly, in Cleveland’s language, an all-in proposition. It’s crucial if we want to make progress.
It’s really important that we maintain the trusting relationships we’ve built with the business community, faith community, you know, all of the community partners.”
Can you give a few examples of these partnerships?
“There’s a ton of them. There’s Pre4cle, making sure we have high quality preschool for every three- and four-year-old and being agnostic to whether it’s the district or somebody else doing it. The Say Yes program, making sure that every kid has the scholarship and the family wraparound supports that they need when they need it. The new Greater Cleveland Career Consortium, where we provide internships and mentorships and apprenticeships for every kid in a town that needs a skilled workforce. The Transformation Alliance that oversees now over ten years of a strategy to provide quality education for students all across the city….
I could just go on and on. That’s what’s so cool about Cleveland: When I tell people around the country about these partnerships, they don’t believe me. They don’t believe it’s real here. And that’s got to continue.”
Eric Gordon’s last day at the district is Friday, June 30.