When Ted and Beverly Mason first stepped onto their newly acquired lot on Ashwood Road in 1955, they were one of the first Black families to build a home in the entirely white Shaker Heights School District. It was a move that required great courage, given the neighborhood’s response to previous attempts to live there by even the wealthiest of Black families.
But little did they know that their revolutionary act, along with the alliance of several neighbors, would help transform this exclusive suburban enclave on Cleveland’s East Side into a nationally recognized example of a racially integrated community. Even today, Shaker makes headlines for trying to get to the bottom of the all-too-common racial achievement gap in America’s education system.
This is the story Washington Post Education reporter Laura Meckler tells in her book, Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity, which comes out Aug. 22.
The history of a model suburb
The Shaker Heights native takes readers through the city’s history, from the Shaker religious sect that settled in the area, to the plan for an elite garden suburb dreamed up by the Van Sweringen brothers, to the formation of a community association aimed at maintaining an integrated neighborhood and slowing white flight.
The book takes us all the way through to the present day, when a now largely integrated community continues to struggle to achieve racial equity in its schools. Meckler explains innovative approaches the school district has taken post-pandemic, such as eliminating tracking, a long-used educational strategy of dividing students into different curriculum tracks based on their ability or past performance.
By telling the stories of key figures in the history of Shaker Heights schools, Meckler paints a picture of a community that really wants to solve these issues and works hard to do so time and time again. The well-researched anecdotes she provides show that the quest for racial equity, even in a progressive town with resources, can be far more complicated than one might think.
Building a sandcastle by the ocean
Meckler told Signal Cleveland she believes the book shows what it looks like when a community is committed to working on racial equity. She said she believes it shows that progress is possible.
“Most of America is not really trying to do integration, either racial or economic integration. Most school districts are either wealthy districts with a lot of wealthy kids or poor districts with a lot of poor kids,” she said.
“So the fact that you have this cross subsidization and this economic diversity as well as racial diversity in Shaker Heights—and it’s certainly not the only place— is meaningful, and it tells us something about whether that kind of community can work.”
In Dream Town, Meckler gives a lot of thought to that question. Can racial equity be achieved? Can this kind of community work? While she doesn’t have a definitive answer, she chooses to end the book on a hopeful note by sharing an allegory made by Ron Ferguson, a Harvard professor whom Shaker parents and school administrators invited to help get at the root of racial achievement gaps.
“Shaker isn’t making water run uphill, …but it is building a sandcastle by the side of the ocean. As long as you have people working to build, sustain, and protect that sandcastle, you are going to have something that looks, more or less, like a sandcastle,” Ferguson said.
Get a copy of “Dream Town”
Dream Town comes out Tuesday, Aug. 22, and there are a few places around town where you can get your hands on a copy.
Meckler will be in town to talk about her book next week:
- Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights is hosting a book launch event at 7 p.m. on Aug. 22. Learn more at http://www.loganberrybooks.com/events/
- Wednesday, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m. the Cuyahoga County Public Library will hold a book signing and conversation with Meckler at the Beachwood branch. Learn more at https://attend.cuyahogalibrary.org/event/8736043