Eden: “The Citizen Academy Way” — Why a Cleveland Charter Succeeds in a Failure Zone

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When Staci Pratt, a math instruction specialist, came to Citizens Academy in 2003, the one proficient math student had just transferred out. But after more than a decade of hard work by Pratt and her colleagues, CA now boasts an 88 percent proficiency rate, serves more than 400 students and has spun off two sister schools.

Citizens Academy was launched in 1999 by Perry White, a social worker who concluded that “district bureaucracies like Cleveland’s can’t sustain real change”; he set out to create a charter school that would “disprove the racist excuse that ‘schools in Cleveland fail due to Cleveland’s dysfunctional families.’ ”

I visited CA in November because it was clear from halfway across the country that White had succeeded. My colleagues at the Manhattan Institute had developed a tool, School Grades, that provides reliable “A” through “F” ratings, and I was on a mission to find the best schools in America. Growing up on the east side of Cleveland, I was lucky enough to attend an “A” school because my parents bought a house in an affluent suburb. But if I had been born downtown, CA might have been my only shot; nine of its 10 nearest neighbors are “F” schools.

What sets CA so far apart are its administrative flexibility, its strong parent engagement and its high expectations for staff, students and families.

Before joining the school, principal Kimberly Peterlin “had always been anti-charter.” But as a special education teacher in a district school, “it would sometimes take two weeks to get sign-off to do something different with a student,” she says. “Here, we can make adjustments daily.” Whether a student needs tutoring, enrichment opportunities or a different class, teachers can make it happen without friction or fuss.

Charters may have more flexibility, but they also receive less funding than district schools. Peterlin runs a tight ship and admits that she couldn’t do it without help from parents and the community. “We have about 50 people who come in to help on a regular basis,” she says. “Seven parents came in so much and were so helpful that we put them on staff!”

One mother-cum-teacher, Nichole Woods, tutors struggling readers but considers her unofficial role in the hallways every bit as important. “I’ll just give kids hugs,” she says. “When I was pregnant, I read that a child needs three hugs a day. For some of these kids, I know I’m their only one.”

Woods also dispenses tough love. “We see ourselves as the second parent,” she says. “And sometimes I have to tell a parent, ‘Let’s be 100 percent real — you’re failing our child right now, and here’s what you need to do.’ ” Though she doesn’t reach everyone, she says, “When I do, you can’t even pay for it. I had a graduate come back, and she told me, ‘Ms. Woods, I decided I want to live because of you.’ ”

The other teachers at CA are every bit as committed. “I tell the students,” says third-grade teacher Chandra Johnson, “you don’t have to be a statistic. Single mom? That was me. Dad in jail? That was me. I’m a teacher, and they can be anything they want if we all do this together.”

Ms. Johnson says that she’s not sure she could be as successful in another school: “In my last school, I was so lonely. But here, we’re all on the same page, the same mission. And … I don’t know why I’m crying right now … I just love our school so much.”

CA takes great care to get everyone to share its vision. The school hits it out of the park on standardized tests, but it takes its moral mission every bit as seriously as its academics. For two weeks at the beginning of the year, students don’t take a single class. Instead, they have “Culture Camp,” a crash course in the “CA Way” and the seven virtues the school emphasizes: respect, responsibility, generosity, courage, perseverance, honesty and loyalty.

“I’ve been trying a while, and I just became Citizen of the Month this month,” Xavier, a fifth-grader, tells me shyly. “Now I’m going to try to get my little brother to get it. If he does, I’d be so proud.”

Xavier has plenty to be proud about, and the world-class Citizens Academy is a school that all of Cleveland should take pride in.

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