Participants at community forum discuss public education in Cleveland
by Kristin Labuz

(Plain Press, November 2004) With Cleveland’s ranking as the most impoverished city lurking in the background and Election Day looming in the future, nearly 40 people congregated at the League Park Center on Oct. 21 for a community forum entitled, “The Struggle for Public Education: What Can We Do Now?”

Public education has become an increasingly politicized issue in recent months, as opposing camps have showered the performance of Cleveland municipal schools with both bitter criticism and hopeful praise.

In stark contrast to the glossy campaign ads and rosy promises of progress radiating from the downtown school board offices, the forum participants painted a far bleaker picture of Cleveland schools.

Individuals spoke of buildings missing furniture, classrooms missing textbooks, teachers forced to purchase supplies out-of-pocket, and principals doing double duty as hall monitors.

“It’s almost like a Third World country,” said J. Roberts, a physical education teacher at Stephen E. Howe Elementary. “I feel like I’m on a slippery slope. I have to put some cleats on my shoes do I don’t slide down.”

The forum opened with updates on the Bond Accountability Commission and the fight to institute an apprenticeship program between Max Hayes High School and the Building Trades Union that would ensure Cleveland students receive increased employment opportunities from the commission’s $1.5 billion rebuilding efforts.

Next, the topic of Issue 112, a proposed property tax increase projected to raise $68 million annually for Cleveland city schools, generated debate. The overall consensus of the forum participants was to vote down the initiative and search for alternate sources of revenue.

“Property tax is not the proper mode for funding school districts. It’s like trying to milk a cow that’s not able to provide any more milk,” Don Freeman argued.

His wife, Norma Freeman concurred, recognizing, “If we decide we are going to say no [to the levy], we are going to have to say yes to the children in another way.”

Janice Eatman Williams, a lifelong Glenville resident and associate director of Case Western Reserve University ’s Office of Student Community Service, noted that the community would have to assume collective responsibility for children and take advantage of the supplemental “wrap-around” tutoring programs already available at local libraries and community centers.

In addition, the forum emphasized the importance of active participation in local schools and ensuring that the school board is accountable to the public. The next school board meeting is Nov. 16 at Buckeye-Woodland School .

In addition to parents, teachers and community members, Case students attended the forum as part of a course entitled, “City as Classroom: Urban Education, Social Inequality, and Social Justice.” The course, taught by Dr. Rhonda Williams, approaches education through a service-based model that aims to integrate book learning with community involvement.

“The class is a good opportunity for groups of people who might not normally be in dialogue to learn from each other. It’s important for students to understand that book learning is not the only way to gather info – people in the community have a wealth of knowledge,” Dr. Williams said.

Dr. Williams noted that even fifty years after the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, the public education system remains overwhelmed by staggering inequities that are largely patterned along racial lines.

“People need to take a look at who is representing them at the local and state level, and how that has concrete curricular and financial repercussions for parents and families,” she said. “In urban communities there is still a struggle to provide education in 2004. And that’s a struggle that needs to be exposed.”


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