Thursday, July 28, 2016

First teaching Jobs in Cleveland and then Back to Columbus, OH

Cleveland, OH.
Total population 396,815 
Race Breakdown: W: 37% B: 53% L: 9% A:1%

Cleveland Heights (apartment living):
Total population: 44, 121 
Race Breakdown: W: 49% B: 42%  L: 1% A: 4%

Shaker Heights (first house):
Total population: 28,448 
Race Breakdown: W: 54% B: 37% L: 2% A: 4%

I returned back from Africa earlier than I was supposed to in order to pursue a life with That Guy Scott. We had been broken up when I had applied to the Peace Corps and had rekindled our embers weeks before I left. By golly, distance does make the heart grow stronger. Damn him for wrecking my plans. After 2.5 months of Peace Corps training, I found myself back in the states driving myself to Cleveland, OH, where Scott lived, in search of math teaching jobs mid-year. I finished out that school year in the South-Euclid School system working with at-risk freshmen. The next year, I snagged a SWEET teaching job at Shaker Heights Middle School in the sought-after Shaker Heights School System, where I taught three levels of 7th grade math all day long: College Prep (behind), Middle-of-the-road (can't remember the actual name, but the curriculum was taught at-level), and Accelerated (I always had to study my lesson notes super hard, because these kiddos were bright and way above level). I loved teaching at Shaker Heights Middle School. It reminded me lots of my duPont Manual High School days and I felt I was RIGHT THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT... at the intersection of white and black families who elected to send their kids to a school system just as much because of the prestigious history of academic vigor as for the cultural experience. There was just one problem: Unlike my high school days where the demographics seemed to be more equally distributed among high-level classes and lower-level classes, my experience at Shaker was as follows: The middle-level class was a nice blend of races. Yet, there was only one black girl total in my collective Accelerated classes among the sea of white students and there was Not One White Face in my collective College Prep classes.

It was also while living and working in Shaker Heights that I learned about housing... I only know the following to be true, because it was openly discussed by teachers and administration: The white students mostly lived in houses in the community and the black students by and large were living in townhouse and apartments in patches throughout town. I do not know when it was that I personally began making associations between race and socio economics. Probably before this season of life... But this was the first time, as a new teacher, that I saw the race/ socio-economics piece coincide with academic performance. It was stark as I started out the school year, impossible to miss, and by the end of the year my thinking had normalized it to be "just how it is."

During the year teaching there, I worked extensively with my counterparts on professional development days updating the curriculum and pacing charts for those three tiers of 7th grade classes. There were four of us, two white women, one black man, and one black woman. The black woman was named Tracey. Tracy was a woman with a presence. She was a large woman, a smart woman, and an opinionated woman. She and I made no sense in some regards because of what little we had in common (short white running girl filled with optimism and naivety about her teaching career meets wise, seasoned, out-spoken black woman with seniority who has seen a lot go down as she's traveled around the block a few times - in her car), and in fact we had a couple rifts on account of these differing perspectives, but I found a kindredness in Tracey, too. Her ability to not take life too seriously. Oh, and her sarcasm. I definitely loved that woman's sarcasm. One day, during one of those professional development assignments (let the record show that classroom teachers ALMOST NEVER go "out" to lunch), we elected to take her car to grab a bite. It was just us three ladies at the time. And we had pulled up to a gas station while out. The car's conversation had just been about politics, for the 2004 presidential campaigns were heating up. With no trepidations (typical me), I asked her who she was voting for. She looked across at me like I was short a couple crayons from a full box. I said, "No seriously, WHO?" When she told me it was John Kerry, she left me to pump gas with these words, "You'd have to be dumb to be black and not be a democrat." BOOM. I do not know, still, how much credence to grant this statement, for Tracey is one black person, but it certainly caused me to pause. Frankly, I'm still pausing over that one.

When Spring was upon us that same year, and I had learned that I was moving back to Columbus, OH due to a job opportunity for Scott there, I remember being troubled about which school districts to apply to for a teaching job. Tracey found herself in my classroom one day, and when I shared that I loved my job at Shaker and loved the challenge of attempting to meet the diverse educational, emotional, and social needs of the lower kids' needs (because that was where my heart was), but that I was also EXHAUSTED after one year. That I didn't know if I could be a good teacher of at-risk or inner city populations (was considering Columbus Public again) if I too wanted to start a family. She told me this: "Go with the suburban school systems, Tricia. You will find that there are plenty of problems there that need you to help navigate their solution. You need to think about yourself and your family's needs, and there is nothing wrong with that. You won't regret it."

I know this is going to come out wrong, so I'll lead with that. But there was something about an educated black woman who had been-there-done-that in a public school with a robust black-and-somewhat-at-risk population encouraging me to take "an easier job" in the burbs that held more gravity and permission-giving to be released from my own virtuous standards than had it come from anyone else. And so, I ended up applying to the school system of my old stomping grounds: Olentangy Public Schools.

Before I move on to The Next Season of Life, I want to share about Scott's Cleveland adventures. The reason he was in Cleveland was to complete his graduate degree in Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western University. While taking classes, he got into cahoots with non-traditional (read: old) student John Zitzner, with whom he co-founded a nonprofit called E-City (Entrepreneurship: Connection, Inspiring, and Teaching Youth). E-City became the cornerstone of Scott's Cleveland experience. It was a nonprofit dedicated to teaching inner city Cleveland students (67% of whom are black) financial literacy and entrepreneurship skills. As the nonprofit gained momentum, John (who is white, btw) and Scott expanded the staff to include Nicole, a black student and acquaintance in one of Scott's graduate classes. Nicole evolved into a dear friend of both Scott's and mine over those few years. I mention Nicole, because - since teacher-colleague Tracey was a couple decades my senior and all my black students were a decade-and-change my junior - she was the only black peer I spent time with personally during my Cleveland days. And, she was the only black guest at our wedding a year later.

Since Scott and I left Cleveland, John Zitzner and staff have segwayed their mission from after school programming to building schools (John, Nicole, and Scott had concluded that E-City's mission was beautiful, but short-sighted... that, while meaningful to urban kids to better understand financial literacy in a theoretical sense for 2 hours per week, it wasn't moving the dial to translate that their overall life direction was altered for the better... John, never to let a small obstacle get in his way - the man is as tenacious as hell - redirected all efforts in order to produce a new baby: Breakthrough Schools). While still there, Scott learned a bunch in their research leading up to Breakthrough Schools' launching; the three of them traveling to many different urban school set-ups across the country THAT WORKED and PERFORMED HIGHLY. Here's what was shocking to me but consistently true nationwide: in order to have a significant impact on kids in low-income urban households with tumultuous surroundings, the students and their families must buy in to an unconventional school model involving long school hours (less time in their home/neighborhood culture), a longer school year (less summer in their home/neighborhood culture), a dress code (showing no clues of their home/neighborhood culture), and strict guidelines about what behaviors of success looked like and didn't look like (which often ran counter to their home/neighborhood culture). The entire two first weeks of each school year is dedicated to training school culture (it's boot camp), including how to shake an adult's hand, how to maintain eye contact during lessons, and that hallways passing time is to be done silently. It's no-nonsense. And a bit militant. But it works. See at:

We got married while living in Cleveland. We bought our first house in Shaker Heights in Cleveland. I broke into teaching in Cleveland. Cleveland was a place that I entered kicking and screaming (grieving my Peace Corps dreams, torn from everything I knew, finding it excessively difficult for my bubbly charm break through the social fabric of the communities there...most Cleveland folks I knew had all their friendship slots filled and were quite established there... transient new-comers they needed not), but then I found myself leaving kicking and screaming, too. The two years in-between had been enriching. There's one reason I know I came to love the city. Look at the stats. 53 % black. FIFTY THREE PERCENT (not to mention the rich ethnic landscape of many groups of immigrant Americans - Little Italy's smells were just a mile from my apartment at one time and the restaurants in general were plentiful and interesting, along with the people). Although most of my neighbors and new-found friends were white, there was a RICHNESS to Cleveland's diverse population that trickled down to me.

The reason I tell this story of our Cleveland time is because it cemented what most everyone in America somehow comes to know at one point or another. Large city school systems struggle more than suburban school systems and often more than rural systems. Furthermore, there is a connection between lower socio-economics and urban households sending their children to public school. And, finally, percentages of people of color in larger densely-populated cities are generally significantly higher than either in the suburbs of those cities or rural areas. Put all that together, and we've got struggling big city school systems educating low-income kiddos, many of whom are minorities. At least, that's what I observe to be true. That's serious. Really serious.

I tell the Breakthrough Schools back-story, because it showed me the crazy-high number of families, mostly black, who were hungering for a better school for their kids, even when what they were signing up for meant a complete override of their sons/daughters lives up to that point. Parents were lining up for the opportunity to have their kids... for lack of a better word... hijacked. Because it meant that they would escape what would otherwise be a common future for at-risk city kids: school drop-out, poverty, crime, and all that goes with it. It showed me the opposite of complacency. These parents were willing, honest-about-their-situations, and desperate for another way.

Total population: 787,000 Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5%A: 4%

The four years we spent back in Columbus, the place of our Alma Mater and where we first became a couple, were relatively uneventful, racially speaking. We ended up settling in an inner-ring suburb called Clintonville which we loved, and, whose schools fell within the Columbus Public Schools boundaries. As we were beginning our family, Scott and I had lots of conversations about whether we would move to a different burb before our kids were school-aged or stay in the expansive, urban school district that  contained some lovely, high-performing pockets (Clintonville being one of them), but was also full of less-than-awesome overall ratings.

Scott worked at a private K-12 school in Upper Arlington, and I worked as a math teacher in the Olentangy School System. And we attended worship at Worthington Presbyterian Church. Homogenous. Homogenous. And homogenous. I remember the over-simplified metaphor I used, when asked about the comparison of Cleveland to Columbus: Cleveland was like rocky road and Columbus is vanilla. There was a richer and more scrumptious way about Cleveland, for me. Columbus has it's own corner on diversity, but - for me - it didn't touch Cleveland's.

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