Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cleveland - A Third World City?

Web-surfing last night, I was searching the internet for information about another art teacher in an urban vocational school.
What I found made me shake my head, partly amazed, wanting not to believe.

I discovered a 2001 post from a vocational school in Rwanda.
If you would substitute the word "Rwanda" with "Cleveland", and change the 59% drop-out rate to Cleveland's 2001 71% drop-out rate, the story would be about this city. Even the pictures of the students and teachers in the classrooms could have been taken here.

The first part of the excerpt caught my eye:

"One of the pressing needs for these children and youth is to ensure access to a relevant, basic education. 59% of street-based children in Rwanda have dropped out of school"

Reading the rest of it made my jaw drop. I could have written it.

"There is a very big difference because the children who live in the streets have ingrained habits which discourage them from concentrating for longer periods or sitting still in a classroom. Children who attend primary schools and who are able to go home in the evenings are able to learn from family members and are encouraged, but for street children it is very difficult.
It is difficult for many of the street children to concentrate on their work as they arrive already tired to the class. When the children come to the classroom they fall asleep as they were unable to sleep the night before or were up most of the night sniffing glue. Also many of them are traumatized from the violence in the streets. Sometimes there are discussions during the class when children explain that the night before they were hit by security guards or others in the streets"

Here is the link.

For God's sakes, our urban schools in Cleveland and East Cleveland look like Rwanda's!

When is this region going to wake-up and do something that will have a real impact?
Maybe it's time to take a good close look at the school reform policy du jour that the educational leadership will parade around at election time, and demand something better...Demand something real...Demand to get involved. The lip service we've received is only an insult.
We need to do more than change a label to effect reform.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Drop-Out Drops In.

"Hey, I saw Ryan this weekend."

"Really? Where?"

"At the store in Lakewood where he works."

"How's he doing?"

"Okay I guess, he dropped out of school."

Damn, I thought, not another one. "Well, if you run into him again, tell him to stop in and see me."

Two weeks later Ryan walked through the door of my classroom and flopped himself down in the big old high-backed chair behind my desk.
"Everything is still the same." he said softly as he looked around the room and smiled.

The last time I'd seen Ryan was a little over a year ago when we stood in the hallway and he told me he was leaving Max Hayes High School.
He was failing all of his classes, yet ironically, he was one of the smartest kids in the school. He hadn't failed to learn, he just didn't come to class. He hadn't been sick, he was bored out of his mind. The school had an attendance policy mandating a failing grade for any student who had ten or more absences during a semester, and Ryan had exceeded his limit.

Several years ago , when Ryan was a ninth grader in my art class, I could see right away that he was different. He was a talented artist as well as a bright kid. He would complete drawing excuses and unit projects with time to spare. So, I would introduce him to new mediums, or have him work on a contest entry, while the rest of the class caught up to him. That summer I was able to secure an internship for him at the David Davis Studio in Cleveland. There he worked with resident sculptor Mike Spencer, completing a monumental work of art, as well as creating a couple small stainless pieces of his own.

The following year he began cutting early morning and late afternoon classes. His excuse? He was bored. He would finish his assignments, and fall asleep while the teacher worked with the rest of the class. He figured he could do all the work for a week in one class period. Why should he sit through five? When I checked with his teachers they all agreed. He did 'A' work but was failing due to attendance.

The next year he was still repeating most of his classes, even though he knew the content, so mid-year, Ryan decided to transfer to his neighborhood high school, John Marshall. There the situation was not much different. Teachers spent the majority of class time working with the students who needed the most help. He disengaged, and once again his attendance became sporadic. He was failing his classes. He would have to pay to make up the classes in night school. Due to budget cuts, tuition-free summer school was only free to seniors. Ryan couldn't afford the tuition, and couldn't bear the thought of sitting through the same classes yet again, so he just quit. He dropped out of school in the spring and got two jobs.

Now, at 17, he is working as a roofer during the day, and at a game store in the evening. I couldn't help but wonder what his chances will be to succeed without a high school diploma. We talked about the GED program, and he promised to look into it. We also talked about re-enrolling in Max Hayes night school program once he earns enough money to pay the tuition.

I couldn't help but feel bad. We failed again. One more young Clevelander without a high school diploma. We had failed to give this young man an education. We couldn't keep his attention. The professional educators, with our degrees in human behavior and psychology, couldn't educate a good, bright, talented kid. He wasn't a behavior problem, he didn't need special education, he didn't attract attention, and he fell through the cracks. We have thousands of these young adults in Cleveland. Each one of them represents almost a quarter of a million dollars of lost income over the next forty years.

My mantra - Education equals Economic Development. While the school district grapples with improving test scores and trying to improve graduation rates, we have a city full of drop-outs. Cleveland had the lowest graduation rate in the country back in 1998, only 28%. It has steadily improved to a pathetic 50%, but those who never received their diplomas still live here. They make up Cleveland's workforce. Why are we shocked to read that Cleveland is one of the poorest cities in the country? Why are we surprised that they don't vote? They are the electorate. What are Cleveland's civic leaders doing to address that problem? Where will we find jobs for the undereducated?

These people used to find employment in the region's factories. Now the industry uses new technologies that require new skills. They can't find workers.
(Read more on that here) We have a solution...!

One proven strategy to keep students in school is through the arts. The arts keep bright, creative, kids engaged. A group of civic-minded folks from Greater Cleveland understood this, and began a non-profit organization called the Human Fund whose first benefit will be dedicated to raising money for the All-City arts program in the Cleveland schools. A silent auction of student work will be held at the gala event on October 22nd at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I will be submitting several landscape paintings by Ryan to the student exhibit. Check out their web site, attend the benefit if you can, bid on a work of art or donate to the cause. You may just be able to help one more kid stay in school.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


I knew her first as the head of long, mousey brown, hair piled over folded arms. The days that she showed up in class, she sat in the back of the room and buried her face on a bunched up jacket plopped down on the table. As the rest of the class was getting their latest projects out to work on, she would sit, with her head resting upon her arm, eyes closed.

"C'mon darlin', I can't give you a grade if you don't have anything to turn in. You're here, you might as well give it a shot."

Malinda would roll her eyes, and slowly walk to the file cabinet to get her portfolio. She was taking the art requirement her freshman year, and had pretty decent drawing skills, but her absenteeism was taking a toll on her progress. My cajoling was usually met with a reluctant compliance. Any attempts to talk with her were met with one-word answers. She was quiet, an easy student to overlook in a class filled mostly with excitable ninth grade boys.

Malinda had one friend in class, Sara, a slightly built, tom-boyish, chatty, tenth grader. Never lacking in self-confidence or something to talk about, Sarah was popular. Even though she had many friends, I noticed her taking time out with the loners, the "geeks", and the "underdogs". If anyone was ever so ingnorant as to pick on one the the special needs students in Sara's presence, they would find themselves dealing with a 5 foot tall, ninety pound avenger. Justice in a ponytail, Sara's fist could fly as fast as her words.

Early one morning, before the first period bell, Sara appeared at my door.

"Ms. Matthews, I need to tell you something."

"What's wrong?" Dark circles beneath her eyes told me she had been up most of the night.

"You know that girl, Malinda, I sit next to in your class?"

I nodded my head.

"She told me last night that she was being raped by her father and her brother. She said it's been going on since she was eleven. Her mom knows about it, but lets them do it. She said her mother blames her for what they do."

Whoa! Every moment of annoyance I ever felt toward the child I had assumed was lazy, morphed into guilt combined with horror. "We have to report this."

"I'll go down to the office, I'm the one she told. I heard the story."

"Is Malinda here today?"

"I haven't seen her yet."

"Do you think she would go with you to talk to someone? Is she ready? Does she want to get out of there? Did she say?" A million questions raced around my head. A million and one regrets. Never again would I assume anything about a sleepy student.
Knowing everyone carries baggage is one thing; knowing the contents can make you a participant in the burden.

"She needs to get out." Sara was resolute. "I told her I was going to tell the school. She didn't say anything."

With that, Sara turned around and headed down the stairs to the office.

Sara had breached the levy.
Malinda's life, previously a solitary, silent, scream, became a flurry of police detectives, social workers, and prosecutors.

Her family was tried and convicted. Her testimony in court assured prison time for her father. A minor without a home, Malinda became a ward of the county. Over the next couple of years she lived like a teen-aged refugee, bouncing from one foster home to another.

Now that she had found her voice, she began to talk.. and talk.. and talk.
The healing effect of communicating was evident as she began to share her frustrations and fears. I gave her a sketch/journal, perhaps it could be therapeutic.
Sara and Malinda had become fast friends. They made certain to keep me informed during the court proceedings, and kept me updated on the idiosyncrasies of the various foster homes Malinda was placed in. One typical day the girls came in to my room together, this time they both looked sad. Malinda was transferring to a new school in the suburbs. A family in Strongsville was taking her in.


Last week Sara appeared at my door, all smiles. It was two years since she had graduated, but she was a periodic visitor, so although I was happy to see her, I was not surprised. "Somebody wants to see you. Come out to the hall."
Curiously, I peeked my head around the corner.


"I thought you might not remember me."

"Oh honey, how could I forget you? How have you been? What are you doing?"

Malinda had just moved back to the near westside, had her own apartment, and was going to college. She looked so grown-up. A far cry from the sullen child I needed to keep waking up six years ago.

"I have to go to court in a few weeks. My father is going up for a probationary hearing. I'll be testifying against him."

"Good for you darlin'. Good for you."

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Lesson on the Hood

"Let's say you had $1,000, and you needed to double it as quickly as possible. What would you do with the money?"
The question came up in a casual conversartion with a couple of boys who stayed behind to work in the art studio, rather than go to an afternoon dance fundraiser in the gym.

"Hmmm...I would buy an old car and fix it up a little. There's not much difference between an old one thousand dollar car and an old two thousand dollar car." The seventeen year old thought for a moment and added, "I would have to make sure it didn't need expensive parts. The labor is where I would make the money, I work fast."

"If I had a thousand dollars, I would flip it." His classmate jumped on the challenge.

"What do you mean by 'flip it'?" I asked.

"You know, on the street...Buy low sell high."

"What are you buying and selling?"

"Whatever makes money the fastest. You have to sell a lot of weed to make that thousand. Crack is faster."

I raised my eyebrows, and the expression on my face must have asked "Why are you telling this to me?" because he explained, "My brother is in the business, not me...I'm going to graduate."

"In any investment stategy there are going to be risks. What do you see as the risks here?"

The kid from the auto shop answered first. "You might not see all the problems an old car has when you first buy it, and it may cost more money to fix it than you first thought."

The second young man's eyes narrowed, "When you sell rocks, your customers are crackheads. They're crazy...that's a risk. Then there's always the police. Cops and crackheads, they'll both kill you. If you start doing the crack, that will kill you too. There is some nasty dirty stuff out there. Bin Laden will 'F' you up. You have to know names. You get ripped off if you're not street smart."

I had to smile. "Street smart?"

The role revesal brought an immediate authority to his tone. "Street smart means you have survival skills. Someone can be educated in school, but not know how to take care of himself. There are things you can never learn in a classroom, you only learn them in the street. Only if you're out there."

"Like what?"

"Like hoods and territories. How deep the streets are. Names and tags."

My brow, again furrowed, brought forth further explaination.

"Street gangs. You won't survive in the hoods unless you understand how things are organized on the street. Some streets are weak and some are deep. You need to know who is selling and where. If you pay attention and keep your eyes open you will see things. You have to listen, the street has it's own language. There are signs. You can learn." My student-turned-teacher smiled condescendingly.

"Can learning about the street make me a better teacher?"

"Of course, you can't fix something or make it better if you don't know how it works. How can you teach kids if you don't know where they're coming from? It's just common sense."

"So what do your street smarts tell you about making a good investment?"

"Now that I think about it, the car is the better choice. It might take longer, but the risks won't kill you."

There was a long pause, then he asked,
"You have to pay taxes on that car don't you?"

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

M. Scott Peck