Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Silent Culture of Cleveland Drop-outs.

Fellow NEO blogger, Jeff Hess, at Have Coffee Will Write responded to my last post concerning the lack of Cleveland parents at Monday night's CEO search meeting, surmising:

"...Maybe they are just tired of trying to walk around in size 8 shoes with size 9 feet."

Jeff, I have to disagree.

My gut reaction is that exhaustion due to poverty is not the reason many city residents don't attend school events.

The apparent apathy of many Clevelanders who live in the city toward civic issues and the schools, has been on my mind for quite some time.

It bothered me when I first began teaching in Cleveland back in 1988, and very few parents would show up for school open houses or parent/teacher conferences. The abysmal turnout of Cleveland voters at the polls and the mere smattering of parents, and the people living in the city neighborhoods, who attended school district functions and civic forums, prompted me to begin asking questions and drawing some of my own conclusions.

The common responses I receive from folks (students, parents, and former students) when I ask why they didn't participate in an event or vote in an election are:

"I wouldn't make a difference"

"I don't know anything about that stuff."

"Nobody really wants to listen to me."

"Let the people who understand those things make the decisions."

"I never heard about it."

"Why bother? The Big Shots already made their minds up."

" I don't get it. What do all those issues mean?"

"I don't watch the news. It's boring."

"Where do you find out about these things? You must read a lot."

These conversations lead me to believe this inner-city demographic of Clevelanders, who have been labeled apathetic because they do not participate in the civic process, are not absent because don't care or because they are working too hard. They aren't getting involved for a completely different reason.

Many Clevelanders are not comfortable in the civic realm due to a lack of education.

The district has been hemorrhaging drop-outs since the busing mandate was enacted in the '70s. In the mid 1990's only 25% of Cleveland students graduated from high school. At the last census, fifty thousand Cleveland families were headed by parents without high school diplomas. What has evolved over the past thirty years in Cleveland is a generation of Clevelanders who have disengaged from education. The children of these people are the students I teach. I have talked on the phone to parents who are very uncomfortable inside a school, and try to avoid coming in, if at all possible. There are even those who have never again stepped into school since they flunked out, dropped out, got kicked out, or became involved with the criminal justice system. Some parent's status as ex-offenders makes them feel insecure and unwelcome, even though nobody at the school may even be aware of their history.

A culture has silently developed in Cleveland, of citizens who somehow became disconnected from both the educational and the civic process.

Many people don't know they even have a voice, others are afraid to use it for fear of sounding stupid, and still others assume the lack of education makes their opinions irrelevant. The power to make decisions is the sole realm of the wealthy and the educated...Why bother?

How do we begin to engage this lost generation of Clevelanders? Can we?

Or do we simply write them off, and hope their children will be different?

When more than 50% of Cleveland's 70,000 students are currently still dropping out of school, the future of the city does not look too bright.


Roldo Bartimole said...

Mary Beth: I believe Poverty plays a very substantial role in the problems you are citing. Poverty with all its attendant ills.

There is a substantial difference between the Poverty of today with its accompanying hopelessness to, say, the Poverty of the 1960s when civil rights inspired hope and led to some achievements and more participation, that inspired so many to join together, for example, to elect Carl Stokes.

This is a short answer to something that can't be summed up in a few words.

Someone has to light a fire as was done when civil rights and organizing inspired peope to demand a say.

marybeth said...

Roldo, you are absolutely right, of course.
The poverty of this generation has the added facets of despair and hopelessness. The poor have no common cause to rally around. There is no inspirational leader. There is nothing to lure people away from the comforting fantasy of television.

One more interesting difference I notice between the Cleveland of the civil rights era and the city today, is the quality of the schools. The Cleveland Public Schools were a national model of excellence in the 1950's and 60's. However, some were better than others, and the inequalities led to forced busing in the 70's. Even so, the majority of Clevelanders were recieving excellent educations. Today, Cleveland's schools are consistantly ranked at the bottom of the list for academic acheivement, and the majority of Cleveland students drop out of school.

I have been preaching relentlessly about the impact of the public schools on poverty. Education is essential to economic development.

Indeed, knowledge is power.

steveg said...

You hit it right on the head. The generation to generation transference of values that don't value or don't trust or aren't comfortable in institutions are not only a cultural driver, it spreads geometrically, not linearly. Over only a few generations of 3.2 kids, we are realizing the phenomenae that even a small dissatisfaction left unchecked, can over take the entire system. This is why the analogy of cancer is so appropriate.

The difficulty is that we can't just do surgery here. We have to rebuilt the entire system.

Daniella said...


I might have been unfairly judgemental by using the word "apathy" to describe the poor turn out. It is a bias that I acquired through personal experience since I come from a background where my family solution to conflicts and public challenge was denial, submission and quiet desperation.

But what I saw last week while conducting a quality audit in a plant re-inforced my opinion that schools are ineffective in training today's poor kids in communicating effectively in the real world of jobs.

My role was to ask simple questions like; What are you doing here? Can you explain to me what you are doing? Did you get any training? Do you have any instructions to follow? How do you know when a part is not "good?"
What do you do when that part is not good?

I was a member of an internal audit team. We could clearly see that this employee did a very good job. His number on pourcentage of scrap and rejects were low. His attendance was excellent and his attitude was open and honest, he displayed a good attitude. But he could not speak and express himself. He was not a first generation immigrant but the product of a an American school. who is to blame the school or parents or the individual?

marybeth said...


The system is being rebuilt. There is an educational revolution taking place, but it started on the outside. The public charter schools are creating a commotion in the edusphere. Some are traditional, some are highly innovative. There are virtual schools, hybrid home schools, military boot camps, sports schools, arts schools, even an entrprenurship school, and an intergenerational school. There are charter schools that are very successful and others that are falling flat. Charters that are union sponsored, university sponsored, and even sponsored by school districts. While public school districts initially complained about charter schools taking tax dollars from district coffers, some of the smarter districts began sponsoring there own charter schools and keeping control of the money. Keep your eyes and ears open. The future of education is here.

marybeth said...


Pointing the finger of blame at other teachers, parents, and the laziness of an individual student is the way some of us in education avoid taking responsibility for lower acheivement levels and lack of progress.

I would like to point out a possibility you may not have considered in your conversation with this young man.
It is possible he had a disability that was a factor in his inability to communicate the information you sought, and he may have worked very hard to reach the level of employment he was at when you met him.

The number of students in the Cleveland School District who have been officialy diagnosed as Special Needs is close to 40%...almost 28,000 kids in a city of 450,000. When they grow up, they do not necessarily outgrow their disabilities. As young adults, they seek employment and find jobs where they are not hampered by their problem.
When you are dealing an impoverished population, you often are working with people who are damaged. In that case, do we point a finger of blame, or do we applaud the efforts of parents and schools who helped this young man find gainful employment.

Daniella said...


I did consider the possibility that this young man may have been victim of a disability. But I think it might be a bit too easy to dismiss his lack of communication skills by assuming that he is suffering from a learning disability.

40% of children with special needs?
This seems a lot more than statiscaly probable.

"The number of students in the Cleveland School District who have been officialy diagnosed as Special Needs is close to 40%...almost 28,000 kids in a city of 450,000. That in itself raises a big red flag in my mind.

I am not pointing a finger of blame to his parents or the schools. I am only asking why so many poor kids are left behind?

marybeth said...

I know that number (between 35-40% depending on the enrollment figures) sounds unbelievable to people who don't work in the world of the wounded poor. But my reality is this:
Of the 156 students currently on my class roster, 79 of them have IEP's, meaning they are diagnosed as special needs students with learning, developmental, emotional, behavioral, or multiple handicaps. Half of the teaching and paraprofessional staff members at my school are certified as special education.

Here are the reasons why the numbers are so high:
Cleveland (and East Cleveland) ranks as one of the top cities in the nation for numbers of children with lead poisoning. Lead poisoning results in significant impairment of cognitive ability, and mental retardation. This is a very serious problem. Lead abatement was one of the programs Mayor Campbell stongly supported, and I hope Frank Jackson will follow her lead . There is also a rather high percentage of adults in the city of Cleveland who have drug and alchohol addictions. The children of these folks very often suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome and neurological damage from fetal exposure to drugs such as crack cocaine. There are also some pretty high numbers of adults living in the city who suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia which are hereditary. Fifteen students on my roster that I know of, suffer from a serious mental illness.

Catholic, private, and charter schools are gleaning many of Cleveland's best students from the public school rosters. These schools usually don't have special education classes, so the special needs kids remain in the city schools. This brings the percentages way up. It also increases the education cost per student, since the laws mandate lower student teacher ratio's and require instructional aids in the classroom.

I hope this provides a bit of insight into the issues facing educators in the Cleveland public schools. The numbers seem unfathomable, I know, but they are NOT an exaggeratiuon.

Jill said...

What an important topic. I agree that the culture of poverty ties into it.

And, although this next thought might raise an ugly scepter, although I'm firm in the belief that it doesn't excuse anything: but what role, if any, do we assign to the possibility that well-intentioned assistance has morphed into entitlement and that whatever sense of entitlement has developed among individuals living in poverty is also passed on as...not a value but rather an expected element in existence, much the way "my voice doesn't matter" becomes an expected element in existence?

The SCOTUS decision that puts the onus on parents rather than schools to demonstrate that a child's IEP is inadequate - isn't that a bit of a statement saying that parents must stop expecting that the school will automatically take on the burden? (I oppose this court's decision and blogged about it.)

I can tell you that although the numbers aren't as dismal as within the city of Cleveland's schools, it's not as though parent participation anywhere is what I have always thought it should be.

I can't write much about this, but I've heard students and administrators brainstorm for ways to get parents to open houses and conferences and money and other barter/reward items have been involved as incentives.

I guess I remain naive, sheltered but nevertheless adamant that it shouldn't be this way, no matter where you live or who you are.

marybeth said...


I have worked at schools where the staff put on free spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts and ice cream socials to lure parents into the building.
Yes, I agree there is something wrong with this picture.
How to solve the problem? I think we need to understand why parents don't get involved. I would love to see a study based on a questionaire, or interviews with parents who choose not to get involved, those who used to participate, but no longer do much with their child's school, those who never participated but eventually got involved, and those who have always been active. I wonder what the motivating factors are, the impediments, the backgrounds, and the family history of school/civic involvement.
If we understand the motivation for action, as well as what makes people choose not to participate, we might be able to begin dealing with the problem.

Daniella said...


This is a huge problem. The time needed to assist those poor kids must make it very difficult to teach the ones that have no learning disabilities but may still have emotional issues as many poor children do because of their economic situation. I am wondering if it is not making teaching a classic Catch-22 situation; those that want to learn must wait for those who have delays to catch up. The teacher is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Is there anything that can be done? I appreciate your detailed explanation it drew a window into a world that is foreign to me.

marybeth said...


Thank you, this is why I blog.

There is definitely a Catch-22 in the mainstreaming concept, espeacially when the numbers of students with disabilities is very large. We do spend a lot of time playing catch-up, and yes, the bright kids suffer.
Mainstreaming and inclusion work in a school setting that has a small percentage of special needs students. The regular kids will push the slower students to excell. But when the numbers of students with learning problems in a classroom is too large, bright students who need to be challenged are neglected.

While public schools stopped tracking sudents years ago, society still does. The best and the brightest go to the private schools if they can afford it, and now the public charter schools are picking up the rest of the bright kids whose family incomes can't afford the tuition.

Mick said...

Great blog. I just found it and will definitely bookmark you. Be that as it may I do take issue with one of the above comments.

"I know that number (between 35-40% depending on the enrollment figures) sounds unbelievable to people who don't work in the world of the wounded poor."

This figure refers to the alleged percentage of students with special needs. I also find this to be statistically a virtual impossibility and dont buy the spurious argument of lead paint as being the cause. Really, 40% of children eat lead paint? Because lead poisoning from paint requires actually consuming it. It doesnt just radiate out from the walls.

I think a more probable reason for the high numbers of IEP students is that welfare mothers get more government money for a child if he/she is labeled Special Needs.

marybeth said...


Perhaps you misunderstood.
Of course lead poisoning doesn't account for all learning and cognitive handicaps. But I really don't think there is a big onslaught of welfare mothers demanding that their children be labeled as special needs. There is an involved testing and observation process for that diagnosis, usually initiated by a childs teachers. In fact many parents resist the testing because they fear the labels.