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Cleveland Schools CEO Tackles Challenges of Remote Education

Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon says the district is evolving its plan to teach remotely during the coronavirus shutdown.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon says the district is evolving its plan to teach remotely during the coronavirus shutdown.

Schools have had to make quick adjustments to try to teach students remotely. But that's not the only challenge they face, especially for large districts with high poverty rates like the Cleveland Metropolitan schools.

District CEO Eric Gordon talks about how the district is trying to keep the learning going, especially when it has limited contact with a quarter of its students.

Eric Gordon: We know that about 25% of our families do not have contact. That gives us some idea of the limits in our homes, right out of the gate.  

Sarah Taylor: When you say do not have contact, you mean you have no way to reach them?

Eric Gordon: Yeah, we don't have a valid cell phone number, email or text number. We reach about 75% of our families right now. And so we're working to actually reach through our entire classroom network and find out who else knows how to reach this child so we can keep building that database out too. It's a concern in a community that often changes numbers very frequently, using the availability of free mobile phones that we are always trying to find out the most valid contact information in a very mobile and often very poor community.

Sarah Taylor: Are you going to try and acquire more tools to reach those who may not have technology?

Eric Gordon: Certainly the more we can do that, the better. We're preparing right now to survey our families using our robo calling system to actually find out who does have high speed reliable internet and who does not so that we have a better analysis. But even if we're able to start doing those things, that does not mean that the student and family is going to be immediately familiar with those tools, that teachers have the depth of knowledge across the system and so even in the best of circumstances you’re going to see us using a wide array of delivery modalities. Again really thinking about how do we meet people where they are, instead of trying to get them to a place we wish they could be in the midst of a public health emergency.

Sarah Taylor: You have nearly 40,000 students. All of them as I understand it qualify for free or reduced meals. So not only are you trying to provide educational material, you’re also trying to feed them the breakfasts and lunches they’re used to getting every day. How is that working?

Eric Gordon: So we have opened 22 schools across the city as feeding stations. We’re serving about 2,700 students per day. So a small number of our students but that's 10 meals a week that we were feeding them that they're still getting. They pick up a sack lunch and a sack breakfast for the next day. It is grab n’ go and we're using safety, you know, social distancing protocols. And at those sites we also have printed extended Spring Break academic enrichment materials for every grade level for students to stay engaged, as well as free paperback books to give them additional books to be reading while they're on break.

Sarah Taylor: 2,700 seems kind of like a fraction of what you normally do. Are you hoping to increase that number?

Eric Gordon: Well, we will remain available for any number that needs us. We do have shuttle services coming from each of our building sites. So we think we're just hitting a group that has a need right now. We think also, the longer this might go on, the larger the numbers may get. We're prepared if they do. And we'll be here if our families need us.

Sarah Taylor: So you mentioned some of the things that you're providing to kids at the feeding sites, where you're able to get them material. How else are you trying to educate students, especially those who may not have access to technology?

Eric Gordon: The first strategy is the printed materials and we're actually planning now that if we would move into a longer closure, they would actually mail those direct to our students homes. So we're preparing to contact students and families to make sure we have valid mail addresses. And then we would actually drop ship them right from the printer, grade appropriate, language appropriate sent straight to home. So kind of imagine the good old days when we got Highlights magazine or Picture Pages, and it came to our home with our name on it. That's step one. We're also thinking about ways where we can have phone lines where you can call and talk to teachers and really think about how might we have that low tech strategy that everybody does have a phone and then adding on those who have video and FaceTime opportunities that who can they see when they're talking to them? How do we add on for those who do have a digital platform and all the resources we put up on our website? And then for the most sophisticated and with the most access? How do we use environments like Teams where they're actually working in a virtual classroom environment. 

Sarah Taylor: You have communicated with your seniors, saying there will be a graduation ceremony, I believe?

Eric Gordon: We will have prom, we will have graduation. Those are rites of passage that many of us remember fondly in our adult years, and that our kids are really concerned they’re going to miss. When will they be? Stay tuned. 

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