Opening new schools: Nerves, intense focus, followed by a group hug

August 17, 2017

Opening new schools: Nerves, intense focus, followed by a group hug

Power of the Plan story and photos by Justin Glanville

Across the city this summer, principals, teachers and administrators have been hustling to open new schools, both district and charter, in time for the 2017-18 school year. They were finalizing curricula, talking to parents and teachers, and overseeing construction crews right up until the doors opened, students arrived and the first bell chimed.

Opening new schools to serve Cleveland’s diverse population of students is a central component of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, the comprehensive plan to reinvent public education in our city. The idea is that a variety of schools, taking different approaches, can better serve the diverse needs of today’s students than the one-size-fits-all approach of the past.

Below, leaders of two new schools — Citizens Leadership Academy East, part of Breakthrough Schools, the largest charter partner working with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and CMSD's Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School share what it takes to launch a school, and what they’re hoping to achieve once classes start.

What are your basic goals?

John Zitzner, co-founder of Breakthrough Schools: This is actually the second location of Citizens Leadership Academy, serving grades 6 through 8. The school uses an “expeditionary learning” approach, which means students get hands-on, guided experiences outside the school building. They do activities built around answering a central question for their school year — for example, ‘What makes an engaged citizen?’

Angee Shaker, Executive Director of Portfolio Engagement, CMSD: Davis is a partnership with a nonprofit organization called PHASTAR, which connects students with careers in the aerospace and maritime industries. For this particular school, we’ve been working with PHASTAR to organize experiences we can give kids so they’ll either be ready for jobs in those fields, or just inspired by the experiences themselves — flying in aircraft, riding in boats, learning to swim.

Why start a new school?

Zitzner: Breakthrough has a growth plan where we start new schools every year in one of our various models. For this location, the idea was to locate the middle school on the same campus of Citizens Academy East, which serves grades K through 5. That way, kids can make a smooth transition from 5th grade to middle school.

Shaker: It’s part of the Cleveland Plan for CMSD to phase out underperforming schools and open new ones that will better engage students. We usually go with smaller models for new schools, so we can offer families more choices in more neighborhoods.

What are the first steps?

Shelly Saltzman, founder and head of school at Citizens Leadership Academy: We’ve been refining our curriculum and approach since the original CLA opened in 2010-11. For this second location, after completing the necessary paperwork, one of our first steps has been to work closely with the K-5 school so that all the logistics will work in terms of co-locating with them in their building. We want the flow of classes and the daily schedule to be smooth.

Shaker: For any new school, CMSD starts with an advisory committee. We try to understand who are our students and families, and we make the new school responsive to their needs. We ask, ‘What will a graduate of this school look like? What will they have learned and what will they be ready for?’ Then we move into curriculum design, hiring staff and recruiting students. In the case of Davis, we’ve been working closely with PHASTAR to establish the maritime and aerospace contacts we’ll need to build the field trips and curriculum.

How do you find the right principal?

Saltzman: Hiring a principal is the key job for any new school. The first principal of CLA East will be Ricardo Franklin (see Meet the Principals), the original CLA’s dean of students. I am so confident in him. He knows the vision of the school and what it will take to start a new location. People ask all the time, ‘Aren’t you nervous to start a new school?’ Of course, I am. But having him as our leader puts my mind at ease. I know he’s going to be a superstar in Cleveland.

Shaker: We recruited Tim Jones (see Meet the Principals), who was assistant principal at a small, innovative public school in New York City. We liked that he had experience working in a similar environment with similar goals. He’s highly driven and creative. He’s been in Cleveland a few weeks and he’s interviewing teachers all day, making contacts and arranging field trips, meeting parents.

What’s one challenge of opening a new school?

Saltzman: We’re located in a building with K-5 students. That’s nice because those students will be able to go right to middle school in the same location, but we also need to make sure we’re meeting the needs of our middle school students. They’re in a very distinct and challenging time in their lives, and facing a lot of changes within themselves. So we need to make sure we have a staff who appreciates them.

Shaker: It’s all the details. Opening a new school is very complex, between hiring and communicating with parents and figuring out what technology we’re going to use. But it’s always amazing how much comes together. When Davis opens in the fall, you will not be able to wipe the smile off anyone’s face — teachers, administrators, parents, students. After all the work we’ve done, we just feel like giving each other and the school a big collective hug.

Meet the Principals

Tim Jones, incoming principal, Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School

Coming from New York, there are a lot of things that feel similar to Cleveland. Both cities are embracing the idea of smaller schools that can become part of their communities and offer diverse experiences. There’s a lot of innovation and untraditional collaboration.

I think about Davis every second I’m awake. It’s difficult to turn it off. But it’s also a total blast, because I’m envisioning all the opportunities for the kids. To get students out in boats and planes as part of their learning experience — that’s something you can’t find anywhere else, to my knowledge. The parents are excited, the kids are excited, CMSD is excited.

Imagine being a kid coming out of high school, and for the past four years not only did you learn to graph parabolas but you were also experiencing first-hand how parabolas apply to objects moving through the air by being up in an airplane. You learned to swim, you went out on a boat, you logged hours in the cockpit of a plane. That’s a pretty amazing high school experience for any kid, one that puts them on a path where they feel inspired and empowered.


Ricardo Franklin, incoming principal, Citizens Leadership Academy East

I grew up on the East Side, going to city schools. To be able to come back and provide a great middle school right in my neighborhood is truly an honor. There’s a lot of work that goes along with it but we have a great team of people, so it’s not like I’m doing anything by myself.

Expeditionary learning is all about hands-on work. So when we look at our classroom setups, we try to make it conducive to  group projects. We call ourselves a tabletop school. We have tables our students sit around so they can share their ideas more easily than if they were sitting at individual desks. We also have outdoor learning, so we make sure our outdoor spaces are conducive to that — with community gardens and natural areas.

We shoot for a family atmosphere among staff. Once the students get here, that becomes infectious. They see what we’re trying to accomplish, and it brings everyone together.