Power of the Plan: Cross-pollination at Stepstone

February 9, 2016

Power of the Plan: Cross-pollination at Stepstone

In two stories this month, we talk to principals who’ve moved between district and charter schools in Cleveland. Their journeys show how ideas from the two different types of schools can foster “cross-pollination” of practices.

Stepstone principal makes sure everyone knows she’s watching -- in a good way

by Justin Glanville      Photos by Julia Van Wagenen

Principal Toni Miller is in her office at Stepstone Academy in Cleveland, completing a quarterly ritual.

Two stacks of student report cards sit on a table before her. She uncaps a red pen and gets to work.

“These are my last batches,” she says with a weary smile, her eyes red around the rims.

Miller reviews and writes comments on every student report card at Stepstone – no small task, considering there are 300 students here. And these are not the simple, half-page cards of yesteryear. They’re four-page sagas, with grades across a wide range of academic and behavioral measures.

She comes to the card of a girl who’s shown some academic improvement but struggles with tardiness and poor concentration.

“Continue to work hard and try your best,” Miller writes, in looping cursive. “But please come to school every day on time.” Then she signs her name.

“I want the kids to know I’m looking,” she says. “The teachers, too. And not in a disciplinarian way, but an encouraging way. It lets everyone know I value what they’re doing.”

The practice is just one of several Miller brought to Stepstone four years ago, when the school opened here. It was her first time leading a charter school after 24 years as a principal in district schools in the city and inner-ring suburbs.

That crisscross of ideas is happening more and more these days in Cleveland. The number of charter schools in the city has grown to more than 60 since 1999, and one in four Cleveland students now attend a charter school.

The “cross-pollination” effect is to be encouraged, says Gerard Leslie, president of the Council of Administrators and Supervisors for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. It was one of the outcomes educators and policy makers hoped for when they were framing Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, a comprehensive plan for providing quality schools for all kids in Cleveland.

“Principals who come from charter to district schools have a more entrepreneurial mindset,” Leslie says. “They have more latitude to make decisions on how time is used, their budgets and day-to-day operations than public schools have.”

The exchange is two-way, though.

“Principals from district schools have access to a lot more resources and professional development,” he says, “so their eyes are open to how many more of those things are available.”

Using what works

Commenting on student report cards is a practice Miller developed herself. But it was based on what she learned working in the city’s district schools: Simple words of encouragement can go a long way toward countering the tough external conditions students face.

More than seven in 10 Stepstone students walk to school from the housing estates nearby. They absorb some of the pressures their families face, including low or unpredictable income, mental illness and limited social networks.

Those tough conditions are part of why Miller has imported other, more official district policies to Stepstone. The school has a Think Room, for example, based on CMSD’s Planning Center model. There, kids who are acting out in class spend time with an adult monitor.

Miller says the charter system can offer more flexibility. Because many charter schools operate more independently, she notes, it can be easiser to change policies and curricula.

“We’re doing fairly well academically, but if we need to refine our practices we can do it in a day,” she says. “That’s amazing to me. In the district, it might take six months.”

That fits her personality, which has a strong streak of individuality dating back to her own grade school years.

As she strides through the hallways of Stepstone sporting leopard-print pants and brightly painted fingernails, she recalls being a left-handed kid trying to survive in a right-handed world. For years, she tried to obey teachers pressuring her to write with her right hand, but the result was chicken scratch.

“I finally realized there’s nothing wrong with being left-handed,” she says. “As an educator, I’ve always remembered that: Not one size fits all.”

Still, there are some things she misses about working in the district. Number one is access to greater financial and human resources. Hiring and retaining quality teachers is more difficult in a charter than a district school, for example, because district schools offer higher salaries and more job security.

The district also offers staff training programs that charter schools don’t always have the resources to organize.

“I’m here all the time, pretty much by myself,” Miller says. “I definitely don’t need another meeting for meeting’s sake, but I do miss the chance to compare notes with colleagues.”

She says she’d like to see the charters and district partnering on trainings for all staff.

“The relationship should really be reciprocal, because​ charters and district schools both have different strengths," she says. "We should all be learning about each other’s ideas and trying them out to see what works best for our kids."”

"Charters and district schools both have different strengths. 

We should all be learning about each other’s ideas and trying

them out to see what works best for our kids."

                                                        Toni Miller, Stepstone Academy Principal