Assistant Principal Christa Jemison and her son Max at Mary McLeod Bethune
Assistant principal watches after ‘her own’ – and 300 others – at Bethune PreK-8
Story by Justin Glanville Photos by Julie Van Wagenen
Christa Jemison’s husband was staring at her, stunned.
She’d just told him where she wanted to enroll their son for preschool: at the district school in Cleveland where she worked as assistant principal.
“I don’t know about that, Christa,” he said.
Sitting in their comfortable house in suburban Shaker Heights, the idea seemed unexpected, at best. Send their beloved son, Max, to a city school that had struggled with poor academic performance and safety problems? When the much-touted Shaker schools were right at their doorstep?
“His reaction was pretty much everyone’s reaction,” Jemison says. “My whole family was like, ‘what are you doing?’”
But for Jemison, having Max attend her school – Mary McLeod Bethune PreK-8 in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood – was a way of making a statement.
“It says two profound things,” she says. “To parents, it says ‘I’m accountable for your kids getting a top-notch education because I want that for my own.’ And to teachers, it says ‘I trust you to educate my son.’”
That was critical, Jemison says, because “trust” hasn’t always come to mind when looking at Bethune’s past academic record.
In 2011, the year Jemison arrived, the school had just received a five-year State Improvement Grant because of students’ poor academic performance. Half the teaching staff were asked to leave. Employees of the Ohio Department of Education visited regularly to monitor the school’s budget and teacher evaluations.
Those years were difficult – sometimes traumatic, Jemison says. But she emerged with a newfound faith in the school’s ability to provide a quality education.
“We were setting expectations and everyone started meeting them,” she says. “It came down to, if I’m not willing to send my own kid to my school, I’m not doing my job.”
Even a rare safety crisis last year didn’t shake her conviction that she’d made the right decision for Max.
A domestic dispute erupted at a house behind the school, and police believed a man at the scene was armed. Bethune administrators issued a code blue, which meant students were kept inside classrooms until parents picked them up.
Although no one was harmed, family and friends again questioned Jemison’s judgment.
“The thing was, never once did I feel that I or Max were not 100 percent safe,” she says. “That was because I knew the decisions the principal and I were making were good ones.”
Today, Bethune is beginning to show the signs of improvement Jemison had predicted it would. For the 2014-15 school year, it rose to “low-performing” from “failing” in the Cleveland Transformation Alliance’s school quality ratings.
And in just-released survey data, some 82 percent of students in grades 2 through 5 reported feeling safe at school, up from 47 percent in Fall 2014.
A new principal, Melanie Nakonachny, arrived in 2015-16 and is implementing new academic approaches. That includes taking greater advantage of the school’s location, within walking distance of the University Circle cultural institutions.
“A lot of people don’t know we exist tucked back here,” Nakonachny says, “and that’s something we’re trying to break away from” – with field trips to museums and an emerging tutoring partnership with Case Western Reserve University.
No down time, and an untucked shirt
On a recent morning, Jemison is patrolling the school’s hallways, CB radio on her belt. She spots Max in his classroom and waves for him to come out.
He’s in kindergarten now, with a mop of dark hair and wearing a blue polo shirt. He stands up from his table and asks his teacher for permission to go into the hallway.
“You see that?” Jemison says, beaming. “That’s what I want – for him to feel like all the other kids, for them to see he doesn’t get special treatment.”
Max comes out into the hallway to say hello. As he wheels around to return to class, Jemison tells him to tuck in his shirt. He obeys – but leaves one corner flapping.
“No, all 360 degrees,” Jemison says.
He spins around in a complete circle. Jemison laughs.
“I mean the shirt 360 degrees,” she says.
Tucked-in shirts are a pet peeve, she says, and correcting him illustrates one of the minor drawbacks of having Max at school with her all day: She gets less “time off” from parenting than she did before Max arrived. It’s also harder for him to see friends outside of school since they’re not his neighbors.
But overall, she couldn’t be happier with her decision. Her husband has turned into an even bigger cheerleader than she is.
The other night, they had a couple of friends over for dinner. As they ate, Max was signing his name on Valentine’s Day cards for classmates.
“Our friend said, ‘I can’t believe he’s writing his name on every single card!’”
The comment inspired Jemison’s husband to brag about the quality of Bethune’s teachers and Max’s progress.
“I sat back and listened to him,” she laughs. “I didn’t have to say a word.”