Empowering Families: Cleveland’s Path to Inclusive and Accessible School Choice

November 28, 2023

Currently, a robust debate is taking place across the country about expanding education options for families and students. As we look to expand public school choice, it is of paramount importance that we ensure that these choices are accessible to all families and that families have clear and understandable information about each school’s performance and key characteristics. Too often, information on schools is obscured by complex data presentations that most parents cannot decipher, and choosing a school outside of the one that is nearest to one’s home means navigating disparate deadlines and other logistical challenges, inhibiting working families from truly accessing school choice. 

This is where groups like the one we lead, the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, can provide a vital service.  

The Cleveland Transformation Alliance is a non-profit organization based in Cleveland, Ohio. Also known as CTA or the Alliance, the organization was created out of legislation approved by the Ohio General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor in July 2012. The legislation was known as The Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, or just the Cleveland Plan

The Cleveland Plan was developed as a community solution to address shrinking enrollment in Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools, a low graduation rate of 52%, and the District’s inability to pass a school levy in the previous sixteen years. If action hadn’t been taken, the District would have faced state intervention and oversight.

In order to keep Cleveland under local control, a large, diverse group of stakeholders across the city came together and presented four priorities to the state: 

  1. Grow the number of high-performing District and charter schools in Cleveland, and close and replace failing schools;
  2. Focus the District’s central office on crucial support and governance roles, and transfer authority and resources to schools;
  3. Invest and phase in high-leverage system reforms across all schools from preschool to college and career; and,
  4. Create the Cleveland Transformation Alliance to ensure accountability for all public schools in the city

During its eleven years of operation, the Cleveland Transformation Alliance has worked to develop a process for reviewing and ranking Cleveland’s schools based on data provided through the Ohio School Report Card. To improve upon report card data and make it more accessible, CTA asked parents and caregivers what they would want to see added as they participated in the school choice selection process. Based on the feedback of parents and caregivers, we provided more information about the culture and environment of individual schools–creating a more well-rounded view of a school. Parents agree that academics are the key priority, but it is often the “extra” offerings from schools that help connect children to their education: sports, clubs, enrichment programs that speak to individual interests, and more. 

Additionally,  the Cleveland Transformation Alliance works to empower families with the information they need to find and choose the best-fit school for their child(ren). CTA provides this information and support through multiple channels:

  • Ambassador Program: Ambassadors are dedicated advocates for equitable educational opportunities, supporting families in choosing the best-fit school for their students. Ambassadors work at organizations outside of CTA, but often support families through issues that create barriers to education. By providing training to the employees at other organizations about CTA’s resources, we create collaborations that foster connections with essential stakeholders, aiding families in navigating a complicated support network without feeling overwhelmed or unnoticed. This partnership is instrumental in connecting Cleveland families directly to the resources they need to make informed public school choice decisions. 
  • Networking Forums: One of the highlights of the ambassador program is the Networking Forums. These events provide a platform for partner organizations to share information about their services and resources, fostering collaboration and partnerships within the greater Cleveland area. These forums raise awareness of resources that can benefit Cleveland families, residents, and other organizations. Ambassadors participate in these events, allowing them to network with their peers, exchange valuable information, and contribute to enhancing educational opportunities in Cleveland.
  • Navigator Program: CTA’s commitment to supporting families extends to community-based, specially trained Family Navigators who are CTA employees.  They create partnerships among families, schools, and the community to increase student success. Navigators provide direct and in-depth support to families, ensuring that parents are well-informed about their school options. Navigators play a vital role in assisting families in navigating Cleveland’s public educational landscape. CTA’s Navigator program empowers families to advocate for their students effectively and commit to their best-fit public school by connecting parents and caregivers with the resources and guidance they need, such as CTA’s Annual School Quality Guide, School Finder Tool, and Family Resource Corner
  • Cleveland Family Cafes: Additionally, CTA collaborates with its ambassador organizations to host Cleveland Family Cafes in different neighborhoods, which serve as informative events where Cleveland families can engage in meaningful conversations about their public education experiences, challenges, wins, best practices, and more among other families. These cafes offer various topics centered around public education, bringing together families, community members, partners, leaders, educators, and all those interested in shaping the educational journey of Cleveland students. This peer-led conversation aims to empower families with the knowledge needed to make confident, informed decisions about their student’s education, ensuring their educational journey is filled with opportunities and success.

Most importantly, the success of these programs is built on a foundation of trust and relationship building, ensuring that the needs of families and students are met, and these programs are continually improved upon, to enhance educational outcomes.

The Cleveland Transformation Alliance’s commitment to the Cleveland community extends beyond data-driven efforts; it includes partnerships, guidance through Navigators, and impactful conversations at Family Cafes to empower families to make informed school choice decisions that go beyond a focus on academic outcomes, but support for the whole child.  These efforts are all aimed at ensuring equitable and quality education for all Cleveland students.

Information is power, and the combination of programs we’ve implemented have empowered families to make informed decisions about their children’s schooling. Connecting a child with the learning environment they need to succeed should not be a privilege reserved for families with the wealth and time to navigate convoluted data centers and school applications. True choice is an accessible choice. As policymakers and elected officials continue to push for school choice across the country, we hope they push equally hard to make that choice accessible for all, especially for those farthest from power. 

For more information, visit the Cleveland Transformation Alliance website here, as well as enabling legislation which led to the Cleveland Transformation Alliance’s creation.