Posted on October 15, 2019

This Trail-Blazing Suburb Has Tried for 60 Years to Tackle Race. What If Trying Isn’t Enough?

Laura Meckler, Washington Post, October 11, 2019

It’s an article of faith in this Cleveland suburb: If any place can navigate the complex issues of race in America, it’s Shaker Heights. Sixty years ago, black and white families came together to create and maintain integrated neighborhoods. The school district began voluntary busing in 1970, and boundary lines were drawn to make schools more integrated. Student groups dedicated themselves to black achievement, race relations and cross-racial friendship.

So why, last November, was 16-year-old Olivia McDowell on the stage of Shaker Heights High School, begging the packed auditorium to understand how hard it is to be one of the few black kids in Advanced Placement English?


Sixty-five years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision declared segregated schools inherently unequal and ordered desegregation plans, many school districts remain deeply segregated. Racial issues are raw in many systems.

Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools.

In the 1950s, the first black families arrived, an event that triggered white flight in so many other communities. In Shaker, white families knocked on doors and got to know their new neighbors. Founded as a wealthy and white enclave of privilege, Shaker reinvented itself.

Through it all, the schools built and maintained a reputation of excellence, sending large numbers of students to elite colleges and developing robust Advanced Placement and, later, International Baccalaureate programs. Theater and arts programs are top-notch. Students can take classes in French, Spanish, German, Latin or Greek, plus Mandarin, which is taught to all elementary school students. Last year, the high school sponsored seven international trips for students.

Taxpayers, including some of the wealthiest people in the Cleveland area, approved one tax levy after the next, driven by the slogan “a community is known by the schools it keeps.”


But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were.

“Any time you break our data out by race, we look like two different schools,” said Chris Rateno, director of student data systems for the district, which is home to about 31,000 people and eight schools.

The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.

The racism allegation was quickly dismissed, but on Nov. 8, the date of the community meeting, the district was still investigating Podl, who is white, for bullying. Her fellow teachers were furious. Would they be accused of racism or bullying every time they told a student to do better in class? They arrived to the community meeting in force, wearing red union T-shirts.


And yet this is a district trying to raise the achievement levels of black students. Shouldn’t teachers do everything they can to encourage promising African American kids?


By the mid-1990s, integration was well established in Shaker Heights, but so was an unsettling racial achievement gap the district wasn’t talking about. Then came Project Achieve, a committee of parents, teachers and community members formed to dissect the district.

Harris, who is black and whose daughter was then in the Shaker schools, served on a subcommittee on achievement that broke down data by race. He assumed there would be disparities. He was right.

The report, finalized in March 1997, found that whites made up about half of all students but 93 percent of those in the top 20 percent. Black students made up 82 percent of those who failed at least one portion of a state proficiency exam. Of all grades earned in core high school classes by black students, about 40 percent were a D or an F.

Shaker was portraying itself as high-achieving — and that was true, for some. No one wanted to talk about the lower achievement levels of black students, fearing the community reaction. “There was this hush-hush about it,” said Scott Stephens, the district’s spokesman.

Once the data was public, black students and parents became furious. Some felt they were being painted as academic losers. At a community meeting, the crowd was in something of a frenzy when Harris took the microphone.


The reasons for low achievement are complex. Some black parents detect teacher bias. Almost every black parent seems to have a personal story.

Mark Joseph, an African American professor at Case Western Reserve University, recalled a parent-teacher conference for his son, then in middle school, where a teacher was puzzled when Joseph asked how they were going to get his son to the next level. “Malik’s above average. What are you asking?” she said, according to Joseph.

“I wondered, is she saying this to white parents also?” he said.

Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an African American member of the school board and a 1993 graduate of Shaker Heights High, remembered being told by her ninth-grade honors English teacher that she should drop down a level “because African American students don’t do well in honors and AP.”

Then, she told me who that teacher was. I was stunned to learn it was the same teacher I had, and loved, for AP English. Sheepishly, I called my former teacher, who had left the district years ago, to ask about that conversation with Hardaway nearly 30 years earlier. She said she didn’t remember it.

‘It’s time to take action’

For 24 years, the district was led by Mark Freeman. Freeman, who is white, speaks with pride about his work to integrate school buildings. Over that span, Shaker tried to tackle the racial gaps.

The Student Group on Race Relations formed in the 1980s to foster black-white relationships. The Minority Achievement Committee crowned MAC scholars, high-achieving black boys to serve as role models. Black students were encouraged to join study circles. Outside experts were imported to study Shaker schools.

{snip} Asked if there was a solution to the achievement gap, he set a high bar: “Eradicate racism and eliminate poverty.”

He was well aware that advanced classes were dominated by white students, while regular college prep, or CP, courses were dominated by black students. The disparity was so obvious that some African Americans joked that CP stood for “colored people.”


The community signaled a desire for the next superintendent to focus on equity. They got it with Greg Hutchings, a black educator with a shaved head and a taste for bow ties. Hutchings spoke in a clip and didn’t mince words.

“In Shaker, we’ve been talking about diversity, we’ve been talking about equity for a very long time,” he said in his 2017 State of the Schools speech, announcing the start of an Equity Task Force. “It’s time to take action.”

The new superintendent found problems all over the place. Parent-teacher organizations were run “like sororities,” catering to white stay-at-home moms, with meetings in the middle of the afternoon. Parent-teacher conferences were scheduled during work hours, impossible for some parents to attend. Some of the best teachers taught only AP classes.

His Equity Task Force would ultimately recommend a policy called “targeted universalism.” It is meant to convey that Shaker will set high standards for all but resources will be targeted to make sure everyone can meet those standards. The board adopted the policy this spring, and the district followed up with small-group explorations of race and equity.

Shaker also began looking at informal systems that landed white children in advanced courses more often than black students. Placement was determined by test scores and teacher recommendations, but parents who knew to ask could get their kids into those classes. So Shaker made an open enrollment policy explicit.

To mitigate classroom segregation, Shaker sometimes combined kids of different abilities in the same classes. The district stopped letting parents request teachers and guidance counselors for their kids. And it encouraged teachers to consider whether their own biases were affecting how they worked with students.


“It was clear to the staff that he was blaming us for the gaps,” said Sarah Davis, a white social studies teacher at the high school who started a summer program called Bridges to help black kids prepare to take AP classes. She said what Hutchings billed as a listening tour with staff felt more like a “lecture tour.”


“We were at times blaming children. And that was my concern,” he said. “We can’t blame achievement gap issues on children we are hired to educate.”

Equity and excellence


An ad hoc group of affluent parents had a growing list of concerns. Among them: Higher-achieving students would lose out if resources were shifted to lower-achieving kids. Honors and AP classes wouldn’t be as challenging if the district pushed in students who weren’t prepared. The schools might not be orderly if the district eased up on discipline.

Parental nervousness got the attention of Earl Leiken, who then was mayor of Shaker Heights. Leiken worried that if there was too much emphasis on children who needed the most help, wealthy families would leave for other suburbs.

He walked around with a pie chart showing that in 2015, 28 percent of the income tax dollars collected in Shaker were produced by families earning more than $500,000 per year and nearly half came from those earning more than $300,000. The suggestion was obvious: If those families leave the district, the economics of the place collapse.

In interviews, every one of these parents said they value diversity and wouldn’t live in Shaker if they didn’t. Some feared their views would sound racist in print and wanted people to know they weren’t.


“Equity means you’re picking and choosing who the heck you are focusing on,” said Jim Sammon, a white father of two. “If you’re paying a lot of money [in taxes] and you think your kid’s not getting the benefit of it, why are you staying?”

Some feared the changes at the school were lowering property values. Adam Kaufman, a real estate agent who sells many expensive Shaker homes, said that’s not true. But he said Hutchings made his job harder.

“Shaker has always had the reputation as an affluent suburb. If you’re affluent, you live in Shaker Heights. The superintendent didn’t like that connotation. His motto was that we need to be known as being equal instead of affluent.”

A small group of fathers arranged a meeting with Hutchings to express their concerns that wealthy families would leave Shaker, and asking him to promote statistics showcasing high achievers. They came away frustrated that he didn’t seem to care.

They decided that the better course was to try to elect like-minded people to the school board, and in 2017 they successfully backed two white women.

In December 2017, Hutchings announced that he was leaving at the end of the school year. {snip}


“Most of my time is spent dealing with the ignorance that comes from adults,” he said.


Bridging the gap

In 2016, the high school began a program called Bridges, which enrolled promising black students in a summer program to prepare them to take AP American history that fall. The program teaches study skills and creates a cohort of students to support one another.


Nationally, researchers say lower achievement levels by black students can be traced to economics. Black students are more likely to live in lower-income families, with parents having less money for educational extras, more life stress and fewer hours to help with homework. Parents may have had negative experiences with school, and feel less comfortable talking with teachers.

The gaps are also social. Parent-teacher associations can serve as informal networks where parents learn what’s going on and who the most popular teachers are. They tried to diversify their leadership, but one afternoon this March, four white moms met in the middle of the afternoon to plan next year’s roster for the PTO at Onaway Elementary School.

The next evening, the PTO hosted a program with the head of the high school’s elite IB diploma program, and four students — two black, two white — explained the program. Parents were invited to consider questions such as, “To what extent does perspective shape truth?”

It was a cool presentation, one that would excite parents for the opportunities ahead, but out of more than two dozen Onaway parents in attendance, not one was African American.

A time for incremental change

Sitting on the stage Nov. 8 with a deer-in-the-headlights expression was David Glasner, who would soon be chosen as superintendent. {snip}


On equity, Glasner is hoping to win buy-in by moving more slowly than Hutchings did.


One of the toughest issues he’ll face is the tracking system — what one administrator called the “giant sorting machine” — that begins separating students by ability as young as second grade, with clear racial patterns from the start. Glasner said last spring he was looking to overhaul the approach for the youngest children, though in September he said it was a subject that needs additional community discussion.

In September, Glasner named “black student excellence” as one of two priority areas for this school year, aiming to increase test scores and AP course participation.


‘The faith was real clear’

{snip} I was in AP classes, and sometimes I struggled, too. Kids in my class were crazy smart, and it seemed to come so easy for them. But I never considered that my classmates might think I didn’t belong there. It never crossed my mind that I didn’t belong. Of course I was in AP English. Where else would I be? I realize now that was a form of white privilege in action — being in AP and knowing that no one questioned it.