Advancing School Safety, Climate, and Culture in Cleveland

Three young Cleveland students playing with toys and laughing

Research tells us that cultivating a culture where students feel safe, engaged, and ready to learn is an important factor in their success both inside and outside the classroom. Further, schools should take steps to ensure their students’ emotional safety—not just physical safety—understanding that relationships and stress affect learning.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has made notable progress in building this capacity, spurred in part by a tragedy that has become all too common. In 2007, a troubled high school student shot two teachers and two students, then killed himself. The district, the city, and the community reeled.

“We still talk about the shooting today because we don’t ever want another child to feel that desperate again,” says Eric Gordon, district CEO. “We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Why did this happen? How did this happen?’ We spent a lot of time saying, ‘We knew he needed help. Why didn’t we have the help to give him?’ This created an urgency to solve the problem.”

What set Cleveland apart then, and now, is the unified and unwavering commitment of district, municipal, union, and community leaders to do everything in their power to prevent such a tragedy from happening in a school again, says David Osher, a vice president and Institute Fellow at AIR.

"Humanware," Not Hardware

Image of Cleveland district CEO Eric Gordon with students

After the tragedy, the district installed metal detectors in every school and stepped up security. Then-CEO Eugene T.W. Sanders also made a bold and unusual statement: “This is not a hardware problem. This is a humanware problem.”

Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, talks during a September 2018 AIR event about the steps schools should take beyond implementing physical measures to bolster safety. View full event video.

That pronouncement was “catalytic,” Gordon says. The Cleveland team understood that its work was just beginning—and that independent expertise was needed. The Office of the Mayor of Cleveland, which has municipal authority over the district, commissioned AIR to conduct a "humanware" audit of district and community capacity to meet student needs.

Over a six-month period, AIR interviewed more than 100 people; surveyed all students in grades 5-12; conducted site visits, focus groups, and interviews in randomly selected schools; and analyzed data. The audit’s focus went beyond a narrow scope of school safety to solicit broad perspective on the conditions for learning, school climate, and culture. AIR discovered that, despite many assets and strengths in Cleveland, many students struggled from the effects of poverty, violence, trauma, and loss, and had inadequate support.

The findings were sobering, but “not surprising,” says Monyka Price, chief of education in Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration. “We knew there was something amiss in how we served children. We knew our charge was to ensure children don’t fall through the cracks.”

A Strategic, Comprehensive and Sustained Approach

Cleveland students with hijabs writing at a table

AIR recommended 10 robust strategies to implement over multiple years. A few highlights of this work:

  • An evidence-based social and emotional learning program implemented districtwide. With limited financial resources, the district began with a single literacy-based program for elementary students, Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS). Beginning social and emotional learning in the early grades has paid off, as older students are better able to self-regulate, interact with others, and resolve conflicts positively.
  • Teacher and professional training. The Cleveland Teachers Union worked with AIR to train thousands of teachers, paraprofessionals, psychologists, therapists, and nurses. “We could not have embedded social and emotional learning into the culture of our schools without AIR’s support,” says David Quolke, union president. “I will point to the work we’ve done on social and emotional learning as a template we should use for just about every type of reform.”
  • Focus on student support. The organizational focus shifted from unproductive in-school suspensions and excessive out-of-school suspensions to student support. Every school now has a planning center staffed with full-time paraprofessionals, who consult with school psychologists and student support teams to provide appropriate services to students (and families). Students can self-refer themselves to the planning centers, which serve as a safe, de-escalating space where students can talk with caring adults, plan next steps, and continue their schoolwork.
  • Conditions for Learning Survey. Cleveland regularly administers an online, tailored version of AIR’s Conditions for Learning Survey, a psychometrically validated and reliable instrument, to identify how all students in the district—not just those in schools sampled in the audit—experience safety, connectedness, and support; academic challenge; and peer social and emotional competence. The survey helps the district monitor progress and inform programs and policies.
  • Moving to institutionalize social and emotional learning and Conditions for Learning practices by incorporating them into the union contract, code of conduct, policies, and practices. Teachers and other school staff are responsible for social and emotional learning—and they are rewarded for it. They are paid for professional development, and they earn bonuses if their schools meet social and emotional learning targets on the Conditions for Learning Survey. Very deliberately, “we’ve looked for ways to embed social and emotional learning into policies, systems, and structures,” Gordon says, including the creation of a Humanware Department.

Lessons Learned

“We knew that this was a complicated problem and it was going to take a long-term solution. But it’s not long-term—it’s forever. It is reshaping your education community’s culture around social and emotional learning practices and child-informed care and restorative practices—forevermore.” — Eric Gordon, CEO, Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Cleveland teacher with students examining caterpillars

Cleveland has won national attention for cultivating safe and supportive learning environments, according to the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. A few key lessons from Cleveland’s success:

Social and emotional learning can rally a community. “It was not only a school district effort, it was a community effort,” Price says. “There was a large scope of work, with task forces and committees. It’s a living, breathing piece of work.”

Community service providers came forward to help. For example, Positive Education Program, Greater Cleveland’s largest nonprofit agency that specializes in special education and mental health services, saw a need for training and filled it. “It became clear that some of the school guidance counselors, school nurses, and school social workers needed training on conflict management,” says Frank Fescer, CEO (retired) of the agency. The agency created and delivered training modules to some 200 staff members—and provided free slots to special education and mental health staff in its five-day, intensive crisis intervention training program.

The commitment to social and emotional learning has withstood the test of time. In any community, tensions can arise among district, union, and community leaders. Cleveland is no different. But social and emotional learning is the one bedrock that Cleveland leaders agree cannot be shaken loose.

Social and emotional learning is for everyone. Cleveland has developed a sophisticated fluency in social and emotional learning. “It’s important to take the time to understand what social and emotional learning practices are and are not,” Gordon says. “This is not character education. Character education often attributes a certain community’s values onto other communities. Cleveland is a majority-minority district. Is it really OK for middle-class white people to tell minority communities what their character should be? I would argue no.

Image of Cleveland teacher and students working together at a desk“This is not about fixing broken children in communities,” Gordon adds. “This is about all children having great practices for how they self-regulate and how they interact with others and how they problem-solve. And that’s good for every single child in the world. It has nothing to do with poverty. It has nothing to do with race.”

Social and emotional learning is not just for children, either. Union and district leaders are considering more training for adults to refresh knowledge, deepen skills, and reach people new to the district.

Physical safety is necessary, but not sufficient. For school districts across the country, keeping students safe and secure is a top priority. But physical safety is necessary, but not sufficient, for students to truly thrive. Effective solutions integrate social and emotional learning and adequate conditions for learning.

Student voice is invaluable. Both Mayor Jackson and CEO Gordon hold regular forums with vibrant student advisory groups, giving hundreds of student representatives opportunities to contribute, collaborate, and learn. They are frank about what’s working, and what’s not—and they share their safety concerns. They are part of the solution for advancing school safety, climate, and culture.

David Osher
Vice President and Institute Fellow