FEATURED PHOTO: EAST CLEVELAND CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENT HENRY PETTIEGREW II
IdeastreamPublicMedia.org, By Connor Morris, Posted October 4th 2023
East Cleveland City School District Superintendent Henry Pettiegrew II walks the halls of W.H. Kirk Middle School, passing beneath banners reading “excellence” and “dedicated.”
He shows off new furniture and the natural lighting in the school’s recently updated media center and a room filled with red and black gaming chairs and computers for the district’s esports program. There’s a room furnished by the Cleveland Browns with video game cabinets and TVs meant to reward students.
“The students come in and they are blown away with the facilities in a place like East Cleveland, where we walk past abandoned buildings,” he said. “There are things that go on that we aren’t proud of (in East Cleveland). We wanted to make sure students had a place (where) every corner of these buildings that they come into, whether you’re in a preschool or you’re a senior, they’re all high quality.”
East Cleveland Superintendent Henry Pettiegrew II stands in the resource room at W.H. Kirk Middle School, which was recently outfitted with new furniture.
W.H. Kirk Middle School — with all of its amenities — is in a district that’s considered academically challenged, with some of the lowest scores in the state on Ohio’s annual report card, in a majority-Black Rust Belt city where 39% live in poverty.
“This is a city that’s currently shrinking. Between the last two census polls, we lost about 4,000 or so residents,” Pettiegrew noted. “There’s no functional grocery store at this point, no bank, no amenities that you would have in a suburban community.”
East Cleveland City School District was placed under state control five years ago due to students’ low test scores; it’s since regained local control of its school board, but still is under the auspices of an academic distress commission (which up until recently wielded power over the hiring of the district’s leader and more).
However, Pettiegrew believes improvements made over the last five years — even beyond new facilities, including a newly renovated stadium funded by the likes of the Cleveland Browns — have set the school district for success. In fact, through its academic improvement plan approved by the state two years ago, it’s well-poised to rid itself of the distress commission, he said.
Under that plan, East Cleveland schools have already achieved nine out of 20 goals for improvement, including goals in early literacy, the number of high school students passing Algebra II, and the number of students completing cocurricular activities (similar to extracurricular activities). The district just needs to meet 11 of those goals by the end of next school year to end the additional state oversight.
Lillian Tolbert, president of the East Cleveland Education Association, and Vice President Irene Spraggins have advocated for the district to be removed from state oversight for years.
“I often say, it’s the difference between being asked to sit at a table and actually have a voice at a table,” Tolbert said.
While Tolbert and Spraggins said they feel like the superintendent’s goals are aligned with the teachers union’s, it wasn’t always that way.
The state appointed Pettiegrew as CEO of the district in 2019. There was a lot of confusion and mistrust, with the CEO having the power of the board of education and the superintendent, Spraggins said.
“They (the state) kept saying, ‘No, he can do this. He can’t do this,’” she said.
Former State Senator Kenny Yuko, who represented East Cleveland and much of Cleveland’s suburbs, was a vocal opponent of the state legislature’s school takeover legislation approved in 2015.
“When you have children earning drone certifications and esport competitions, we’ve now opened up, in our career tech, we’ve added new programming like exercise science and manufacturing… We are coming back. We are fighting back. We will show and demonstrate success.”
“We had a school superintendent that felt like he was punched in the face. The voters, the parents, they feel like they were punched in the face by the state of Ohio because they didn’t vote for Dr. Pettigrew,” he said. “They voted for school board members to appoint a superintendent because they know them, they trust them and they believe in them. They didn’t know Dr. Pettigrew from a bag of beans.”
But Yuko said he was immediately impressed by Pettiegrew’s performance, recalling him knowing students by name when Yuko visited schools very early on in Pettiegrew’s tenure as CEO. Pettiegrew was later hired on as superintendent by the school board when the state returned control to that board in 2021.
Vernon Robinson, a school board member since 2017, has nothing but good things to say about Pettiegrew’s leadership. He believes the school district is poised to lead a revitalization of the city itself, he said.
“There’s a lot of things this gentleman is doing to bring East Cleveland back,” he said.
While state control did bring Pettiegrew to the district — and the state continues to pay Pettiegrew’s salary and the salary of Youngstown’s superintendent, who leads a district that is also under state control — it did not bring any additional funding.
“There were monthly meetings where we were able to talk about our problems, talk about our challenges, and then the state would point people in our direction to try to help us with those issues,” Pettiegrew added.
Since Lorain, Youngstown and East Cleveland were placed under state control, no other school districts have received that status; Lorain has since been released fully in this year’s state budget. East Cleveland and Youngstown were not, although State Representatives Lauren McNally and Juanita Brent said in a press conference in Youngstown Friday that they would introduce a bill to get rid of the concept altogether.
The latest state budget bill has prohibited the state from placing any new school districts under an academic distress commission for the next two years, said an Ohio Department of Education spokesperson.
Low state test scores — which led to the state takeover originally — constantly remind struggling communities that their children are struggling and don’t help communities’ morale, Pettiegrew said.
“That is traumatic for the community and the students to constantly get beat down by the fact that they only have one star or they’re an F… You lose your identity in that,” Pettiegrew said. “When I came in, I did listening tours and the students said, ‘All we do is math and reading. Where’s the fun?’”
A room full of games at W.H. Kirk Middle School at East Cleveland City School District, furnished by a donation from the Cleveland Browns, meant to reward positive student behavior.
The school district’s finances were in rough shape when he took over, Pettiegrew said. However, careful management of money, closures of some buildings due to declining enrollment and federal pandemic relief funds have put the district in a good spot now.
The district has also implemented a lot of new academic programming, with a focus on helping students explore careers, according to Pettiegrew. The district is no longer chasing test scores, he added, but instead focusing on preparing students for life after school.
“When you have children earning drone certifications and esport competitions, we’ve now opened up, in our career tech, we’ve added new programming like exercise science and manufacturing,” he said. “…We are coming back. We are fighting back. We will show and demonstrate success.”