When our child, who is a junior in high school, told us he was ready to quit and be a high school dropout, our hearts sank. He was done after trying two different schools, remote learning, and talking to counselors and therapists, only to see himself fail time after time.
Our child was not always an academic failure. He was a straight A student up until the eighth grade. He had taken three high school classes in middle school and dreamed of being a public defense lawyer.
And then, while attending Mayfield High School, one of the largest high schools in Cuyahoga County, he started showing signs of depression and anxiety. Panic attacks afflicted him often enough that it made it impossible for a kid in three honors classes to keep up with the fast-paced curriculum, which added to the frustration and started a cycle of school refusal.
Right when we thought our child’s only chance was to get a GED diploma, we found an innovative program, unique in the country, that leaders hope will lower the alarming rate of high school dropouts in the state.
And we decided to give it a try.
School of One
While attending Campus International High School, and after failing a semester in 2019 as a sophomore, our son was recommended to the School of One program.
This high school program of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has a goal of helping students who, otherwise and for so many different reasons, would have failed in a traditional education environment.
“The School of One is dedicated to producing successful graduates by offering students a differentiated, individualized digital online educational experience embedded with both the academic and social and emotional services needed to be college and career ready in the 21st Century,” states the website. School of One in Cleveland has 9 sites, including Collinwoood High School, East Tech, Glenville, John Adams, Lincoln-West, and James Ford Rhodes High Schools.
The program has an enrollment of about 280 students and an 88.5% 5-year graduation rate. This is higher than the district (84.2%) and the state of Ohio average ((87.5%), according to the 2019-2020 state report card. Each site has a flexible schedule and has no more than 40 students divided into two sessions.
Unlike traditional schools, students at the School of One don’t switch classes, which makes the day shorter, but they are still required to attend 2½ hour sessions each day and show work completion. Teachers work independently with them to identify their academic strengths and overcome barriers. Each student collaborates with an educator to progress toward fulfilling graduation requirements.
In addition to their core classes, students receive well-rounded support that goes beyond their education. The support may include help building a resume, finding a job, or any other resource the student and their families may need. Students also participate in therapeutic art activities through programs like Progressive Arts Alliance, horseback riding, and college tours. In addition, they get help applying to college.
The program has added two new sites in the last couple of years, with the same structure as the others, but they operate from buildings that are not school settings and are specialized to meet the needs of their students. For instance, students at The Foundry site, which is Cleveland’s urban rowing facility next to Rivergate Park in the Flats, learn about rowing and sailing and have an opportunity for employment at MCPc, in addition to their core academics. There is also a newer site at the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland.
To get into the School of One, students have to be between 14 and 22 years old and go through an application process. The school rarely turns anyone down, but the student must show some level of self-motivation. Some kids need the structure of a traditional school, so School of One may not be a good fit for everyone.
Because School of One is part of the CMSD school district, all their sites have been instructing classes remotely since last spring. Not being able to be in person hasn’t affected their performance so much because students worked online with in-person help from teachers before COVID-19, and now this is done remotely via Zoom.
How it started
In 2012, the current principal of School of One, Wayne Marok, was asked by superintendent Eric Gordon to open a new school as part of the district’s overall push to enhance school choice offerings. The district wanted to increase its overall graduation rate and attract and retain students. An individualized approach to education was seen as one way to do that.
High school dropout rates in the United States have been declining since the 70’s. Still, 4.7% of students in the country are dropping out annually and that percentage is even higher for black students (5.5%) and Hispanics (6.5%), according to a report done in 2019 by The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
This has a negative impact, especially in low-income communities where individuals who drop out of high school are far more likely to spend their lives periodically unemployed, on government assistance, or cycling in and out of the prison system.
Even when dropouts are employed, they earn, on average, $10.000 less a year than high school graduates and pay less in taxes.
“So many kids were leaving Cleveland schools and they needed something to stop the exodus,” said Marok.
After some research, Marok found a model recognized by the Department of Education called High Poverty, High Performing High Schools, which aims at a more personalized education strategy where the teacher becomes a mentor to the student.
Since 2011, CMSD has increased its graduation rate 27.9 points, and the latest four-year graduation rate as reached 80.1%, according to a press release. Rates for Black and Hispanic students have also dramatically increased and are on par with these numbers. Marok says the push to open new schools and provide more school choices such as the School of One has increased student success and led to a higher graduation rate.
A safe space
About two years ago, word came out that kids from Cleveland and other areas were spending time at the LGBT Community Center instead of attending school. That’s when CMSD’s administration and the Center started conversations to see if they could work together to help these kids stay in school.
“Kids were skipping school and showing up there [at the LGBTQ Center]; they realized these kids didn’t want to go back to the high school they were going to,” Marok said. “These kids were not getting an education”.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, LGBTQ+ students struggle to finish school in traditional school settings, where they too often suffer from discrimination and bullying. School staff do not receive adequate training to deal with these situations, putting these vulnerable students at an academic disadvantage compared to their peers. Having a safe space where LGBTQ+ students can learn without social pressures and the need to “fit in” can give them the self-confidence and support they need to successfully graduate.
“Being in a large school [setting], a lot of things can go on that you don’t know of, even with adult supervision, and some kids can become uncomfortable, for so many reasons, and people don’t take the time to understand those reasons,” Marok said.
So, in the summer of 2019, the district opened School of One: Solutions for Global Issues at the Center, the first public school to be held at a LGBTQ center in the country. The site has the capacity to teach 20 kids but because of social distancing, enrollment has been reduced to eight with classes being held remotely. The principal is hoping that once the district goes back in person, they can start getting more kids enrolled.
Last November, we enrolled our son at The School of One at the LGBT Center site, with the hopes he can find the support that he needs to complete his education. Even though he has just started this new journey, we feel very optimistic that this is the right fit for him. Hearing him talk about his future and interests again during his Zoom calls with teachers brings a great sense of relief to our hearts.
For more information and to enroll in the School Of One visit their website at https://www.clevelandmetroschools.org/SO1.
Claudia Longo is a bilingual freelance writer, translator and social media coordinator who lives in Cleveland with her husband and two children.