Brendan Whitt

WHEN BRENDAN WHITT THINKS...

A Narrative Prose of Barbara Byrd-Bennett in Three Acts

Act I: The Beginning of Two Stories

I couldn’t believe what I saw. Headlines reporting that “former Cleveland and Chicago schools CEO sentenced to four years in federal prison.” It was one of those moments as a twenty-something when you start to look back on your life and the short journey that you’ve taken so far. You weren’t a kid that long ago and you haven’t been an adult that long either.

I can still remember my first day of kindergarten. It was in late 1996 whenever the school year began. Alone and confused I cried for my mom at breakfast. That’s what momma’s boys do. I was enrolled in Joseph F. Landis Elementary. It was a magnet school that sat between Hampden and Olivet Avenues right off of E.105th Street. Magnet schools are supposed to attract diverse student populations and offer special instruction to students. The school was closed in the mid-2000’s along with countless other schools including East High, FDR middle school, Louis Pasteur elementary and countless others throughout Cleveland.

Two years into my academic life Barbara Byrd Bennett began her tenure as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s CEO. The CMSD is the picture perfect image of a failing urban school system. Teachers are paid low salaries, graduation rates for high school seniors have remained consistently at an “F”, and benchmark achievement tests scores like the 8th grade Ohio Achievement Test and 10th grade Ohio Graduation Test scores also remain low. Thankfully I was enrolled into a local charter school, Horizon Science Academy, for middle and high school spanning from 2002 to 2009. But I still saw the effects of Barbara Byrd-Bennet’s management of the CMSD.

As a child of the 90’s I got to see the city of Cleveland’s transition into what it has become today. This beautiful skyline with a growing and bustling downtown and somewhat vibrant nightlife with shops and retail locations. Cleveland State is this ever-growing higher learning institution that increases in enrollment and square footage every year. Our theater district and Mid-Town district compete for the best in the nation. This Cleveland is a long cry from the Cleveland of old.

When I was about two my mom moved us to E. 105th Ave. That area to this day is still one of the most dangerous and crime infested areas in Cleveland. When my mom got tired of living there two years later, she decided to move us and my then three month old sister to where I would spend the rest of my life. I grew up in the Hough neighborhood and still live there. Looking back I have seen a lot in my neighborhood. My mom did a stellar job raising a son in this type of environment. An environment where a lengthy prison sentence is more easily attainable than a job. The street I grew up on is called Newton Avenue. It sits between E.97th (also known as The Seven) and E 101st in Cleveland’s University Circe area on the upper east side. Thankfully I’ve had a stable home from the time I was born up to my adult years. I’m grateful for the great foundation I had to stay out of trouble.

Byrd Bennett began her career in education in New York where she was known for “fixing” failing schools. She was placed in charge of 10 schools including Intermediate or Middle School 61 in Brooklyn. Bennett who is a native New Yorker holds several degrees in education including a Master’s from NYU and a Doctorate form Colombia. In an article from a 1998 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer Byrd-Bennett “brushed away a suggestion that she had been enticed to come to Cleveland.” Bennett claimed that she wanted the job and that she did not receive a sweetened deal to take it. This is plausible seeing as how the other job she was up for was the head of the Baltimore city school system which didn’t have the structure that Cleveland had at the time. To get an accurate picture of their school system watch The Wire’s fourth season.

Act II: Moving on, Through Education

When my mom moved us to Newton it was like the wild west. Like most of the country Hough was still recovering from the crack epidemic and the corner was full of dope boys. Both ends of my street had low income apartments while the back row of The Seven was also lined with low income apartments. My neighborhood wasn’t the safest to grow up in during the 90’s but as a precocious five year old I wanted to explore the world, even if it was just around the block.

By the time I was in the second grade Byrd-Bennett had assumed her new role as CEO of the CMSD. My education as well as tens of thousands of other children’s in my school district were now in the hands of this accomplished and decorated education professional. I remember my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Bodle telling my class that we should be grateful for our school Landis. It was a “palace compared to the other schools.” This was in the fourth grade, the year 2000. Byrd-Bennett had improved the district to an extent. Byrd Bennett had laid out a plan of “incremental change”. New schools were being built and teaching positions were being filled, graduation was up from 28% to 50%, and in January of 2002 state auditor Jim Petro said that the CMSD had clean financial records. Cleveland finally had it’s answer to fixing our schools.

I can remember two hints at the future of Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s career in the years 2001 and 2002. In the fall of 2001 it was a open house at Landis. My mom readied me and my little sister, who was six and in the first grade by this time, to head up to the school like most parents did to check on the progress of their children’s academic success. You know, open house. I was a fifth grader who would soon be graduating on to a new middle school in the upcoming school year. I didn’t hear this story until years later but my 5th grade teacher Ms. McCrary told my mom to take me out of CMSD so that I wouldn’t “slip through the cracks”. How would I slip through the cracks if the district was performing so well?

I remember watching a special on Alcatraz once. Somebody called it a retreat for criminals. You go to jail, learn some tips from hardened criminals, then you’re back out on the street a “smarter” criminal. School wasn’t school. It was a building you wasted hours of your day in before going back to your environment. In return, because of our environment schools were becoming so deficient that all they did was sew the seeds that the environment had given them, Black children underserved by their school system and the adults who run it.

The second incident was bit more ironic . It was a Sunday morning during spring because I remember how warm it was. My mother, sister, and I got up to go to morning service at the Cleveland Church of Christ on E. 105th street. Byrd-Bennett was a guest speaker that morning. The church was so proud and happy. Looking back at that Sunday morning it felt like a celebration for this woman and at the time her stats did stack up. At the time I only heard the name in passing at school when teachers would talk amongst themselves and I would ear hustle in on their various conversations. I even remember a time she visited Landis. Everyone had to be on their best behavior while the teachers and principal were all on edge. When I saw her she had the poise of someone of importance. Little did I know this would be the beginning of her descent.

Act III: When the Bottom Fell Out

In 1998 the city had voted to give control over the school system to our mayor who at the time was Michael White. The move was big news and was even covered in the New York Times. In 2002 when the issue came back up on the ballot the city voted to keep the Mayor in control of the school system. Clearly someone wanted to reverse this action if it came the very next election cycle. Mayor White is also partly responsible for failing to get Art Modell a new stadium prompting him to move the Browns to Baltimore in the mid-nineties. In July of 2002 Byrd-Bennett signed a contract extension that would take her through 2004.

I can honestly say that in 2002 I was one of the luckiest kids in Cleveland. My mom had gotten wind of a new charter school that was opening up. She taken me to Horizon Science Academy where I was successfully tested in. I would go on to Horizon to spend the rest of my primary education from 2002 to 2009 spanning from 6th to 12th grade. Many of my peers did not have such luck. Our curriculum was more advanced than the CMSD’s and our funding was a little better. Horizon received money from donations, outside funding and sponsors, and our parents’ instructional fees.

As school funding from the state department decreased Bennett saw her pay rate increase to over 36% totaling close to $300,000. When she first signed on in 1998 Byrd-Bennett was making a base salary of $155,000 with $30,000 in bonuses to be made. By 2003 Byrd-Bennett was making $278,000 in base salary and $50,000 in bonuses. In mid 2004 state auditors warned the district that they should investigate Bennett’s travel and food expenses. An investigation found that the CMSD’s number of students who ride school buses had been inflated resulting in the CMSD having to pay back roughly $730,000 in 2004. By then the new mayor Jane Campbell, who is known to not have had the warmest relationship with Byrd-Bennett agreed to keep her on as schools CEO until September of 2005. Byrd-Bennett received no raises during that time.

In 2006 Byrd-Bennett made her final stop in Cleveland when she became executive in residence at CSU. Byrd-Bennett remained under the radar until she made headlines again revealing that she received kickbacks for “steering lucrative contracts” to an educational consultant firm she use to work for. She was also involved in a $40 million textbook scandal in Detroit.

Here I am now one more month and Thesis hours away from my Masters. The journey has almost come full circle for me. I graduated from high school, something that roughly 50% of my peers didn’t do during this time. I received my Bachelors degree in 2014, something that Black men don’t do in large numbers when compared to other racial and gender specific groups in America. It may be arguable that access to a quality education is a human right. When a system is in place to grant people that right it falls upon the people in charge to make sure that education is being fairly served.

In the case of Barbara Byrd-Bennett it’s apparent that she is not entirely at fault. It can’t be denied the fact that she did contribute to a failing system. By 2004 she did in fact help raise the CMSD’s graduation rate from 28% to 50%. When Byrd-Bennett received a 36% pay rate increase top performing teachers could have gotten raises. When numbers were inflated where was the CMSD oversight? The issue becomes bigger than just educating kids. The issue should focus on funding for underserved communities. The communities ravaged by white flight.

Byrd-Bennett’s reign as CMSD CEO contributed to this plight. Why would an underpaid teacher go above and beyond when their school CEO raked in a couple million dollars in salaries over several years and those teachers can’t even get a raise or supplies and materials for their classroom and students? The leader of the classroom has been demoralized. They have to deal with under disciplined kids for very low wages. The sad part is the fact that many of the children who were enrolled under Byrd-Bennett are now parents themselves. As I sit in Mr. Ellenboden’s 9th grade English class I think back to my time as a 9th grader in Mrs. Humphrey’s English class at Horizon. Then I hope that these kids can find a path to success and that education is their way out.