Hutchings Sets Tone for Tenure in First State of the Schools

New superintendent focuses on diversity, calling it “one of the beauties of Shaker Heights, and also one of our challenges”

In his first State of the Schools presentation, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. tonight shared his assessment of “who we are, where we are going, and how we will get there” with about 400 parents, students, teachers and residents in the high school Large Auditorium.

Hutchings spent much of his speech discussing Shaker’s diversity, which he called “one of the beauties of Shaker Heights, and also one of our challenges.”

The biggest “challenge” that Hutchings discussed was Shaker’s persistent achievement gap. After six months on the job, during which he said he visited more than 250 classrooms, Hutchings both praised Shaker for being “diverse in every imaginable way” and sharply criticized its achievement gaps “between white and African-American students; between students in poverty and those who are more advantaged; between students with disabilities and those without.”

“These gaps start early — even before children enter kindergarten— and they persist through the grades. No matter what grade level or test you choose, you will see disparities,” Hutchings said. “We have significant disparities with regard to student enrollment in higher-level courses at the secondary level. African-American students are underrepresented in advanced level work, and white students are underrepresented in college preparatory classes.”

Hutchings takes questions from the audience moderated by Shaker resident Dan Molthrop.
Hutchings takes questions from the audience moderated by Shaker resident Dan Moulthrop.

Hutchings cited difficult family situations and access to pre-kindergarten as causes of these gaps and said providing every child with an “expert teacher” will help narrow them. He said an expert teacher is one who “knows the subject matter inside and out, who knows where each student stands and what he or she needs, who has an extensive repertoire of techniques to engage every student, who earns the trust of students, who expects the best effort from students and who accepts nothing less.”

The district already has many expert teachers, Hutchings said, and should create a catalog of online professional development courses in which teachers can enroll.

The first-year-superintendent also said he observed that some teachers “have only one type of Shaker student in mind when they are teaching.” To fix this, Hutchings said the district should help teachers become more “culturally competent” in teaching students.

Additionally, Hutchings called on teachers to “work hard due to their passion and personal commitment, not because we asked them to.”

Hutchings said he would move to end use of “CP” to characterize high school classes, saying the college preparatory label has set the bar too low for students. “We must refine our teaching practices in all of our classes, including our general level courses,” he said.

Hutchings said that 30 teachers retired at the end of the previous school year and warned that 25 percent of current teachers are eligible for retirement. “It is very important that we develop an extensive recruitment plan for the future so that we can attract and retain the best teaching candidates possible,” he said. During a question and answer session after his speech, Hutchings said the district has begun this effort by attending job recruitment fairs it had not previously.

In an attempt to motivate those in attendance, Hutchings asked middle school employees to “ramp up our expectations of students;” students to “give 100 percent, at the very least” every day; parents to play a more active role in their children’s learning at home and city residents to sign up to tutor and mentor struggling students.

Hutchings also told the crowd to “accept the fact that some things are going to have to change.” He highlighted the importance of passing the district’s May levy. If the levy doesn’t pass, Hutchings said, the district will have to cut 6 percent of the budget, or $5.3 million, even though it has already shaved $250,000 this year “through intentional efforts.”

Hutchings addresses the crowd during the question-and-answer period of the meeting.
Hutchings addresses the crowd during the question-and-answer period of the meeting.

Hutchings said the district should be proud of its art, music and theater programs; its large number of Advanced Placement classes with high-scoring students; the highest SAT scores in Cuyahoga County and its steady stream of students accepted into selective colleges.

As another positive, Hutchings cited the district’s 2013 Climate Survey that found 90 percent of parents “are satisfied” with their children’s education and 84 percent of students reported “their teachers have high expectations and really care about them.”

Hutchings reaffirmed the district’s commitment to the International Baccalaureate, calling it “the best vehicle for preparing our children” for the future, and committed the district to earning Middle Years Programme certification for grades five through 10. He referenced a recent Shakerite column critical of MYP implementation at the middle school.

After failing to win state grant money to build an online learning center at the Shaker Main Library, Hutchings said he still believes the district needs one for students who would do better in a “non-traditional educational environment.” He added that offering alternative pathways to a diploma would improve high school graduation rates.

Hutchings also implored parents to monitor their children’s television, video game and online activity, telling them to “pull the plug if you have to.” The crowd, comprising mostly parents, applauded this plea.

In last year’s State of the Schools, superintendent-of-25-years Mark Freeman shared a mostly positive message with the community, saying, “We’re doing pretty well.” Freeman addressed about 50 people in the upper cafeteria. Hutchings’ first state of the schools was noticeably more festive that Freeman’s; before and after the speech, the speakers in the Large Auditorium played “Celebrate” by Kool and the Gang.

Having replaced Freeman in August, Hutchings ended social promotion, held an all-staff convocation, placed new restrictions on security guards and allowed police dogs to search the high school for drugs.

Hutchings greets community members after his speech.
Hutchings greets community members after his speech.

Hutchings ended his speech with a discussion of diversity, delivered in many short profiles of who “Shaker is.”

“Shaker is the child who enters kindergarten with a vocabulary of 3,000 words and the kindergartener who knows 20,000 words . . . . Shaker is the 13-year-old girl who is bullied online and the 13-year-old boy who does the bullying,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

After the speech, moderator Dan Moulthrop asked Hutchings questions submitted by the audience, including one about technology in classrooms. “We are well ahead of other districts in the area in terms of technology,” Hutchings responded. “We need to see it [technology] more embedded.”

Hutchings also responded to a question about flipped classrooms in which students watch or listen to teachers’ recorded lectures at home.“It’s something I want to do soon.”

Before Hutchings spoke, students Ben Silberman, Daniel Kilroy and Olivia Hamilton, Middle School Principal Danny Young, and high school math teacher Abby Goldstein told personal stories about the district’s inclusive nature. “I am Shaker,” they all concluded, as did Hutchings.

Check out a reporter’s notebook of the night, here, and reactions to the event, here.

Campus and City Editor Abby White, Managing Editor Marcia Brown and Print Editor in Chief Shane McKeon contributed reporting for this story.

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