Public Education Matters

For an entire school year, two Plain Dealer reporters had unprecedented access to the classrooms, students, and educators in a Cleveland Metropolitan School District elementary school without publishing a word. What has followed is a groundbreaking series of stories that have revealed to the world some universal truths about humanity and education in general, which we see in districts across the state. The two reporters, Hannah Drown and Cameron Barker, join this episode of the podcast to discuss their work and their experiences.

Show Notes

Beyond the Headlines: Cleveland's Promise - Season 3, Episode 22
For an entire school year, two Plain Dealer reporters had unprecedented access to the classrooms, students, and educators in a Cleveland Metropolitan School District elementary school without publishing a word. What has followed is a groundbreaking series of stories that have revealed to the world some universal truths about humanity and education in general, which we see in districts across the state. The two reporters, Hannah Drown and Cameron Barker, join this episode of the podcast to discuss their work and their experiences. 

READ THE SPECIAL SERIES | Click here to visit the Cleveland's Promise landing page on to read the individual stories that have been published in the series so far, or you can click here to see all of the stories from the first phase of the project compiled together.

OPINION | Susan Kaeser's editorial piece on January 8th explores the value of the Cleveland's Promise series in the wider education and community conversations. Click here to read her thoughts: "Cleveland’s Promise series uses observation not tests to define schools: Susan Kaeser"

SUBSCRIBE | Click here to subscribe to Education Matters on Apple Podcasts or click here to subscribe on Google podcasts so you don't miss a thing. And don't forget you can listen to all of the previous episodes anytime on your favorite podcast platform, or by clicking here.

Featured Education Matters guest: 
  • Hannah Drown, Plain Dealer reporter
    • Hannah Drown has been with The Plain Dealer and since 2014. During her five years as the Facebook Live news reporter, she covered breaking news, crime, entertainment and a number of other topics through on-the-scene broadcast reporting. Prior, she worked on the Cleveland’s Best team and launched a gluten-free lifestyle column.
  • Cameron Fields, Plain Dealer reporter
    • Cameron Fields has written for and The Plain Dealer since 2020, when he started as a general assignment reporter covering COVID-19, business, social justice and community news, among other topics. He graduated from Ohio University in 2019, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism. 
Connect with OEA:
About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May 2020, after a ten-year career as an Emmy Award winning television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode was recorded on January 30, 2023.

What is Public Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.6 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Originally launched in 2021 as Education Matters, Public Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Public Education Matters? Email us at

Intro 0:07
This is Education Matters, brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Welcome back to Education Matters. I'm your host Katie Olmsted, and I'm proud to work on the Ohio Education Association's communications team on behalf of OEA's 120,000 members and the public school students they serve. I want to start this episode by reading a very important excerpt from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and It goes, quote, "If we let the statistics alone tell their stories, the future might seem grim for many of the children in Cleveland's West Boulevard neighborhood surrounding Almira Elementary School. 45% of them live in poverty, two-thirds of households are poor enough to receive food bank benefits, a quarter of the adults are high school dropouts, and more than half of families who rent are cost burdened, paying more than 30% of their income toward housing. But come closer," it says, "walk through the doors of this three story brick school building and the stories within come into focus." It goes on to say, "In short, you see a school that is more an extended family than an institution, and it's hellbent on delivering its students beyond the statistics that limit their potential to the prosperous future they deserve." End quote. That was the launch of a special ongoing series called Cleveland's Promise, where two reporters spent a year inside a Cleveland Elementary School to write about what they saw, and what really goes on inside those classrooms. Now, as many of our listeners know, the Cleveland Metropolitan schools are not an OEA local, but the reporters behind this series of stories, Hannah Drown and Cameron Fields have uncovered what I think are some universal truths about teaching, learning, and Ohio schools. And more importantly, I think they've revealed some universal truths about humanity. So we asked them to share their thoughts.

Cameron Fields, Hannah Drown. Thank you so, so much for sitting down with me. I am a huge, huge fan of your work. And I am so grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about it. How are you feeling about what you've been able to accomplish with your story so far?

Cameron Fields 2:33
Yeah, I mean, I think we've have really, you know, made a pretty, you know, pretty big impact in terms of what we've been able to do with the stories. You know, there's been people donating clothes and other items for the kids like winter hats, winter coats, just really - and then one person donated a pizza for the staff just to show their appreciation after reading the series. And it's just been real cool to see, you know, the acknowledgement and appreciation that people have had for what Almira is doing, and seeing the, you know, the work that they're doing through the series that, you know, we've put out. So it's been cool to, you know, have this sort of impact just to be able to shine a light on what's going on at Almira Elementary.

Katie Olmsted 3:22
For people who are not familiar with this series, and I'm going to in parentheses right now say, pause the podcast go look at what's up on Right now, the entire series so far is out from behind the paywall at this point, so certainly, I recommend you go look at it, and then come back here and let's talk about what you're reading there. For those, though, who have not read it so far, what is this all about?

Hannah Drown 3:50
Yeah, I can take this one. Um, so really, what we were trying to do with it was, first of all, something that's never really been done before, at least in this capacity. And to your previous question, I think that's probably what I was most excited and proud about is that we have this concept - First of all, we have the the the the trust of the community and of Eric Gordon, the CMSD CEO and superintendent to even let us in the building, and let us be in there every single day and not even write anything for almost an entire year, you know, knowing that we were going to tell the story truthfully and accurately. But that's really what it's about. I think there's a lot of misconceptions and a lot of people don't understand what goes on in an urban school district and have a different idea of the things that are faced not only by the students and their families, but also the educators and why they chose to go in the district in the first place and what that passion is. And I think once you see that passion and see what obstacles the children and their families overcome to get to where they are, it's just incredible. It makes it even more incredible once you learn about these really, really cutting edge products and services that they offer the kids, too. So I think I think shining a light on that was a big part of the project, but then also doing it through the lens of particular kid. Now granted, we changed the names; granted, nobody ever saw their pictures - and all of that was really, really important because of privacy - but the reader still felt like they got to know them, they started to love them just as much as we love them, seeing them every single day. And I think that that really made a difference in the way that it impacted the community and the readers.

Katie Olmsted 5:49
The series starts with two pieces. I mean, right at the beginning, we're introduced to two students. One is Sophia, right off the bat, we are with her when her parents are arrested in a SWAT raid. And then we see the response at the school that morning. Another story is about Grace, who experienced homelessness after her father's murder, her mother's substance abuse issues, domestic violence, and then hopping home to home, seeing and experiencing things children should never have to deal with. For me as a reader it, it was a very emotional journey thinking about those kids. Was it hard for you to separate your emotions out when you're talking to these children so you can be objective in your coverage? Or is that part of the beauty of this series, is that I see you in this writing?

Hannah Drown 6:30
Yeah, I think I mean, the story of Sophia, and what happened with her, her parents was a pretty clear start to launching the series, just because it's just a - it's a heartbreaking story, while also a hopeful story, because you see the way that the school rallied around the girls. Um, but even on top of that, you know, that wasn't a story that we pulled out that happened later in the process of being in the schools; we had only been in the schools for, I believe, five or six weeks when that happened. But two and a half weeks were breaks. There was a two week Christmas break, and then there was Thanksgiving as well. So, you know, when it comes to the emotion of it, we weren't even quite, you know, used to being in the schools at that point, because that was one of the first big things that we experienced too. And I think that also can be seen in the writing. Because when I, you know, I wrote that particular story, but I was feeling all of those emotions that that I portrayed, you know, that was all real and it was all raw. And I think that Cameron and I each have writing styles where we let our emotions go through there. Also the way that we ended up setting up how the stories were told is very, very different from traditional journalism. We wrote the stories in present tense, and we also, when it comes to the tense, we use 'I' and show that perspective as well. And I think that that made a big difference in really getting the readers to feel like they were there in that moment, as well through being present tense, and also kind of like they were living through our experience and our eyes of witnessing this, too.

Katie Olmsted 8:09
And not just witnessing, you know, the hardships that these particular children have dealt with, but also, as you mentioned, the the innovation in our schools and those services that are really revolutionary. Do you think giving people that perspective that almost feels like you're in the school has changed some opinions about how our Cleveland schools and how urban schools in general are doing? Susie Kaeser wrote an editorial piece for Plain Dealer, and I want to read a little bit of that just for our listeners here. But she points out that "failure is a common and effective rationale used to justify change" and "that general feeling about public schools, especially the urban public schools is one of failure because it is using test scores as the metric and not the stories of the people." She says, "Cleveland is a favorite target. Standardized test scores that are a poor measure of student learning and a reliable measure of the economic status of the parents of test takers are the primary evidence used to measure success." She says it's 'single dimension and unreliable metrics that don't tell us much about quality or success but are used to define both.' She goes on though, to congratulate the Plain Dealer for "attempting to offer a more complete report on the nature of education in the Cleveland Public Schools. Witnessing the daily life in classrooms," she says, "and how educators responded to student needs, the content of the education process itself is the best antidote to sweeping generalizations about education, quality and effectiveness." So, and again, if you haven't read the the editorial piece, pause the podcast go read that come back here. I could not agree more with what Susie wrote there. What did you think when you saw that?

Cameron Fields 9:12
Well, yeah, I hadn't. I hadn't heard about the editorial. But I'm just hearing that from you just now. I agree as well, like, I mean, I think that standardized test scores, it's just way too much, just way too narrow minded, I think, you know, in terms of how people view it. There's like a lot more to look at with education than just the standardized test score. I know, like, even today, I went in, and they were doing the NWA. And I'm like, Man, this is like, really a lot of pressure just on one day. One test. And, yeah, I mean, I just feel like this district is unfairly judged on standardized test scores, and that's something that I think that, you know, hopefully people are taking from the series and seeing a more like holistic look at education, as the editorial alluded to.

Katie Olmsted 11:05
Did you have that sense before you went into the schools? Did it surprise you to see that the standardized tests were not telling the story when you actually got in there?

Hannah Drown 11:16
I think that there's there's always been, you know, pros and cons to the direction of standardized testing, whether that be district to district or even student to student, you know, whether or not a standardized test is a fair assessment of their academic ability. Um, but I, you know, I knew, I know, people who are CMSD educators. And so I've heard a lot about the district before this, but I didn't quite understand the, the, just the breadth of what all is offered. And I mean, I, I grew up in Greater Cleveland, I went to a very good, you know, I went to a public school, in a suburb on the west side, got a great K through 12 education. But, I mean, there are so many things that I have seen and continue to see, I'm like, I, we didn't have that. I mean, this is I mean, even just looking at the way that CMSD treat treats the choice high schools, you know, if there's a student who really, really has a passion for STEM wants to learn, you know how to do auto mechanic work, there's, there's seemingly a high school where they can get a head start on, it seems like I mean, obviously, it's not anything, but there's so many different options. And you know, people think of CMSD and it has the stigma when you'd be hard pressed to find a district nearby where a kid can go into ninth grade and have hands on learning the field that they want to learn in as soon as they enter high school. So it's as big as that and to you know, something that I'm, that we saw all last year - I didn't get a chance to cover in that but that we're going to be covering this this year - but it even goes as low as at Almira, they at least once a week have something called karaoke lunch, where they let the kids sing karaoke, during their lunch breaks. And that might seem simple. And that might seem little, but for the kids who are maybe shy and use that as an opportunity to, you know, try to step out in the spotlight for the first time or even just, you know, breather in the middle of the day, if it was a tough day for them, there's so many things from big things to seemingly small things that really make a difference and are really impressive about the district that has nothing to do with with the testing.

Katie Olmsted 13:43
And Cameron, that was one thing that I you pointed out in one of your earlier pieces in the series, citing the research about dopamine, and how when you're having a fun, engaging experience, it's opening your mind, quite literally, to the ability to take in new information, where the stress quite literally is blocking your ability to take in the new information, and you brought in some great research there and then wove it in with the experience we're actually seeing in these classrooms. It's excellent journalism. You both should be so so proud of yourself. And as you mentioned, it's sort of revolutionary journalism. Where did this come from? who pitched this to who?

Hannah Drown 14:24
It started as a conversation between our editor in chief Chris Quinn and Eric Gordon at CMSD. And so once they realize that this is something okay, you know, this this, this might really happen, Chris and the other editors at took a look at the newsroom to see who they thought would be would be a good fit for this. So I believe I was brought on and then within a couple of weeks, you know, Cameron was brought on as well on we we had our little team and it's important to note with with Cameron too, he was one of - you can answer this better than I can, Cameron - but a very small number of daily, like dailies reporters, at the time when you were pulled into this. So we know newsrooms are not as big as they once were. But on top of that, that that role of having somebody who does those those dailies is pivotal. And really, really important, I was doing some different, more specialized work. That, you know, while important, is it doesn't carry the same weight, especially when it comes to that those stories coming out on the website, as the dailies reporters do. So just even the forward thinking of Chris Quinn to pull two people, including one that created so much content, to go into a school and not write for almost an entire year. I mean, it that there was a loss in that. But he recognized how important the project was, how important the story was to tell, both for the kids and for the district and also, as you know, a service to the community from a journalistic perspective.

Katie Olmsted 16:12
I mean, it really truly shows the investment Plain Dealer is making into this story and the importance of this story to the community. Do you think you I mean, we've talked about the tangible ways that you have seen people change where they're, they're showing their support, donating things? But do you think you've changed a lot of hearts and a lot of minds with this? And do you think you've changed yourselves as journalists through this process?

Hannah Drown 16:25
For sure, for sure, I think that even beyond the beyond the tangibles and beyond the ways that that the audience has changed. And that that, you know, that changing of opinions and also reducing the stigma is and understanding that if there is a parent who needs help, if there's a parent who is struggling, a lot of times, most of the time, there's a story behind that, that is, too, no fault of their own. And they are just trying to do the best and they're fantastic mothers, and they just got into these situations that they they, they don't deserve to be they never, they never did anything to to cause it, either. But I think that it makes it's made a big difference in the in the community, changed a lot of minds. But what I find equally as important as well is that it also I feel like, elevated and re-energized the educators in the district, because they are seeing how valued they are. They're seeing that feedback and seeing their story told and having somebody say, you're doing an amazing job. And honestly, I think as a whole in society, we don't tell each other that enough to begin with. So I think even beyond the impact that it had on the readership, it had an impact on on the the educators and the staff and the district. It also had an impact on the, these the families and the children who allowed us to tell their stories, because if anything stressed me out in this entire thing, it was doing right by them. They opened up, you know, their deepest, darkest secrets, the most tragic and difficult parts of their lives and their history and said, I am going to tell you, at this point, a stranger about this, and I'm going to trust you and allow you to put it on the news. And that's and that is, that is huge and be having somebody afford me that opportunity is not something that I take lightly. And the feedback that we got from back from them, too, was, you know, they, they felt empowered, to have their story told. So there's a difference, there was a difference that was made there, as well.

Katie Olmsted 17:34
Well, and we're talking about individual stories, and I think those are so powerful. But there is a universalism in these people's stories. The Cleveland educators are the same as educators across the state these children with their challenges they're facing these families. These are the families we serve in so many other districts. Cameron, we just have a couple of moments left. Do you have any final thoughts about the further impact of this just beyond Cleveland?

Cameron Fields 19:37
Just beyond Cleveland as in like the state as well and the country?

Katie Olmsted 19:40
The state, the country, the world, when we can have this window into people's lives?

Cameron Fields 19:48
I think like in terms of just looking at the state, I think yeah, we need to look more at you know, having that whole education like tending to the whole child, just because as I know, with Cleveland, you know, coming out of the pandemic, what they're really trying to focus on is personalized learning, meeting the child where they are, and really trying to help them on their own individual path. So they're trying to, you know, have some differentiation, and not, you know, give the same sort of instruction to everyone in the same sort of way. So, I think that that's kind of like the main thing that, you know, maybe, you know, school districts across the state and across the country can can take from and it seems like, that's kind of the way that education is going. And yeah, going back to the whole child having that social emotional learning piece as well. I think like, Almira, you know, really focuses on that, and really tending to, How is the child feeling in that moment that day, in their space? And how does that affect them, you know, with not only their work, but just how they approach the day? Because, like, if, say, for example, you have like a kid who, you know, is hungry, or you have like a kid who's going through things at home, like how are they going to be able to do the work that they need to do in school and lead a productive life there at school? So I think that those two things, yeah, really, yeah, social emotional learning and the personalized learning aspects are really important for education going forward.

Katie Olmsted 21:28
And I am again, so grateful to both of you for the spotlight, you're shining on those efforts. And I feel like we're all very lucky to have your work in our communities. Thank you.

Cameron Fields 21:39
Thank you.

Hannah Drown 21:40
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Katie Olmsted 21:48
Now, as I said earlier, you should definitely go read the Cleveland's Promise stories if you haven't been keeping up with them already. You can find the link in the show notes to this episode. Remember, new Education Matters episodes drop every Thursday. And if you have thoughts on what you'd like to hear on a future episode, you can email me at Education Until next time, stay well.

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