Updated: Mar 11, 2020
by Krissy Dietrich Gallagher
This article is part of the Reaching Heights series “A Week In The Life at CH-UH Public Schools” exploring the realities of working in or attending the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools. Through interviews and observations, author Krissy Dietrich Gallagher gathered information and describes each position and its rewards and challenges. Reaching Heights is a non-profit organization in Cleveland Heights, Ohio that works to increase awareness and appreciation of the CH-UH public schools.
Liz Kirby can’t get sick. “Not in the first year,” said the new Superintendent of Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools, as allergies caused her to sneeze her way through a 7am meeting.
Her commitment is obvious, not just in her refusal to miss a day, but in the length of those days. She checks her district email before getting out of bed at 5am and listens to educational podcasts while she gets ready. Her drive consists of phone calls or more podcasts; current favorites cover the literacy wars: whole language versus direct instruction and why national test scores have remained flat for the past decade.
She also tries to read at least one article in an education journal each day to stay on top of current thinking. “I’ve just learned to read really fast,” she says.
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She’s learned a lot, in fact, over the past six months. Becoming familiar with the ins and outs of her new district; studying the systems and the data; adjusting to the surprising educational policies of the State of Ohio and how they impact school funding; and meeting the principals, teachers, students, parents, and residents of the district.
“The best parts of my day are when I’m with students and teachers,” she says. “The stuff where I’m right at the nexus of the real work that’s being done.”
She manages to visit at least two school buildings a week to observe their climate and culture, and sit in on classrooms. Her goal is to spend time in every one of the more than 400 classrooms in the district over the course of her first year.
Most of her day is spent in meetings: she meets with every building principal once each month, each School Board Member once each month, and the members of her administrative cabinet every other week. Then there are school board meetings that can last until 10pm, task force meetings, meetings with community groups or individual parents, phone calls with the media – especially during levy season, and meetings with student groups.
She opens all her meetings with a shared set of expectations, listens carefully to input, forever scribbling in her trusty notebook, asks clarifying questions, and doesn't end until everyone is on the same page about what was said and what will happen moving forward.
Everyone who comes in contact with her is impressed with her listening skills. From teachers to students to Board Members, it’s one of the first things they mention when asked about Liz Kirby.
“One of the qualities I admire most about her is that she is a listener,” said School Board Member Dan Heintz. “When you meet with Liz, she asks genuine questions which reflect sincerity and commitment to the issues that matter to you. I’m convinced that finding Liz will be the single most important accomplishment of our tenure on the CHUH Board of Education.”
“The best thing she’s done is listen,” said Monticello teacher Deborah Frost. “I don't even remember the last time we had a leader be so visible.”
The kids know her name, they know her face, and many of them know her story. She shared her path recently with 36 Monticello middle schoolers at an after-school gathering of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN).
“I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said when asked about her studies as an undergraduate at Harvard. Her public school teacher parents had warned her away from teaching because of the low pay. But after starting as a pre-law major, the draw of education was too strong and she switched programs, ultimately earning her teaching certification with a combined major in History and Economics.
Her love for teaching started young when she taught her toddler sister how to read while “playing school.” In high school, she founded a community service tutoring program. And in adulthood, she spent years teaching high school History and Humanities before being called upon to lead.
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Open. Inviting. Welcoming. Supportive. Well-rounded. Interesting. Friendly.
These aren’t words used to describe Liz Kirby, though they could be. They’re the words that 15 Heights High students use to describe their school. These are not members of the Superintendent’s Cadre, a group selected by their teachers to represent the school at monthly meetings with Ms. Kirby. These students are randomly chosen, representing a broad spectrum of ability and interest, who can give her a true glimpse at the school’s strengths and weaknesses.
The 9th through 12th graders first introduce themselves, telling their path to Heights High, and then offering their one word. But most want to elaborate.
MacKenzie says, “Supportive, because there’s always help if you need it.”
Owen, who moved to Heights from West Geauga this year, says, “Diverse: No matter who you are or what your interests are, you’re accepted.”
Nogoye says the school is “Open. Because a lot of different backgrounds and cultures are welcome here. But also because people are open to learning.”
And Taylor, who’s been in the district since kindergarten, says “Unlimited. Because I feel like there are so many things I can do.”
Ms. Kirby’s own word is “Engaged. Whatever it is that people care about within this district, they are all in.”
Most students talk about their special interests, from the Vocal Music Department to the many athletes in the room, to particular classes that have stayed with them.
“Social psychology,” said Neiko. “It doesn’t even feel like work because it’s so interesting.”
“Geometry and World History,” said a quiet freshman. “Because those teachers had a sense of humor and keep it real with you.”
Student after student mentions the wide range of options and opportunities they have available to them, while their schoolmates nod and say, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Ms. Kirby jots things down in her notebook, then asks about their worst learning experiences, reminding them not to name names, and for suggestions for improvement.
The students are hesitant at first but realize that she’s serious. She wants to know, not to get anyone in trouble, but to make things even better. They talk about teachers who are dry or speak in a monotone, the stress of navigating college applications, and the need for study halls during the day.
Every suggestion Ms. Kirby hears, every tidbit she learns, every group she meets with helps inform what will go into round two of the district’s Strategic Plan. “Talisa passed off a strong baton,” says Ms. Kirby, regarding the work that past Superintendent Talisa Dixon started with the first Strategic Plan. ”I’m working off really good systems here.”
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The five goals of the 2015 Strategic Plan have been the guideposts for every decision the district has made over the past four years. Ms. Kirby is committed to looking hard at what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be accomplished as the new Strategic Planning Task Force creates the blueprint for the next five years.
She wants the district to be “broad and big” when it comes to innovation and thinking outside the box. “Every experience I’ve had in my career shows that things work better when people have the ability to share their expertise. I’m trying to navigate the space of empowering people to make their own decisions in their roles without telling them what to do.”
This means allowing principals the autonomy to follow their own protocols when dealing with circumstances in their buildings. “Sometimes parents request my presence at a meeting, but I want to give principals the chance to handle it first.”
Her exception is safety issues, which obviously rise to the top immediately. “I’m hyper sensitive about the physical safety of our students.”
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When asked by a student what motivates her to keep working, she first laughs and says she’s really competitive. But then she pauses and talks about the kids that all public school teachers know too well: “The kid asleep in the back of the classroom because he worked all night and is getting F’s – that’s what makes me want to do better. The homeless child, the one who doesn't believe in herself.”
“I know there are kids out there who face really big obstacles and have untapped potential.” Her goal is to empower this district and its staff to find that potential and tap it, in every single child.
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And so her days are long. She’s usually at a district meeting or event until after 9 in the evening and at least 75% of her weekends are taken up with attending music performances, sports games, or other Tiger Nation events.
While she originally bought a house in Twinsburg because it was the first place she found a ranch that was easily accessible for her aging mother, she has since placed a bid on a home in the Noble neighborhood. “I want to invest in the community that is investing in me.”
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“I thought nothing could be more work than the Chicago Public Schools,” she says with a laugh. Even stopping to think or to process and plan after a meeting feel like a luxury to her now.
“My mind never stops. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night to send myself an email because I’ve just thought of something important.”
But she also said it doesn't all feel like work, not the kind that beats down your spirit at least. “This is what I was built to do.”
“I’m tired but I’m inspired.”