Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ten years, same mission, same man,
a different tone

Part preacher, part everyman figure, part boyish charmer, part CEO — and all business. As I listened to this guy speak to a group of about 40 business people, the question popped up. Could I possibly find anyone in the Cleveland area that’s more unassuming, professional, passionate and effective in his work to make a difference Cleveland’s future? As he continued to present and alternately charmed, educated, cajoled and occasionally scolded a culture that misplaces its resources, the more the answer the first question came into focus.

Nope  — there isn’t a person in Cleveland quite like John Zitzner. 


A lot has changed over the past 10 years since I first met John – a mutual friend said, “There’s this guy you have to meet,” – but John has absolutely not changed. The fire in his belly burns brightly as does his vision of a new, successful way of educating a large, underserved group of Cleveland students. John’s expansive view is that when this group succeeds, the entire region succeeds, too — socially, economically, emotionally and even spiritually.

More than once I’ve heard John say, “I was fortunate enough to be able to send my children to University School. I want every kid to be able to have that kind of opportunity.” The first time he says that, you think that this is a sweet but perhaps elitist and certainly naïve guy. Everyone should get a high-quality education experience? And But the next times you hear him say it, and say it again, and again, you realize he means it.

John and the staff of the Breakthough Schools  — “a nationally recognized network of high-performing, free, public charter schools located in Cleveland, Ohio” — have the data to back up John’s vision and claims. At the heart of the story is that a new educational paradigm can make a difference in how students learn and more importantly, how they perform and achieve in school and life. On this day, as he illustrates his words with some nicely animated charts and a conversational manner, you start to think that just maybe this really is possible. Maybe we can return our city to the prestigious position it enjoyed in nationwide education circles (as recently as the 1960s) when a high school diploma from a Cleveland Public School was almost equivalent to today’s Bachelor’s degree. And maybe this improved educational ecosystem can provide a kind of gravitational vortex that will spin a new era of prosperity for the region.

And so John will to speak to many on this day, and virtually every day as he has for over 10 years now.
  • to students (‘Keep going, it’s worth it, you’re going to make it and we’re going to help you; don’t you want to be part of something special?’)
  • to parents (‘When your child has a high-quality education, nobody will be able to take that away from him or her; won’t that be the most special act you can perform’)
  • to teachers: (‘OK, I know this mean you have to do more and get paid less, at least for now; don’t you want to be part of a special team that makes this happen?’)
  • to educational administrators and legislators: (‘Is our current educational system and funding model really the legacy you want to leave behind? Can’t we find a way to do something different, something better, something special?’)
  • to donors: (‘Can you think of a more special place to put your money to work?’)
After a while, turns out I did notice a few changes in John and his manner. He’s lost any previous lack of confidence about not having an educational background  — he speaks with experience and authority on a variety of curriculum, pedagogical and educational administration issues. And he’s also gained a bit of an edge – he uses the word ‘crap’ to describe broken systems, schools and policies in a way that makes you hope he never associates the word ‘crap’ with you. And while he’s still easy going, still in it for the long-term, there’s a little more impatience about him ­— but it’s an impatience he has earned by virtue of his longevity on this mission.

Ten years ago when he presented he sometimes said, “This is simple. I’ll work as hard as I can on this, we’ll make lots of progress, and then I’ll die and someone else will take this up and carry on and move it forward.” 
In one gathering, a few uttered an audible gasp as if to say: ‘Is John ill? Is there something he’s not telling us?’ Those who know John well are aware he doesn’t engage in melodrama and there’s very little John doesn’t tell anyone. He’s professional but he’s also candid to a fault. He’s senses the urgency as another large group students is socially promoted though an educational system that didn’t prepare them to succeed.
Later that day, John will speak again. Maybe to a student, a teacher, a parent, a legislator, an administrator, a benefactor, a reporter, whoever. But the message will be the same:
  • We can do better. We must do better.
  • Don’t you want to be part of something special?

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