Cathy Whitehouse may look like a mild-mannered school principal, but she has a growing reputation as a revolutionary.
Whitehouse co-founded and heads The Intergenerational School, one of the most highly-rated public charter schools in Ohio.
The school, housed in the Fairhill Partners building at 12200 Fairhill Rd., earned the state’s top rating — excellent with distinction — in 2010. And last month, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools honored Whitehouse as Ohio’s Charter School Leader of the Year.
The Alliance’s Stephanie Klupinski got tears in her eyes listening to Whitehouse’s acceptance speech.
Whitehouse talked about how “learning isn’t just what happens in the head, but what happens in the heart,” Klupinski said. “It was really beautiful.”
During an interview at her school office, Whitehouse said the school’s mission “is to challenge public education.”
“We’re going to keep trying to inspire other people to think about education in really different terms,” Whitehouse said. “Things can be done differently. They don’t have to be done the way education has been done since the Industrial Revolution.”
The Intergenerational School, founded in 2000, started as an idea. Cathy Whitehouse, who has a Ph.D. and studied education and child psychology, was working with troubled children and spending time in local schools observing classrooms.
“There was a lot of yelling (by teachers) in school,” she said. “We know that yelling is not effective. If someone’s yelling at me, I can guarantee you I’m going to stop listening.”
Whitehouse and her husband Peter, a professor of Neurology at Case Western Reserve University and a doctor at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, tossed around the idea of a school that would nurture lifelong learning by having senior citizens work with students. Peter Whitehouse, who co-wrote the book “The Myth of Alzheimer’s: What You Aren’t Being Told About Today’s Most Dreaded Diagnosis,” expected the intergenerational work would have a positive effect on both the older adults and the children.
Then in 1998, while sitting at her kitchen table, Cathy Whitehouse read a newspaper article about a new Ohio law allowing charter schools.
“You always wanted to start this school that you said would be great,” she thought. “So now, why not?”
The Whitehouses went to Ohio Department of Education workshops for people interested in starting charter schools. They formed a nonprofit and got some start-up money from The Cleveland Foundation and the Sisters of Charity Foundation. Then, in the fall of 1999, Cathy Whitehouse secured space at Fairhill Partners and quit her job as a teacher at Hathaway Brown School to work full time on The Intergenerational School.
In January 2000, she started to enroll students. She had no books, no teachers and no furniture at the time.
“But I was telling (parents) I was going to have a school in August,” she said.
Parents trusted her.
“What does it take for a parent to take that risk?” Whitehouse said. “I knew parents had to feel they did not have access to quality education. It really brought it home for me.”
The Intergenerational School officially opened in August 2000. There were four staff members — two teachers, one business manager and Whitehouse — and 30 students in kindergarten through second grade.
Whitehouse ran recess and prepared lunches.
During the first two years, Whitehouse said, there were times when she thought she couldn’t continue, that it was just too much. But as time went on, TIS started to achieve success. It earned excellent ratings from the Ohio Department of Education and parents urged Whitehouse to add additional classrooms. Originally intended to go up to fourth grade, the school grew to sixth grade, and then again to eighth grade.
What’s behind its success?
Students are placed in multi-age classrooms with the same teacher for three years. Each classroom has just 16 students. Whitehouse said the small, multi-age classrooms are critical for instruction: Teachers do not have to form the classroom community from scratch each year. They know what each child needs and can more forward with learning as soon as the school year begins.
Parent and TIS art teacher Arenda Evans credited the "Nurtured Heart" approach with instilling a positive environment at the school. The approach focuses on positive reinforcement.
“That is what makes this school special,” Evans said. “It’s not whether they’re smart or not. We teach them that it’s about a strong work ethic and they believe they can achieve things that are put before them. They get positive reinforcement and they’re getting built up all the time instead of getting negative feedback.”
Student Dashae Hall, 12, of Cleveland, has been at TIS since kindergarten. She left for two weeks to attend another charter school, but quickly returned, she said.
“There were 30 kids in one class” at the other school, Dashae said, shocked. “This school is very sophisticated. It’s not just any ordinary school.”
Lila Mills, editor of Neighborhood Voice, wrote this article.