Alan Rosskamm could be sleeping in every morning, traveling the world, maybe starting a tomato garden in the backyard – ways many people spend their retirements. But Rosskamm, who left his position as CEO of Jo-Ann Fabrics in 2006, has a different “hobby.”
The 62-year-old is now CEO of Breakthrough Schools, a charter management organization that includes several of Ohio’s premier charter schools, which are playing a major role in developing Cleveland’s future education system.
Traditionally charter schools have been villains in the eyes of city schools, siphoning students and funds from the district. Breakthrough’s relationship with the Cleveland school district is a break in that mold.
“It’s a huge change and has wonderful potential,” Rosskamm says. “It’s all thanks to the open-mindedness of the school district’s leaders as well as Mayor Frank Jackson.”
In December, Rosskamm and other Breakthrough leaders were invited to join Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, representatives from the mayor’s office, and leadership from the Greater Cleveland Partnership, in developing a school reform plan for Cleveland schools.
The group came up with legislation for a portfolio system of schools, which offers educational options similar to the varied-program style at Breakthrough.
“Instead of one model school system where everything happens the same across the district, this is all about creating high-quality choices for parents,” he says of the legislation, which will be included on the ballot this November. “The common denominator is quality.”
Moreover, last fall Breakthrough was one of nine charter schools systems nationwide awarded funding by the U.S. Department of Education. Breakthrough received close to $3.5 million, the second largest amount of any of the winners, and plans to use the money to add eight new schools to the network. Three of those will be operational at the start of the new school year this fall.
After two and a half years at the reigns of Breakthrough, Rosskamm says not even his decades of work at Jo-Ann prepared him for the some of the challenges of running a charter organization.
Rosskamm, the son of German immigrants, grew up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland where he went to school in Cleveland Heights and later, Beachwood. His father, Martin Rosskamm, then chairman and CEO of Jo-Ann, was a driving force behind the Hudson-based sewing supply chain’s expansion into the Midwest.
Knowing he had the family business to fall back on, Rosskamm attended Swarthmore College as an economics major, and later continued his education at the University of Chicago Law School.
“I didn’t love it,” Rosskamm says, “maybe because I wasn’t motivated. I realized I wanted to be involved in running something.”
In 1978, after three years working at the Cleveland law firm Thompson Hine, where his day-to-day tasks included being “the second guy to proofread long documents,” he decided it was time to connect with the family business.
Rosskamm never looked back.
“After a lot of success, the business was declining,” he says. “The leadership was fighting amongst themselves and my dad was getting older and was no longer in control the way he had been.”
So in 1985, Rosskamm decided it was time for a change at Jo-Ann. He went to his dad with a bold proposition.
“I said to him that I may not be ready, but we need to do something because the company is in trouble.”
Rosskamm was named CEO. His father’s advice: “Go for it.”
He did, leading the company to some of its greatest achievements. The most important step was diversifying into the profitable crafts industry – a move that reinvented the company.
“We emerged as by far the nation’s largest fabric retailer, even to the point where Walmart has closed a number of fabric departments,” Rosskamm says. “Not many businesses have been able to outlast Walmart.”
When Rosskamm retired six years ago, his leadership had grown Jo-Ann into a $2 billion company with 800 fabric and crafts stores across 47 states.
But while most retirements indicate an end, Rosskamm’s was a beginning. He decided his next duty would be to help the less fortunate in his hometown achieve the same career success he had. The best way to achieve that goal was, in his mind, education.
So Rosskamm shifted gears once again, hoping to use his business experience to aid Cleveland-area schools.
Rosskamm began networking with school leaders, and in 2009 was introduced to Perry White, founder and executive director of Citizens Academy, at the time an independently operated charter school near University Circle.
White invited Rosskamm to sit in on the final meeting of what began as informal, collaborative talks between representatives at Citizens Academy and two other area charter schools: E Prep, near E. 36th and Superior Avenue, and The Intergenerational School near Fairhill Road and Martin Luther King Drive.
“It was at that meeting that they made the decision to formalize their relationship and create a charter management organization,” Rosskamm says. “They needed a business guy to help with the backroom operations, and I was in the right place at the right time.”
With that, Rosskamm was hired as CEO in November 2009 and Breakthrough Schools was born.
Breakthrough didn’t need a turnaround, just a backbone in place to keep the schools sustainable financially as they grew to serve more children.
“The schools were already successful, providing students with a high-quality education,” he says. “And they were clearly in an environment where so many people had given up. These schools were beacons of hope. The kids were thriving.”
The key to the success of the three original schools lies in Breakthrough’s two overarching objectives, according to Rosskamm. The first is high expectations.
“It starts with our teachers consistently believing in the students and holding them to higher standards,” he says. “Then the kids realize they can exceed those standards. When they begin to believe in their own potential, it’s a wonderful thing.”
The other objective is what Rosskamm calls “data-driven instruction,” or constant measuring of each student’s learning, allowing teachers to make adjustments in their lesson plans and ensure no student falls woefully behind.
Those goals are key to creating college-bound, productive members of society, Rosskamm says, and they’re about the only characteristics E Prep, Citizens Academy, and The Intergenerational School share. That’s what most intrigued him when he was introduced to the programs.
Founded in 2006 by Executive Director John Zitzner, the Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, known as E Prep, stresses rigorous behavioral management techniques. In a sense, it’s a military school, minus the military. The heavily structured environment is best demonstrated between class periods, when students form orderly lines and make quick, silent transitions between rooms. The Village Preparatory School, or V Prep, is located next door and serves as the elementary school equivalent of the E Prep Program.
Right now the program educates students from kindergarten through second grade, and it will eventually grow to fifth grade.
Citizens Academy (grades K-5), which opened its doors in 1999, is more nurturing toward students than E Prep. It’s the most traditional school at Breakthrough and stresses the values of being a responsible citizen, like honesty, perseverance, and respect. In 2011 it was named a Blue Ribbon School, an award earned by just 300 schools nationwide.
Citizens Leadership Academy is the middle school in the Citizens family (grades 6-8), combining the citizenship-based values of the elementary school with leadership skills.
The most atypical program at Breakthrough, The Intergenerational School, combines multi-aged classrooms and three learning clusters: primary (grades K-2), junior (grades 3-5), and senior (grades 6-8).
“What’s unique is that the children can move ahead at any time,” Rosskamm says. “The program is based on mastery.” Students of varying ages work together on assignments, allowing older students to become role models and tutors to their younger peers.
The Near West Intergenerational School, a 2011 spin-off of the original school and the first Breakthrough program on the West Side, is one of a kind. It’s located on the first floor of the Cleveland School District’s Garrett Morgan School, the first shared location between a district school and a charter in Ohio.
Two of Breakthrough’s three new schools that will open in the fall are replications of the E Prep and V Prep programs, and will be in the old Woodland Hills Elementary School on E. 93rd and Union Avenue.
The third school, called Citizens Academy East and located at E. 125th and Woodbine Avenue, will be directly modeled after the Citizens Academy.
Rosskamm says Breakthrough is currently recruiting 100 new staff members, including 70 teachers, to fill the new schools. Most importantly, the schools will support close to 1,000 new students.
The long-term plans of Breakthrough are even more ambitious. Rosskamm says by 2020 the organization hopes to have a network of 20 schools serving close to 7,000 students in the Cleveland area.
When it comes to achieving that goal, Rosskamm can’t help but think like a businessman. The biggest challenges, he says, lie in the funding and talent development needed to maintain growth. “We don’t want to get ahead of our talent development. We’re going to take a few years off and try to catch our breath.”
Few experiences in Rosskamm’s career are as gratifying as striking up conversations with students in the hallways of Breakthrough’s schools, being there the moment they realize the potential their futures hold.
“It’s very special when you have the opportunity to impact lives, even indirectly,” Rosskamm says. “Certainly I’ve never done anything as meaningful as working on behalf of 2,000 children.”