Alumni stories: Cleo Hirsch

Making small changes to see what sparks change

June 2023

Last fall, Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller announced a transition plan reflecting their belief that “those closest to the challenges are closest to the solutions.” They said they wanted to center the needs of all Maryland residents, particularly those who have been historically marginalized, in everyday decision-making. 

Who better to lead that work, they said, than Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) alum Cleo Hirsch. 

“Throughout her career, Cleo has demonstrated a fierce commitment to engage and listen to the communities she serves,” Miller said when naming Cleo the director for the Moore-Miller Transition. “Cleo will ensure that every Marylander who wants to is able to participate in the transition.”

Under Cleo’s leadership, more than 5,000 policy experts, advocates and residents across Maryland contributed to the policy guide that now informs the administration and helped shape early action: For example, in line with a priority that came out of the transition, in March, Gov. Moore introduced legislation to permanently extend the Earned Income Tax Credit and expand the Child Tax Credit to help lift families out of poverty.

Cleo Hirsch photo

Cleo credits the training she received at CPRL for informing her inclusive leadership style, which shaped her work on the Moore-Miller transition. And it’s this laser focus on participatory change that shaped her leadership across several high impact roles in the public sector, from strategic planning and Covid-19 response in Baltimore City Public Schools, to policy planning for the Maryland governor’s transition team, to the growth of a new public health workforce development program at AmeriCorps. 

“At CPRL, you learn that the folks on the ground have expertise that you should use to build systems, structures, and tools. We use that expertise to make decisions and then iterate on those decisions, and be structured enough so you can learn something from it and improve the program over time,” she said. 

In 2016, City Schools took on the ambitious task of developing with the community its Blueprint for Success, a strategic plan to improve literacy, student wholeness, and leadership across the district. Cleo was a member of the team in the chief of staff’s office responsible for testing and proposing improvements to the Blueprint strategies as they were implemented. The team treated every strategy, practice, and action as that day’s best hypothesis, and positioned their system to test and refine those theories to meet the needs of every student – central to the approach Cleo learned at CPRL. They did this by holding one-on-one and group conversations with teachers, literacy coaches, and school leaders across the district to better understand what was working with the blueprint, and where changes were needed and why. 

"We were making little changes and seeing what really sparked the fire that started changing student outcomes. That is a great approach for doing work in a large urban district." -- Cleo Hirsch

Cleo and her team regularly brought what they were learning to the district’s senior leadership team, diving deeply into qualitative and quantitative data and identifying places to adjust strategy. 

“We were making little changes and seeing what really sparked the fire that started changing student outcomes,” Cleo said. “That is a great approach for doing work in a large urban district.” In the first couple of years, and as reported by NBC News, the blueprint began showing “dividends:” for example, some schools saw a rise in enrollment and an increase in retention of strong teachers. 

A few years later, Cleo used this approach as City Schools’ executive director for Covid response. While urban districts were some of the last in the U.S. to reopen, Cleo and her team’s planning made Baltimore City one of the first large districts in Maryland to bring students back in person. An important part of this effort was creating a district-wide school-based Covid testing program. After months of providing tests solely to symptomatic staff and students, and experiencing periodic surges in cases that shut down schools, her team launched a program for regularly testing all students in March 2021. By May, 80% of elementary school families consented to in-school testing, one of the highest school district rates in the U.S. During the 2021-22 school year, the district was testing roughly 50,000 staff and students across approximately 160 schools and programs each week, making it one of Baltimore’s largest Covid testing sources and a model for school systems across the country. 

Creating the program required applying CPRL’s approach of learning and adjusting along the way. Cleo and her team quickly learned the ever-evolving medical content while regularly gathering input from school staff and families. When they heard that testing times weren’t working, they changed them. When they heard from staff that they needed more training, the district provided it. While the district created a system-wide structure for testing, they made space for school leaders to craft communications for their own communities. At the end of the school year, more than 80% of families and staff gave favorable ratings to the district's overall approach to pandemic health and safety, from masking to cleaning to return to school procedures. “With the data now in on the deep harms of school closure, it was critical to reopen schools as quickly as possible for students’ educational outcomes and general well-being,” Cleo said. 

Now, in her new role as deputy director of Public Health AmeriCorps, Cleo is using her participatory change skillset to address two pressing challenges on a national level: staffing shortages in public health and post secondary pathways for young people, particularly in low-income communities. “Public Health AmeriCorps is creating opportunities for young people of all education levels to serve their community while earning a living stipend and gaining hands-on experience and training in the field of public health,” said Cleo. “This could be life changing for young people and really important for the field of public health.”