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Columbus City Schools Superintendent starts the school year focused on literacy and graduation

WCBE files

Columbus City Schools Superintendent Angela Chapman has been through a lot of "first days of school", as a student, a teacher, a principal, and a parent. And now as superintendent of the largest school district in Ohio. She says she wants the first day to be the start of a wonderful experience for students and educators, but says that process has to begin much earlier.

Chapman - who came to the district as chief transformation and leadership officer before taking the top spot in July - says she and the board have focused on several key areas, including early literacy, improving graduation rates, and addressing chronic absenteeism. She says Columbus faces the same challenges as other public school districts from the new universal school voucher program, which threatens to siphon students and funding, as well as ongoing efforts to attract and retain teachers and other staff.

Chapman says the district has momentum to build on going into the school year. On last year's state report card Columbus City met state expectations in the Progress and Gap Closing categories, scoring three out of five stars. But the report found significant shortcomings in early literacy and graduation rates. Chapman says the district has focused on fine tuning curriculum.

"We want to make sure that every student across the district, no matter what grade level they're in, they have access to "a guaranteed and viable curriculum". That means they have resources that are aligned to the standards they will be assessed on, and the content is aligned to their grade level. So, that means if you're a fifth grader, we're not teaching you using resources that are on a first grade level. If we don't do that, at the most basic level, we are actually exacerbating the equity gaps, and widening the achievement gaps."

This summer, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that all school districts adopt the Science of Reading approach to early literacy efforts. Chapman says Columbus City Schools is ahead of the curve, having adopted the approach with it's focus on phonics, phonemic familiarity and fluency two years ago.

Graduation rates have made some progress, but vary widely by school and demographic group. Chapman says making improvements means starting to monitor progress as early as eighth grade. She says schools form "matriculation teams" to address problems while they're small.

"They would meet regularly to progress monitor the success of that ninth grade cohort. Maybe they would have a big spreadsheet, and they're saying "let's look at attendance: who's on-track and who's off-track? Let's look at grades: who's on-track and who's off-track?" And then when they figure out that someone is off-track in one or more area, then the team puts their heads together and says 'how do we case manage this, who's going to be the point of contact that finds out the root cause of why this student is off-track, and then what's the intervention?'"

Last summer, the school district pulled plans to put a 4.7-mil levy on the November ballot. But they are moving ahead with plans for a combined 7.7-mill levy this fall. Chapman says the $100-million levies are essential to keep the district on pace.

"The operating levy really provides the resources to maintain our current staffing levels, pays for and covers the day-to-day expenses, sort of like keeping the lights on. And then when you think about the permanent improvement levy, that really speaks to the need to continue to invest in our facilities. So that we have a plan before it completely falls apart."

The combined levies would go on the tax roll go on the 2023 tax list, and first collection would be in 2024.

A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.