For the first time in several years, the Columbus City Schools district is preparing for the new year with an-all staff convocation this morning, a pep rally to share a vision of the year ahead.
It will be a first for new superintendent Talisa Dixon, a former Columbus principal and East Cleveland superintendent, who took over the district this spring. She sat down last week with Alison Holm to talk about some of her goals, and some of the questions she'd like to answer.
As Superintendent Talisa Dixon prepares to begin her first full school year, there are still a number of unsettled questions hanging over the district. While a “conceptual agreement” was worked out with the teachers union earlier this summer it won’t be voted on and ratified until this weekend, after school starts. And the Statehouse has put on hold a plan to address state takeovers of failing school districts, a plan that could apply to Columbus.
The district recieved an “F” rating on the last state report card, and Dixon says that’s the place to start. One of her goals is to improve the district’s graduation rate, which currently hovers around 80%. She says there has been some improvement in the five-year cohort, but the district needs to more aggressive.
“And that means making sure that when our ninth-graders come in they’re engaged in the learning, that they understand where graduation will lead them. [Either to the world of work, college, careers, the military ...so when students come, we’re exposing them to not only the curriculum, but the extracurricular activities as well... Increasing the students’ exposure to various other avenues I think increases their awareness of what’s possible.”
Increasing reading and math scores are also high on Dixon’s list of goals, but she doesn’t believe there is one program or approach that is a silver bullet. Instead, she wants to develop partnerships with area colleges and universities to help teachers bolster their programs.
“We’re going to be able to co-design that work with our partners, and that’s what I love about it. So, the partners are not telling us: ‘no, this is the best way’. We get to co-design that based on our student population and our needs and using their expertise.”
Partnerships play a big part in Dixon’s plans for the district. She points to the city of Columbus’ investment in pre-K programs, with new developments in Linden and the Hilltop, as examples. In May, Dixon tapped the district’s chief academic officer Alesia Gillison to head the newly created Office of Engagement.
She also reorganized schools into six distinct streams, and plans to create an Office of Equity and Diversity to make sure funding and access are fair throughout the district. She says that process will start with “equity audits”.
“For example with our teaching staff or all of our staff: who’s going to what building? Do we have more expert teachers, more novice teachers? Have we really looked at that? Are we giving one school more money than others, or is it just people believe that we are. But once you challenge yourself, or you open up your organization to look at those practices, then you’re able to report back to the organization.”
One of the district’s biggest reorganization plans in recent history took place last summer, when the Facilities Task Force, a group made up of district staff and community members spent seven months developing a district wide overhaul – and spent the summer in a series of public forums to present the plans and gather community feedback. While the school board did not reject the recommendations, they acted on only a few. Dixon says she’s asked the board to hit the reset button on that process.
"So, the district had something in the past, they had a draft plan, but] I’ve asked the board: let’s start over again. We have new leadership, new focus; let’s bring people, engage people in a different way. That does not discount the work; we value the work. Let’s look at it again and move some steps forward. So I will be out there with those parents and those stakeholders and hopefully they will trust that we can move the work forward.”
Dixon plans a new round of strategic planning to start in October, a process she estimates will take six months. And she hopes by the time the next school year rolls around to have more answers, and fewer questions.