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College forges new relationships with Columbus schools, new superintendent

Robin Chenoweth
June 27, 2019

Imagine the totality of Talisa Dixon’s new job.

Columbus City Schools superintendent since March 4, Dixon, EdD, is in charge of 50,000 students, comparable to the enrollment of some of the largest U.S. universities. The state’s biggest district has 109 buildings — spread throughout the country’s 14th-largest city — and a $1.5 billion budget. Answering to Dixon are 10,000 employees.

And job one for the district’s 21st superintendent: Turn around its failing grade on the state School Report Card, with the goal of providing the best possible education to “students coming to us from many different pathways,” Dixon said.

Thank goodness she won’t be doing it alone.

Forging new working partnerships was the theme Wednesday when Don Pope-Davis, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, introduced Dixon to nearly 100 faculty and staff from across the college. The crowd turned out to offer their support.

A focus on student needs for success

A lot has changed since Dixon served nine years in the district as principal at Brookhaven and Columbus Alternative high schools. So, she spent her first 100 days on the job listening and learning.

“What I learned were some ‘aha’ moments about the culture and climate of our schools and our staff,” she said. “And our parents still believe that their kids should receive a quality education, no matter what.”

Columbus Public Schools superintendent Talisa Dixon interacts with Ohio State Education and Human Ecology faculty and staff
Jack Conrath, senior lecture of educational administration, asks CCS superintendent Talisa Dixon a question during a conversation with college faculty and staff.

But Dixon said state and district metrics show that many Columbus children are not mastering reading and math skills, a persistent problem in all large urban districts. “And that is something that we have to tackle,” she said. “How do we ensure that our students are being proficient? Because we know if you're not proficient readers, you will never be able to do the other pieces.”

As a consequence, graduation rates are not as high as they could be.

The crowd listening was all too familiar with the data on why urban children struggle in school. Many of the faculty present authored the studies.

Urban students — particularly those who are low income — face multiple barriers to academic achievement. Most do not attend preschool, proven to make them kindergarten ready. Many are not read to, also known to boost proficiency.

Some lack resources such as internet access or books in the home. Parents are often unavailable to help with homework (they work late hours or have multiple jobs) or are unable to (they can’t read English or don’t understand advanced math.)

The good news is that many college faculty and multiple partners across the region are eager to lend their expertise.

Dean Pope-Davis emphasized the college’s desire to build a collaboration by listening to those who work in the district. “Researchers and scholars have to spend more time listening to our community so we are informed by their own experiences, rather than only being driven by the research imperative,” he said.

“This is an opportunity to pivot, perhaps in a new way. It is part of our Urban and Rural Education Initiative that we are shaping under the leadership of Noelle Arnold,” associate dean for equity, diversity and global engagement.

Talisa Dixon, Columbus Public Schools superintendent, and Don Pope-Davis, dean of Ohio State Education and Human Ecology
Don Pope-Davis introduces Talisa Dixon to Education and Human Ecology faculty and staff during her visit to Ohio State.

The college has been involved in many capacities in the schools, doing teacher training in English language learning, providing reading and writing support in select elementary schools, studying writing curriculum in high schools. But Dixon pledged to align the district’s many partners — including other colleges, United Way and other service organizations — to maximize results.

“All of these people are coming to do good work. But if the work is not aligned, we have people spinning their wheels,” she said.

During the Q&A session Michiko Hikida, assistant professor of reading and literacy, asked Dixon how to best build relationships with teachers in Columbus classrooms. “It takes a lot of trust and vulnerability,” Dixon said.

Dixon answered by saying that 15 teachers met with her to ask why they can’t reinstate the Literacy Collaborative, literacy training for teachers founded by the college decades ago.

A lot of times in organizations, you have … to push the reset button and say, ‘You know what, this was good for our organization,’” Dixon said.

“Do it!” Hikida responded.

The two exchanged cards after the session. So did STEM educators, experts on professional development, online learning and special education. Joe Roush, the college’s chief information officer, agreed to sit on Dixon’s search committee for the district’s new CIO.

And Pope-Davis invited Dixon to serve as the college’s first Urban Superintendent in Residence. Dixon’s unofficial reply was that she would be honored.

Connections were made; foundations for future work, laid.

“I don't believe the school should have to do it all. But we have experts that are right in our city who can help guide the way,” Dixon said. “The more experts that we have to help, we will move farther, faster, because we're not trying to do it alone.”

“I welcome the opportunities for that.”

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