In March 2019, Dr. Talisa Dixon became the new superintendent of Ohio’s largest school district, Columbus City Schools. Faced with challenges from the onset, Dr. Dixon began the process of working with her staff and the community on a transformation for the district’s 50,000 students. In December 2019, Columbus City Schools partnered with Battelle for Kids to begin work on the collaborative Portrait of a Graduate process to shape the district’s “North Star” — a new educational vision to guide the district for years to come. Then, a series of events were set in motion that no one could have predicted.
Facing the first major global pandemic since 1918, the Governor of Ohio shuttered schools throughout the state in March 2020. Then, in the summer of 2020, social injustice disrupted the nation as the death of George Floyd led to protests and rising tides seeking change against systemic and institutional racism. Facing two simultaneous public health crises, Columbus City Schools was charged with whether or not it would meet this moment successfully all the while keeping the focus on transforming the system and the future of learning for the sake of the students of Columbus. Through it all, a documentary crew was there to capture the struggle, the success, the emotion, and the on-going brave work of teachers, students, families and the community of Columbus. This is the story about a year on the brink for one urban school district and the universal themes of how together a community can rise above.
Challenging Times and a New Beginning
In 2018, Columbus City Schools was facing several significant challenges, including an “F” grade on the Ohio Department of Education’s annual report card. Now, a potential state takeover of Ohio’s largest school district is possible if improvement is not seen. In the midst of this, the Board of Education has hired a new superintendent after a long and arduous process. Dr. Talisa Dixon, who formerly worked in the school district as a building principal a decade earlier, is announced as its next leader. She faces monumental challenges ahead to provide a vision moving the district forward.
Portrait of a Graduate
After Dr. Dixon’s first 100 days, it became apparent that the proposed strategic plan she inherited was not the direction Columbus City Schools needed to go. Battelle for Kids was engaged to begin the Portrait of a Graduate process to create a shared vision for all students in the community. The Portrait of a Graduate articulates the skills and mindsets our community prioritizes for our students and will be a North Star that ensures Columbus City Schools prepares students for success, now and in the future. A film crew begins to document the process, creating a documentary series to allow more people to see the Portrait creation.
A Global Pandemic
As the district continued to develop the Portrait of a Graduate and many other initiatives, a pandemic swept the globe. In March 2020, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine shuttered schools across the state, causing Columbus City Schools to adapt to a never-before-seen reality that kept its 50,000 students out of the school buildings. An entire infrastructure for remote learning, meal distribution, social-emotional care, technology, and more had to be put in place in real-time. The coronavirus disrupted the Portrait process and forced everyone in the district and the community to work together to address students’ and families’ needs like never before. Instead of stopping production with the film crew, they continued to document this new reality.
As the pandemic continues and the city of Columbus adjusts to the new realities ahead, the district moves forward with the Portrait process, meeting remotely to begin conversations once again with stakeholders. One of the hopes is to align the community with the school district’s goals and unifying around them. Community partners such as I Know I Can and City Year Columbus are part of a resource-rich environment of non-profits and other organizations helping to address many of the needs faced by families and students in Columbus.
Social Unrest and Rising Up for Change
Disruption arrives once again during an already challenging year as protests and social unrest sweep the nation following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota during an arrest. Protests and violence take hold in Columbus with calls for change and those in power to finally address systemic racism and inequality. Those protestors include many students and staff members who attend Columbus City Schools. In the days and weeks that follow, school leadership embraces the voices and agency of students who are taking a stand and letting their voices be heard during this period of reckoning for the nation.
Faced with numerous unforeseen challenges in 2020, Columbus City Schools further embraces the need to address inequities within the district, a process that begins pre-pandemic. From addressing racial inequity in programming to socioeconomic inequities that rose to the top during the pandemic, an open and transparent process of addressing these issues continues to occur. The social unrest and protests over the summer energized stakeholders to move forward with the Portrait process’s next steps. The key to this next step is addressing inequities head-on to ensure that all students and staff can benefit from the Portrait of a Graduate’s vision.
With the Portrait of a Graduate completed, Dr. Dixon foresees more innovative learning, more project-based learning, and more intentionality in lessons taught to students. Board of Education President Jennifer Adair notes that the crises and disruptions faced in developing a vision for the future have only enforced early implementation of many of the ideas the district’s stakeholders included in what they want to see available for the students of Columbus City Schools. This includes more parent/family engagement, more technology and platform options for instructional delivery, more freedom and creativity for teachers, and more collaboration.
Rise Up Together
With the Portrait of a Graduate now being released to the public, the next step for Columbus City Schools will be to begin the five-year strategic planning process that will impact the district’s long-term future. Dr. Dixon, who arrived facing numerous challenges and faced even greater ones than expected, believes now the community understands that they have to be part of this process. A community truly has to help decide its future by how it invests in its students. After a year on the brink, Dr. Dixon believes that Columbus City Schools can truly be transformed by working together.