“We are failing the next generation.”

Squealing children race their tricycles along the linoleum floor, a three-wheeled parade led by an enthusiastic little boy in a toy police vehicle. Candace Nespeca, principal of Linden Park Neighborhood Early Education Center, keeps a close watch over the scene, along with several of her teachers. “It gives new meaning to ‘a child shall lead them,'” she says with a laugh.

The pedaling pied piper notwithstanding, Nespeca is the real leader here. And a lot of people are paying close attention to her new North Linden school. Education—and the plight of the Columbus City Schools, in particular—has risen to the top of the city's civic agenda in recent years, and our latest What Columbus Needs poll reflects that growing concern. Respondents had plenty of ideas for improving education in the city: boosting collegiate financial aid, emphasizing computer science, increasing community-mentoring and after-school programs, among other things. But the city school district, by far, was the main issue.

“Based on the scandals and low success rates of Columbus City Schools, we are failing the next generation,” wrote Gregor Gilliom, owner of the content marketing firm Versatile Words. “What will it take to attract the best and brightest people to Columbus to manage and teach our kids in the best facilities possible? Will it take a major investment from a few wealthy donors to underwrite such a task? I have deep respect for the generous gifts made to Ohio State in the arts, medicine and athletics … but what about the youngest kids in our community? If the state continues to decrease funding to public schools, someone else is going to have to step up. I can't think of a worthier cause.”

Indeed, the so-called “data-scrubbing” scandal—which led to the conviction of former superintendent Gene Harris on a misdemeanor count of dereliction of duty—inspired Columbus civic leaders to pay closer attention to city schools. The result was the Columbus Education Commission, a group of community leaders that issued a 2013 report with 55 recommendations for improving public education in Columbus. And at the top of that list was making sure “every Columbus child is kindergarten-ready,” seen as a critical component for reversing the decline of the district, a view backed by several survey respondents. In its 2013 study, the commission reported that 34 percent of children entering Columbus City Schools are unprepared for kindergarten. “The future of our children and our community hinges on building a more effective city educational system,” wrote Tom Rieland, general manager for WOSU Public Media. “It begins with a communitywide effort for every child to attend a quality preschool.”

In 2014, then-Mayor Mike Coleman hired Rhonda Johnson, a longtime Columbus teachers' union leader, to serve as his education director, a new cabinet-level position created at the behest of the education commission. Since then, Johnson—who stayed on after Coleman's successor, Andy Ginther, took office last year—has collaborated with Columbus City Schools leaders to increase pre-K spots by 22 percent over the last three years. In October, she helped open the Linden Park Early Education Center, the first Columbus City Schools building dedicated solely to pre-kindergarten classrooms, and Johnson is now trying to expand pre-K options in the Hilltop, a neighborhood that's a top priority for Ginther, along with Linden. “Our charge has been to double the number of kids enrolled in high-quality pre-K on the Hilltop,” Johnson says.

Research shows that strong pre-K programs improve literacy, language and math skills and reduce the need for special education. A lot is at stake, obviously, and Nespeca is doing what she can to make sure everyone in the Linden area is aware of her new program: knocking on doors, talking to parents with young children at bus stops. She has 72 students and hopes to expand to 200 down the road. “We have to catch the rest of them,” she says.