Talisa Dixon's Next Challenge

Chris Gaitten
Talisa Dixon visits Trevitt Elementary School in March 2019.

Talisa Dixon’s first full school year as superintendent began with signs of hope. The Columbus Education Association—the teachers union—signed a new three-year deal in August 2019, following a tense summer. A month later, Ohio’s annual district report card gave Columbus City Schools a D—not exactly a coveted grade, but it was an improvement over the previous year’s F and prevented a state takeover.

Meanwhile, Dixon had also begun instituting long-term changes, reshuffling leadership and reorganizing the schools into six regions. In October, at her urging, the district hired consultants from Phi Delta Kappa to conduct a curriculum audit, Columbus’ first since 2005, according to The Columbus Dispatch. For her, it was a crucial early step in creating systemic change and achieving an equitable education for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, background, socioeconomic status or neighborhood.

The report, delivered in March 2020, had bright spots, but mostly it offered the same withering assessment of failures as audits from decades past. Consultants found the district didn’t have a consistent, written curriculum, leading to discrepancies. There were multiple examples of persistent inequities, including fewer financial resources for economically disadvantaged students, fewer gifted services for Black males and inconsistent education for non-native students learning English, who account for 17 percent of the schools’ population.

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Still, Dixon had wanted this critique, hoping it would confirm her suspicions about what was going right or wrong. “We’re striving for better outcomes,” she says. “We’re striving for more rigor in our teaching, and those things can’t happen unless you face those brutal facts.”

As if to reinforce the auditors’ report, the coronavirus pandemic also arrived in March, disrupting in-person education and casting an even harsher light on some inequities. In mid-April, the teachers union conducted a survey of members to assess virtual schooling, and educators indicated that only slightly more than half of students were participating online, with even lower rates among special education students and new English-language learners.

Dixon says the district’s research suggested no particular population was disengaged, but that there was a widespread lack of devices and internet access in homes early on. Eventually, Columbus schools loaned out more than 19,000 Chromebooks and partnered with other organizations to provide Wi-Fi hotspots to try to fill the gaps in technology through the end of the semester.

In late June, the district hired its first chief equity officer, Dionne Blue, who comes from Indiana’s Evansville school district and will serve in the superintendent’s cabinet starting in August. An Ohio State grad, Blue says she wants a firsthand view of the district before outlining her priorities, but she thinks dealing with the disparities experienced by vulnerable groups during the shutdown will likely be at the forefront. The initial reopening plan, released a week after her hiring, calls for some students to return to school a few days per week but still leans heavily on remote education. [Editor’s note: After this article was published, the district revised its plan and schools will now be online-only to start the year.] The district is working to get 50,000 devices for the fall, Dixon says, and to find an organizational partner to provide additional staff for working with special populations, like going to the homes of families who don’t speak English.

Blue, a Black woman, also believes the ongoing protests against police brutality offer a renewed opportunity to discuss equity and race. “I think people are more open to hearing and understanding that the ways in which African Americans may experience different institutions—whether it’s education, health care, judicial, whatever—[are] usually disproportionately more negative than white counterparts,” she says.

The most difficult question to emerge from the protests will be how to respond to activists’ calls to remove police resource officers from schools. Blue says it isn’t necessarily a binary, yes-or-no choice. It depends on the purpose of their presence, their relationship with students, how they’re distributed across buildings and the training they get from the district on how to handle behavior, so children aren’t viewed as criminals. In August, the school board plans to convene a working group to evaluate the affiliation, with recommendations expected in November, according to 10TV. The existing contract expired June 30, and the resource officers have since been reassigned by the police department, at least for now.

Dixon and Blue point out that the chief equity officer’s role isn’t to come in and provide quick solutions for pandemic disparities or a fraught police relationship. Instead, it’s to address some of the longstanding factors identified by the audit that predispose students to success or failure, and to ensure all departments consider equity in allocating resources. “I just don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, Columbus is reacting to what’s happening,’” Dixon says. “This was part of the platform all along.”