Can Columbus' Suburban Schools Become More Inclusive?

Central Ohio suburban districts—some diverse, some not so much—are having some uncomfortable discussions about racial inequities.

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
Bexley High School graduate Sophia Baker, who is currently a student at Ohio State

When Sophia Baker was in middle school, she was stopped by a police officer while riding her bike on the Bexley street where she lives. She was headed to an after-school sports practice. The officer, she recalls, said her bike “fit the description” of a stolen bicycle. Or maybe she “fit the description.” Baker was young and flustered by the stop, and doesn’t quite remember what the officer told her. He eventually let her go on her way, and even after confirming with her white teammates that police didn’t pull over any of them on their bikes that day, she put the incident out of her mind. So much so that she didn’t tell her parents, although her father, Jonathan Baker, was a founder of the Bexley Minority Parents’ Alliance. 

It wasn’t until last summer, five years later, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, after the protests against police misconduct that took place across the country in June, and after Bexley students started their own anti-racism initiative, that Sophia, now a student at Ohio State, told her parents what had happened that day. She finally allowed herself to wonder if the police officer racially profiled her. 

The incident, and Sophia’s desire to tuck it away and forget it, is indicative of the subtle dynamics of race in a mostly-white, affluent suburb like Bexley, where a Black student is often the only person of color in a classroom, where acceptance is prized and where a feeling of exceptionalism can make it difficult for residents to acknowledge a problem. Last summer, at a teach-in sponsored by the student-led Bexley Anti-Racism Project at Wolfe Park, a rapt audience of neighbors listened as Black students and alumni took the mic to describe uncomfortable and seemingly hard-to-justify encounters with local police. An organizer shared the group’s finding that while the city was 7 percent Black, 58 percent of drivers issued traffic citations in the city limits were Black. 

Later in the summer, when an article in Columbus Alive described bullying and racial taunts a Bexley boy had endured from a group of his peers both on Snapchat and in person, the headline was “Bursting the Bexley Bubble.” “It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes who thought Bexley was so liberal and open-minded to the fact that maybe we’re not as open-minded and supportive as we think we are,” the boy’s mother told Alive. 

That awakening is not happening only in Bexley. Throughout the past year, suburbs across Franklin County have been having uncomfortable discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion. And with newly vocal young people of all ethnicities calling for change, suburban school districts have been at the forefront of the debate, addressing the issue more explicitly and in a more focused manner than ever before. From places that resemble Bexley, where the percentage of students who self-identify as Black has remained at just over 6 percent since 2005, to rapidly-changing Reynoldsburg, where white students are now in the minority, students, parents and school staff have struggled to figure out how to create a welcoming and inclusive environment. Districts are reviewing curriculum from an equity perspective, looking at data to evaluate whether implicit bias is affecting outcomes for Black and minority students, seeking out strategies to diversify their teaching staff, and engaging faculty in diversity, equity and inclusion training. 

“Across the county, I think schools are starting to do better and to be better,” says Steve Shapiro, the Bexley City Schools’ coordinator of experiential learning. Over the past school year in Bexley, he says, “Almost any time we’re not talking about COVID, we’re talking about race and equity and how to be better.” 

But the conversations are hard, and often messy, and answers can seem elusive. 

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Born in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal, Dipisha Kc immigrated with her mother to Texas in 2009. They lived in a “not-so-nice” neighborhood outside Dallas, but Kc attended a charter school with students who were mostly white and better-off and who did not understand her history. She found the code-switching exhausting. “I was trying to be American, but I’m also not American, and it was a weird balance,” she says. 

Kc and her mother, who owns a boutique specializing in Nepali and South Asian clothing, moved to Reynoldsburg in 2016, attracted by the suburb’s growing Nepali community. “Now I was surrounded by people who had shared experiences like me, and who I can talk to in my native language, which is a whole different type of thrill,” she says. “I finally got to be friends with people who understood where I was coming from and who understood the struggles of not always fitting in.” 

Dipisha Kc, a student at Reynoldsburg High School, organized a Black Lives Matter event last summer in the Columbus suburb.

Kc says the diversity in her school made her feel comfortable claiming her Nepali identity and speaking up about issues in the school. She’s organized cultural celebrations. Addressed the school board. And then, last summer, after spending a night weeping over the video of George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, she decided to organize a Black Lives Matter event. She posted a flyer on Facebook at 2 a.m. She was stunned by the response. “What I expected to be like me and my three friends marching angrily down Main Street turned into over 200 people.” 

That response is perhaps not surprising to anyone who has tracked the recent transformation in Reynoldsburg. While Bexley is landlocked, with high home values and little room for growth, Reynoldsburg’s population has increased 20 percent in the past two decades, in part as a result of new development. As the student body has expanded, the proportion of nonwhite students has increased rapidly. While in 2005, the school population was 64 percent white, today it is 31 percent white. Black students are at nearly 38 percent, with other groups growing rapidly as well, including immigrants. Superintendent Melvin Brown says there are 33 languages spoken in the district. 

Reynoldsburg is also changing economically. “If you went back about 10 or 12 years, we were probably 22, 23 percent free and reduced lunch. We’re pushing 65 percent now,” Brown says. 

The door to a Reynoldsburg classroom, welcoming students in different languages

Brown, who is African American and who joined the district in 2017, thinks the demographic change took Reynoldsburg by surprise. In 2019, the city’s voters elected three Black women and a Bhutanese man to the eight-member city council. “Prior to that, many people in the district didn’t realize that we were as diverse as we are,” Brown says. 

But while the students are strikingly diverse, the teachers are still largely white. Schyvonne Ross, an assistant principal at Reynoldsburg’s STEM middle school, recalls that when she was teaching high school English in Reynoldsburg just a few years ago, she was the only Black teacher in her academy. Minority students flocked to her classroom at lunchtime; some told her she was the first Black teacher they ever had in 12 years in the district. They asked her to teach them some Black history, and lunch periods gradually became “lunch and learn” sessions. In 2017, she began teaching the district’s first African American literature class. The course was popular enough to fill two classrooms. 

In her new role as assistant principal, Ross has been part of a team that over the past year put together a series of districtwide professional development programs focused on increasing awareness of implicit bias and a range of other topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. She’s also part of a task force that is conducting a thorough equity audit of the district’s curriculum, policies and practices. 

Students perform in an African American cultural celebration at Reynoldsburg High School’s Livingston campus in 2019.

“I’m extremely proud of the work that we’re doing,” Ross says. “We’re recognizing where we need to make changes, and I think that is the biggest part—just that recognizing and admitting. Our district and our leadership is committed to the work.” 

Kc says that she feels warmly embraced by the Reynoldsburg community. The success of the Black Lives Matter march was exhilarating, with teachers, city leaders and police all helping make the event both peaceful and participatory. She followed up by joining the effort—passed by voters last fall—to create a civilian police review board in Reynoldsburg. 

But speaking up and getting active has also brought her awareness of division within the community. After announcing the march, she received dozens of angry Facebook messages and texts, some of them “borderline scary.” And shortly after she announced the event, a Blue Lives Matter march was announced in Reynoldsburg. 

“For a second I was just in my little bubble of my world where I’m like, ‘Yeah, this entire community supports us,’ and then we had the Blue Lives Matter march,” she reflects. “Right there on Main Street, where a few days ago, we stood in solidarity for minorities, and then … people were literally telling me that it didn’t matter.” 

She was also taken aback last year by the stories that emerged on an Instagram account, Dear Reynoldsburg City Schools (@dearreynschools), where students and alumni anonymously aired complaints against the school district and its teachers. Some of the comments called out racist and racially insensitive comments by specific teachers. While there was a lot of discussion of the social media account within the community, Kc says, she would like the school to respond more firmly. “I want to see accountability for that.” 

“We typically don’t respond to anonymous complaints,” says Brown, pointing out that some of the posts on the site referenced incidents that were alleged to have taken place before his tenure. “If a kid brings us a specific complaint against an individual, absolutely, we will investigate,” he continues. “I was troubled that people felt they couldn’t bring that information forward.” 

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Members of the Bexley Minority Parents’ Group, which has a collaborative relationship with the school district, are similarly disappointed with the schools’ apparent failure to respond to the Snapchat incident last summer. While Columbus Academy announced that it had taken disciplinary action against students involved in the bullying, the Bexley Board of Education issued a general statement condemning racism but would not comment further. The father of a boy who had been targeted, a Bexley graduate who had gone on to play football for Ohio State, removed his name from the Bexley Athletic Hall of Fame to protest the inaction. 

Racquel Armstrong, who is assistant principal at Bexley Middle School and who—while she was not yet on staff when the incident took place—is currently also helping the district with diversity and inclusion, defends the administration’s silence. She says that while she can’t disclose details, the boys have made amends. “The issues around race and equity are deeply entrenched things in most communities, and the only way that we’re able to break those patterns is to give people opportunity to change,” she says. “But when we sort of criminalize behaviors early, that opportunity is taken away. When we try to make things public too fast, children don’t have an opportunity to make amends or grow or learn or forgive, and those are the things that we want to teach.” 

It’s a nuanced response from an administrator in a school district that was putting resources into combating racism well before many other majority-white suburban school districts. As far back as 2013, Bexley created a position aimed at improving the social-emotional climate in the schools—an area that was defined as including drug and alcohol abuse as well as race and sexuality. The first person in that role, Kim Brazwell, who had managed diversity initiatives at the Columbus College of Art & Design, initiated a series of community conversations on diversity, inclusion and race. But two years after joining the district, Brazwell declined to renew her contract. 

A breakdown of the racial makeup of Columbus suburban school districts
A breakdown of the racial makeup of Columbus suburban school districts

“This work required one person to till through the growing pains ... and will need a new person to harvest that growth in the next stage,” she told ThisWeek Community News. A book she self-published in the aftermath of her departure, “Browning Pleasantville,” in which names and locations were changed but the subject was clearly Bexley, described snubs from other teachers and a population that was not ready, she felt, for deep self-examination. 

As she left, however, Brazwell tapped Jonathan Baker, a former CCAD colleague (now an associate professor at OSU) and a Bexley parent, to continue the work in a more grassroots fashion. He and several other parents founded the Bexley Minority Parents Association. “I think Kim was about five years ahead of her time,” Baker says. Over the six years since its formation, the volunteer parents’ group has been active in a range of ways. They were represented on the search committee for Brazwell’s replacement, Leisan Smith. They hosted picnics. They helped Smith organize a spring break tour of historically Black colleges for Bexley juniors. They met with the police chief. Concerned that the district’s efforts to hire more Black and minority teachers were not succeeding, they tapped their own networks, even hosting a reception for potential candidates. They initiated a Circle of Excellence awards ceremony to highlight the achievements of Black students at Bexley. 

This past school year, as in other districts, efforts within the school to uncover and address barriers to inclusion ramped up significantly. In addition to increased faculty development programming, the district won a $70,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Education to develop and implement a plan to recruit and retain minority staff members. 

Armstrong, who wrote the grant, says that the district plans to get creative, starting with a listening tour to find out from pre-service teachers around the country “what it would take to come and work in a district like Bexley,” Armstrong says. “To have an open, honest conversation about the challenges and constraints … and what is within our power to do to meet those needs.” 

In addition to the focus on race and diversity in this year’s faculty development programming, Bexley faculty read and discussed the book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. In order to connect with the broader community, Shapiro is currently facilitating a series of online discussions of the five-part podcast, Nice White Parents

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Similar conversations and initiatives to those in Bexley and Reynoldsburg are taking place in suburbs across Franklin County. Upper Arlington, which has only 1 percent Black students and 6.3 percent who identify as multiracial, last fall hired an executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Two Upper Arlington parents, eager to collaborate with those in other districts who may be further along in the effort to cultivate a diverse community, formed the Columbus Communities Coalition for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

“While not every suburb has the same demographic or culture, there’s certainly a lot of commonalities in terms of the barriers that are created in suburban communities that are unique to suburban communities,” says Catherine Kennedy, who co-founded the group with Seyla Kramer. “We all have something to gain, and we all have something to share.” To date, representatives of 16 suburban communities have joined the effort. 

And that sharing will be needed, because after a long year of Zoom trainings and tough conversations, most suburban school districts that have made a commitment to inclusivity—wherever they are in the process—have had to acknowledge that progress will be slow and success difficult to measure. “What’s very hard to grapple with is that there is no end point,” Armstrong says. “There isn’t this, ‘if I arrive here, we’ve made it’ metric. It’s a ‘lifelong journey’ metric.” 

“This is not work for the faint-hearted,” comments Ross of Reynoldsburg. “And even if you are faint-hearted, you still have to do the work.”

This story was published in the May 2021 edition of Columbus Monthlya special issue dedicated to exploring the experiences of Black people in Central Ohio. The issue is available on newsstands through May.